If you want to be a writer, read these books:
Stephen King On Writing
This book is obligatory. It is everyone’s favorite book on writing. It may be yours too. King gives a concise but choppy account of his own life as a writer, talks a bit about the philosophy and attitude it takes to write, and runs through a few of his own tricks.
It’s a fun read, and that is part of what makes it unique. Why trust the advice of a writer who can’t keep your interest through one damn book about writing?
Start here for two reasons: If you’re unsure about your ability to become a writer, King will either talk you into it or talk you out of it. And, half of all books about writing since On Writing refer specifically to this book, whether to praise, expound, or refute.
All that said, he doesn’t go deep into craft. There will still be plenty to learn once you finish.
Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
This book is a bit odd. It breaks the craft of writing into six distinct categories, which don’t seem to form a complete set. They are: Premise, Character, Plot, Theme, Scene Execution, and Narrative Voice.
Premise just means don’t write something stupid, as I wrote about in my previous blog post https://adamvenezia.wordpress.com/2016/01/26/what-to-write/. He devotes only a few pages to the topic.
Characters, you probably know what they are already. Brooks’s treatment of the subject struggles to make a point and probably won’t teach you anything. But,
Plot is the reason to read this book. Brooks takes the concept of plot structure currently used in screenplays and adapts it to novels in a way that is thoroughly enlightening. He breaks stories into parts, punctuated by milestone events, and shows how each scene should be the result of one of these milestones or the setup for the next. His approach might seem overly formulaic, but he defends his position with a great analogy: A face has two eyes, a nose, a mouth, two ears, etc. There’s a formula. Any deviation from that formula is quite strange. And yet, without breaking that formula, this planet has billions of unique faces on it. Writing is the same.
Theme gets a decent treatment as well. Short and simple, but not wrong. He makes a strong argument why theme is necessary. Strong enough to convince me, anyway.
The last two sections are kind of pointless. They basically just say to write well.
20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them by Ronald B Tobias
Tobias argues that there are only 20 plots in fiction, that everything you could hope to tell falls into one of the 20. Or possibly more, if you consider sub-plots. In case you’re curious, they are:
Quest, Adventure, Pursuit, Rescue, Escape, Revenge, Riddle, Rivalry, Underdog, Temptation, Metamorphosis, Transformation, Maturation, Love, Forbidden Love, Sacrifice, Discovery, Wretched Excess, Ascension, and Descension.
Hard to argue. Hard to think of something that doesn’t fit.
He breaks each of them down into what the plot requires of its characters and other story elements, what is important, what is a main priority and what is secondary, and why.
It doesn’t matter whether you agree that every story has already been told, and that every story falls into exactly these 20 categories. It doesn’t matter if you think Metamorphosis and Transformation are probably the same category. What matters is his breakdown.
Think of the book as 20 examples of how to dissect a story, how to find out what it is really about, what it needs to function, what is extraneous, and what elements might actually be detrimental to the story.
There are principles of storytelling that govern how the various elements of a story – characters, plot, and theme, as you will read about in Story Engineering – work together. Tobias doesn’t address these principles directly, but he does inadvertently spend the whole book demonstrating how they can be used.
There is a follow-up to this book called 45 Master Characters. It’s premise is based around finding character archetypes in the Greek pantheon. It feels like a cash grab, capitalizing on the success of 20 Master Plots. I don’t recommend it. Instead, you might check out:
Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N Edelstein, Ph.D.
That Ph.D. is key here. The author is a practicing clinical psychologist with an interest in the subject of creativity. She gives us a book that isn’t an instructional on creating characters as much as it is a reference. It’s a psychology primer specifically for writers.
The book starts with a discussion of personality theory, detailing 23 personality types which are meant to describe basically every adult. As with the Master Plots above, it’s not so much about the list of types as it is about the process of analyzing them. How do personality traits tend to interact with each other? How can normal traits become character flaws when taken to an extreme?
The next chapter discusses children – their levels of development and capabilities over various ages, child personality types, and how they mature into adult personality types.
