Interesting, isn’t it? Those of us who have decided to trod the writing path usually did so because, above all, we are dedicated readers. Before we learned to write, we loved to read. One leads to the other. So, naturally, one of the first things we do (at least one of the first things I did) once we come to understand that writing, and writing fiction in particular, is not really as easy as simply making up a story is to turn to a book for help.
Enter the writing manual.
There are literally dozens of books designed to help the newbie writer. Some are good; some aren’t worth the paper. Over the years, I have settled on my favorites, as much as for how much they inspire my efforts as for any concrete advice they offer.
But first, a general warning: there are some things you honestly cannot learn from a book. Yes, you can learn the general principles and guidelines, but the art itself can only be truly mastered (if it can at all) by old fashioned trial and error.
Reading a writing manual makes you a good writer in exactly the same way that a sex manual makes you a memorable lover.
That said, I do have some writing manuals on the shelf in my office. Yes, I will share them with you.
On Writing by Stephen King.
By far my favorite book on writing. Ever. Part manual and part writing memoir, this book does much more to convince the writer that she can do it, she can be a good writer, than telling her how to do it. It does, however, offer great writing advice—such as removing every word ending in –ly from your rough draft. (He then, a few paragraphs later, uses an adverb, saying that the rules holds unless using an –ly word works. Then ignore the rule.)
Perhaps the best feature of the book and the one that keeps drawing me back is the tone Mr. King uses. It’s a friendly, low-key narrative. Reading it is not like reading a normal textbook, or even a normal writing manual. Reading this book is more like sitting on the back porch, sipping iced tea and chatting about writing while the kids play in the yard.
He makes you feel like an old friend and he’s just telling stories. By far it is my favorite book on writing.
Technique in Fiction by Robie Macauley and George Lanning
Another of my favorites, though this is less a hardcore manual of methods of writing as an in depth look at how various accomplished writers handle aspects of their stories. With chapters titled “Beginnings,” “Characterization,” and “Point of View,” their study is like a short cut for aspiring writers to examples of how the masters handled various problems. The best way of learning is to imitate those who do something well, whether your intent is to write a novel or to build a chest of drawers. The fun part is finding and remembering a novel where a master dealt with a problem similar to the one you’re facing. This volume finds them for you.
It is also great background information for general writing knowledge.
Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich
Like its title implies, one of the great features of this book is the writing exercises included at the end of each chapter. Just like taking a live writing workshop, the idea is to immediately make use of the tips and ideas you’ve just been exposed to. And just like a live workshop, the best way to do that is to make use of them immediately in an exercise. A wise teacher once told me that you never really have learned anything until you could perform the activity on your own, outside the classroom.
An example from the chapter “Plot”: “Take a character, a place and a time, and write three one-page plot outlines of potential stories. In the first place the right person, at the right place, at the wrong time. In the second, the right person, at the right time, at the wrong place. In the third, the right time, right place, wrong person. In the end, choose the outline that promises to become the best story and write one page, plunging into the main action in detail.”
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
This was one of my early favorites, but has dropped as I matured and found better sources. As indicated in its subtitle, this book is directed to young writers just starting out and that is where its value lies. It too, has exercises, which is what initially drew me to it, but they are relatively basic.
The drawbacks to this work are its basic nature and the amount of time Mr. Gardner spends arguing against the value of literary criticism. While his points may be valuable (aspiring authors shouldn’t be writing so as to impress the literary critics) he does beat us over the head with it a bit.
Still, it is a good beginning manual.
These are the writing manuals I keep on my bookshelf. There are others, concentrating on a particular aspect of fiction, such as characterization, description, et cetera, but these are the general manuals I have and use. They’ve done me good over the years.
Perhaps they will do you some good also.