Monday, November 19, 2012

5 Books on Writing That Don't Suck

It goes without saying that most writers are avid readers (and if they aren't, they ought to be), so it's only natural that we might turn to the written word for advice on how to approach the craft, especially in the beginning when we're still feeling our way around in the darkness. And as it turns out, there are quite a few books on the market aimed toward budding writers in need of a little guidance. Unfortunately though, books on writing are like books on any other subject or genre—some of them are fantastic, and some of them just plain suck. At times, it can be tough to tell which is which. So, I thought I'd share my thoughts on some of the good books on writing that I've stumbled upon in my groping quest for knowledge, along with a small quote from each work.

I'd like to nail up a few disclaimers before we proceed, though. For one, this list is intentionally short, and that's largely because I'm still devouring the occasional writing tome and have yet to nail down a true "must read" list. I will most likely return to this topic another time or two with more recommendations in future entries. Also, it's worth noting that the craft of writing itself has many subjective elements, and as such your mileage may vary with some of these books. I got something positive from every book on this list, but your experience may differ depending on your approach.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury 

"I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.
~ Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

In my opinion, this invaluable collection of essays by the legendary Ray Bradbury is essential reading not just for writers, but for any fan of this late literary juggernaut's work. Over the course of each essay, Bradbury conveys his love for the craft as only he can, weaving colorful anecdotes from life and learned practice with some of the most powerful words of wisdom I've ever encountered.

Pick this up and not only will you learn a thing or ten, but you'll get a very good idea of what made one of the most influential literary minds of the last century tick. I find myself turning to this book in moments of doubt, and it almost always does the trick, whether I need an energizing shot in the arm or a nice meditative moment of zen.

On Writing by Stephen King

"Some of this book—perhaps too much—has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it—and perhaps the best of it—is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will."

~ Stephen King, On Writing

Stephen King is a polarizing figure in the literary world. His enormous success obviously speaks for itself, but there are plenty of people who just don't "get" his stuff, and that's understandable considering how damn weird some of it is. But whether you're a fan of his work or not, you would most likely be doing yourself a favor if you picked up On Writing, his memoir of the craft.

Part autobiography, part guide book, this is one of the first books on writing I ever read, and to this day it's been one of the most helpful and inspirational, despite the fact that King and I don't see eye to eye on everything. For instance, he advocates the "discovery" or "seat of your pants" approach to writing, which isn't always for me. Even so, much of his advice has stuck with me to this day, and at the very least it's an intriguing glimpse at the way one of the most popular novelists of all time does what he does.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

"If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), "Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?" chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
~ Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

The War of Art will always have a special place in my heart as the book that brought me out of the longest writing drought I've ever experienced. For two long years, I lived a lie, ignoring the blank page and stubbornly trying to believe that it was too late for me, my ship had sailed. Then, on the advice of a stand-up comedian, I picked this book up and gave it a read. It was like having my own personal muse slap me across the face and shake me by the shoulders.

Within, Pressfield outlines the concept of Resistance, that relentless, malevolent temptation to move in the wrong direction. Whether you're a writer, a painter, or just an average joe looking to improve yourself in some way, at some time in your life you've probably heard that little voice that wants you to fail. It wants you to spend as much of your time doing anything but what you should be doing. That's Resistance, and this book helps you to recognize the various forms it will take to seduce you away from your calling, and teaches you how to shut it up for good.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

"The ultimate message of this book, though, is not that you should strive for publication, but that you should become devoted to the craft of writing, for its own sake.
~ Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

Noah Lukeman has been a successful literary agent for years, and in The First Five Pages he gives writers a glimpse at the long list of telltale signs that agents look for while weeding the amateurs out of the slush pile. The title refers to the fact that most agents can tell a manuscript is worthy of a rejection letter within the first five pages of reading it. Lukeman not only lets you in on the mindset of an agent and the good and bad things they look for, but he offers tips on how to keep that agent (and your readers) glued until the end.

I haven't done any work on a novel in almost a year, but the things I learned in this book have crossed over into my work on short fiction as well, since most of the editors I'm sending my work to are looking for the same glaring flaws that The First Five Pages helps you stay on top of.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

"We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us—the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path."

~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Okay, I'm kind of cheating on this one. The Hero With a Thousand Faces is not, strictly speaking, a book on writing (though it has inspired one or two). Instead, Joseph Campbell explores mythic structure, specifically the "journey" of the hero archetype as seen in popular world mythology throughout history. He breaks down the patterns and trends that have appeared in some of the oldest stories that human beings have ever told each other.

Since the publication of Campbell's work, some of the most popular and successful works of fiction have been built around the monomyth he describes, from Star Wars to Harry Potter. If you're unsure what kind of structure to incorporate into your story, you could do a lot worse than taking your protagonist down the path of the Hero's Journey. This book will help.

So there you have it. Have you read any of the books on this list? Feel free to let me know what you thought of them, positive or negative. Also, if you have any suggestions for great books that might be worthy of my next list of books on writing that don't suck, please let me know. I love reading about the craft.

photo credit: savvysmilinginlove via cc


  1. I haven't read The First Five Pages yet, it's on my list. The others in your post I have read and agree.

    I especially agree with Stephen King's On Writing. I am not a fan of his novels. It's not that I don't 'get' them, I find them a slog to read through. The words he keeps throwing in the way of the story and the description just bog me down.

    His novellas and short stories? Sublime. I am in happy cat-nip ecstacy with those.

    On Writing I found to be one of those books that gets entire too much press as being The Definitive Book On Writing - From His Golden Mouth to our pitiful, undeserving ears to hear some people talk about it. He says some great things. He says some things I disagree with but like you, he's inspiring anyway.

