Sunday, September 14, 2008

Five good books about writing

In no particular order…

1. How Not to Write a Novel
by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

A bitingly funny collection of 200 mistakes that writers make, with descriptions thereof, and supplemented with sidenotes. Blunt and comprehensive, rather like a beating applied to every body part, but some of the jokes still make me laugh, even though I’ve read this about three times over now.

May not be suitable for some beginners; contains several four-letter words and explicit descriptions of sexual situations (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

2. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
by Renni Browne and Dave King

Contains dozens of examples of what can and should be edited in writing, and some of these are subtle mistakes that are easy to miss. It’s also a workbook, since each chapter ends with sample passages that need correction. Practical and extremely useful.

3. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Orson Scott Card

There are a lot of books I’d recommend to anyone starting out in speculative fiction, but this would be at or near the top of the list. It was written in 1990, but the advice still rings sound; Card has an excellent grasp of what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to magic, alien species, creating another world and keeping it all plausible. And his description of how he came up with Hart’s Hope is wonderful to read. I wish a few other authors would write “the making of” descriptions as well.

The only thing I disagree with is his caution at the end against coffee or other drinks which contain caffeine, which is more due to his religious beliefs than to any evidence that caffeine (in moderation) negatively impacts writing.

4. Writing to Sell
by Scott Meredith

A good how-to guide for beginners. Plenty of tips and examples on the basics of plot, characterization, style and so on. Plus, if not for this book, I would never have known that plot cards or plot wheels existed.

The only thing I’d warn a new writer against is the bit at the end where Meredith defends the practice of fee-charging among agents.

5. Characters and Viewpoint
by Orson Scott Card

Have you ever had an experience where something was explained, perhaps in only a sentence or two, and yet when you heard it, something else suddenly made perfect sense? Sort of like the “It’s a cookbook!” moment of “To Serve Man”, except that in Characters and Viewpoint, it was much more pleasant an experience.

When I first read this book, I realized that Card’s refusal to physically describe Ender in Ender’s Game had led to me thinking of Ender as physically small and dark-haired – much like myself, in other words. And because of that, I identified much more closely with him than if Card had described him. That was eye-opening. And the book is crammed with examples of what’s effective and what’s not, to back up the sound advice. The sections on humor and Romance vs. Realism can get a little complex for beginners, but on the whole I’d recommend it to anyone.


Angela Ackerman said...

A few of these I haven't read, so I'm going to try and grab them through my library. I'm especially interested in the Character and Viewpoint one. Thanks!

JH said...

Character and Viewpoint is a part of a series of books on writing. I've read the book on plot and found it interesting (but it was too long ago to know if it was helpful).

Actually, there's an excellent resource online about plotting:

Anonymous said...

I would add On Writing by Steven King to the list. Its very helpful.

Addis said...

Great post, I'll add those to my list.

I've found Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel and Telling Lies For Fun and Profit informative, although owning one of the two is probably enough because of the overlap in subject matter.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks for the Lawrence Block recommendation, annis. I read those books years ago, and if I could find them in the library I'd check them out. Maybe I'll try the bookstores.

I'm planning a follow-up post to this because there are a few books I haven't mentioned - On Writing by Stephen King, The Art of Fiction by Ayn Rand, How to Write Bestselling Fiction by Dean Koontz and maybe The Newbie's Guide to Publishing by J. A. Konrath.

Becky Mushko said...

Thanks for the list. I'd only read one of the five.

May I suggest Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages? I've found that really helpful.

Marian Perera said...

I've heard good things about The First Five Pages, Becky, so thanks for reminding me. I'll try to get my hands on a copy soon.