There’s a section on psychological disorders, detailing actual symptoms of many clinically defined disorders.
There’s a chapter on criminal types – an extension of personality theory to various law breakers from thieves and arsonists to murderers and rapists. Later in the book there is a chapter on career types – personality theory applied to jobs.
There are a few chapters on sex, relationships, family dynamics, and life events. Drug addictions. Physical and mental disorders. Groups and gangs.
There’s a lot of stuff, is my point. It’ll get your head in the right place when it comes to thinking about characters.
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
Strange but true – agents and editors have far more experience with story craft than most authors. As such, some of the best advice comes from them. Lukeman is a literary agent, and The First Five Pages is written from this perspective.
He talks briefly about the job literary agents do. The main point he makes is that they have a bat shit amount of reading to do. As such, they read manuscripts with an eye toward any excuse they can find to reject them and get to the next one in the stack.
It’s a book about how to avoid all of the ways agents might decide to reject a manuscript, and how to avoid them. The title is a reference to the idea that agents will rarely read beyond page five of a manuscript, but it actually begins much smaller, with ways a manuscript might be rejected without reading a single word.
As the book progresses, it covers subtler and subtler problems – which take the agent progressively more effort to detect. It’s divided into three parts, and the second part deals exclusively with problems related to dialog.
Not until the last few chapters does Lukeman begin covering topics that actually require reading the manuscript.
Along the way, he covers obvious topics, such as overuse of adjectives and adverbs, informative dialog, and showing vs. telling. But, he also speaks plainly about nebulous topics that few writing books – let alone authors – can articulate. These include sound, focus, and progression.
It’s a style guide in disguise. It’s also the best book on writing that I have yet read.
Fiction Writing Master Class by William Cane
This book takes an unusual approach. Each chapter covers a different famous author, giving a brief historical context, and then teaching 2 or 3 lessons about either that author’s creative process or that author’s craft. Sometimes both.
Cane strives to break down what he considers a modern misconception, that writers should not imitate each other. He argues that until quite recently, imitation was an integral part of education, and if it worked for Dickens, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, and Salinger, it can work for you.
The point is not to emulate any one writer’s style. The point is to learn fundamentals by examining the strengths – and weaknesses – of successful writers of the past.
His lessons cover a wide range of topics, from writing habits to word choice, from character conceptualization to incorporating setting. It’s a grab bag. But it is thick with deep insights. He doesn’t rehash the same cliche writing advice we’ve seen in 100 books.
Ever read about Hemingway? If so, you’ve probably heard he likes short sentences and common language. Those things are discussed, but then Cane moves on to discuss subordinating conjunctions and how Hemingway avoided them and the effect it has on his writing. And most important – how you can use the same technique.
Ever studied Ian Fleming? My guess would be no. What do you know about him? You probably know he invented James Bond. Do you know what we can learn from him about point of view? You will, if you read this book.
In On Writing, King suggests starting a toolbox for your writing tools. If you stick with that metaphor, Fiction Writing Master Class is like winning a shopping spree at Home Depot.
Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook
It’s all in the title. This book is about line editing your own work. It’s not about story structure or characters or deeper meaning or any of that. It’s about word order. It’s about punctuation.
It’s a heavy read. It’s like – did you get to the end of Elements of Style and wish there was like 3 times more of it? That’s Line by Line.
If you hate that idea, if you think grammar is best left to the editors, and all you have to do is get the story down, then you’re not looking at writing like a professional.
It means you haven’t yet read the first book on this list, in which King argues that you’ve just got to get over it and stop making excuses. Or perhaps you missed the point in The First Five Pages in which an agent will reject your manuscript for literally any reason.
If you’re a writer, the English language (or some other) will be the medium you work with. It’s best to know as much about it as you can. You really should enjoy studying English, should revel in it, or else, I fear, your chosen profession is going to be less fun than you imagined.
At any rate, if you read Elements of Style – which you probably have already – and you read Line by Line, I promise you won’t have to read any more about English after that. You will know enough. Not all there is, perhaps, but all you need.