    In fact, one of the complaints I've heard about his book was the autobiographical part, which was the part I liked the best. And, being the nosy person I am, I enjoyed the insight to his process. I love to hear about how other writers 'do it'. It clearly works for him.

    I simply chafe when it's lauded as The Only Way To Do It. You see It's Worked For Him Because Look! He's A SUCCESS!! The implication was that if it didn't work for you, you're either doing it WRONG or that you SUCK as a writer and if you DID do it exactly his way, you'd suck LESS and then be wildly successful as him. not what King says in his book at all.

    The Stephen Pressfield book the War of Art was one of those surprise books for me. I got it on a whim and didn't think much more about it. Truly an inspiration and a great motivator on a deeper, more personal level. Not just on writing but on life. Came into my possession at just the right time (the write time? heheh) in my life.

    Good thoughts. I should blog about the books that have influenced me.

    When I stop being lazy...:/

    1. As a reader, I feel like I'm constantly battling Stephen King when I read his longer works. There are these moments of clear brilliance scattered about a quagmire of story/character indulgence that seems to vary in thickness from story to story. I actually just started reading the Dark Tower series, and the first book, The Gunslinger (which King wrote when he was 19) is a perfect example. I don't know if I've ever simultaneously loved and hated an author so much as while reading that book. The story and worldbuilding was fantastic, but the confusing glimpses he gives you of this compelling world he's created can be dizzying, and at times maddening.

      All that said, I don't know if I'd be a writer today if it wasn't for King, considering how I devoured his books when I was a kid. I agree that he's at his best in short fiction, and I also agree that it can be a little nauseating when people hold On Writing to the heavens as the Holy Bible of Fiction Writing, but I think that's to be expected when someone so popular as he speaks on the craft. I did get a lot out of the book (as stated above), but writing is such a different experience from one writer to the next. No book of advice will ever be universally Right with a capital R.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment! Now go blog about those books. :P

  2. I have learned so much from On Writing. I can't begin to say how much inspiration and knowledge I've gained from it. It's on my desk vs. being tucked away in a bookshelf somewhere, as I constantly refer back to it. I'll have to check out some of the others on your list. I'm intrigued!

    I'm currently reading a series, "Write Great Fiction." It's a set of five books that deal with: Characters & Emotions, Descriptions & Settings, Dialogue, Plot & Structure, and Revision & Self-Editing. I've read through four. The only one left for me to read is Plot & Structure. So far, I endorse all of the ones I've read. I feel like a completely different writer--a better writer--because of them.

    A lot of people rave about How to Write a Damn Good Novel and How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, but I just couldn't get into them. I couldn't get into The Artist's Way, either. It was a pretentious read with stuffy language that could have been said in much easier ways.

    I've read two or three more, but they can't compare to the WGF series, so I won't mention them.

    1. I haven't read any of the "Write Great Fiction" books, but I'll have to add them to my list. Sounds like the kind of recommendations I was hoping to get from this entry!

      I have heard the ravings on How to Write A Damn Good Novel, but I've yet to read it myself. It's on my list. I'll get around to it one of these days.

      Thanks for reading, Randi!

  3. I have the first two, although I haven't read them. (Yeah, I know!) My favorite is Save the Cat. The fifteen beats and logline have really helped me.

    1. Sounds like another one to add to my list. Thanks, Alex!

  4. Great books, and I particularly enjoyed The War Of Art. I definitely have to get Bradbury's book too!

    I've an extensive list of writing books behind me, some of which I'd sneak into any "absolutely must read" lists, such as Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure, Les Edgerton's Hooked, Karl Iglesias' Writing For Emotional Impact and Lisa Cron's Wired For Story. And that's not mentioning the classics.

    Even though I liked King's On Writing, I must say it has almost no practical value. It's an interesting glimpse into his mind and attitude, but it contains fairly little if anything of actual use to a writer, except maybe for the encouragement. I find it hard to take the opinions of authors who treat their writing process like a mysterious black-box as anything else but opinions. Even if they're smart and entertaining, like Mr. King's.

    It's a great post though, and I believe it's ultimately only important what you derive from the books you read, not what they were intended to teach. :)

    1. Most of those are already on my "to-read" list, but I've yet to make it around to them. There are so many books out there waiting to be read, and I've such a short, short life ahead of me in which to read them!

      I've always placed On Writing almost in the same category of books like The War of Art. That is, they are clearly distinct from the practical how-to nature of most books on the craft, serving me more as a source of inspiration than anything else. Even the small amount of directly applicable advice he gives (like the "watch your adverbs" bit that's oft repeated) pales in comparison to the multitude of small nudges in the "right" direction that litters throughout the work. That's the real value of the book, in my opinion.

      But, as theglassopossum states upstream, if one is going to use King's book as the one be-all-end-all of writing advice, well . . . that's practically rendering the good advice that he does give useless, robbing it of a greater context with which to compare and contrast.

      Thanks for the comment, Vero!

  5. Thanks for the reminder! I've been meaning to get the one by Stephen King for the longest time.

  6. I love The First Five Pages. It helped me figure out why all my stories were coming up about 20,000 words too short. (Seriously!) It was the best thing that ever happened to my writing. ^_^ Looks I'm adding The War of Art to my Wish List and On Writing as well. I keep hearing great things about it.

    1. I really enjoyed The First Five Pages as well. In fact, I might be due for another reskim soon, as it's been a long while since I read it.

      Hope you enjoy those books, Krystal! Thanks for stopping by.

  7. King and Bradbury's are already my faves. Thanks for the Noah Lukeman tip, I'll check that one out! happy Thanksgiving weekend.


Thanks for reading!