Books about Writing

What is your favourite book about the writing craft? Over the years I’ve built up a small library of books about writing novels, reading as a writer and, of course, grammar and punctuation. Which one is my favourite? Well, that depends on what I’m looking for.

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When I’m having trouble with a piece I like to turn to Stephen King’s On Writing for inspiration and tips on how to dig myself out of the mire. His easy going style and sense of humour about life (and writing) nearly always makes me feel better. On the other hand, his expectations of what makes a good writer can, at times, feel rather daunting to a beginner. For example, he says that when he begins a book he writes every day, and he finished one of his books in a week.

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I think he is right that we should try to work on our stories every day, if we can, or at least as often as possible. Writers should be driven by their writing just as painters are by painting or athletes are by playing sports. If you’re not then there is no point in being in this writing game. But I don’t agree that fast writing is always the best writing, or something that everyone can do. If you can be prolific without losing quality then you’re incredibly lucky, but not everyone can. Writers have to find their own way into their stories, fast or slow, and keep going with them. If writing every morning for two hours gets you there, that’s great. It’s equally wonderful if writing all day Saturday gets you to where you want to be with your story. As for myself, I tend to buy into the saying ‘slow and steady wins the race’. 🙂

But there is such good advice in here that you’d be hard pressed not to find space for it on your bookshelf. He covers everything from how to survive as a writer to creating memorable characters, strong plots and effective revision. One of my favourite parts is the book list he has at the back of the book. How many of these titles have you read?

The first book I ever bought about writing is Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Hemingway has always been one of my favourite writers because of his brevity and tightly knit prose. This book is a collection of quotes from his stories and letters about the craft, edited by Larry W. Phillips, and brought out in the 1980s, long after Hemingway’s death. Here’s one of my favourites:

“I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier to do and you can’t expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do.” To L.H. Brague, Jr., 1959 Selected Letters, p. 893 (page 18)

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He also talks about the importance of writing early in the morning before anything else can distract you and of not talking about what you’re writing so that you remain interested in it, advice I’ve attempted to follow but not always succeeded in.

Another great book about writing is called Reading Like A Writer by the aptly named Francine Prose. In this book she talks about the importance of reading carefully and slowly so that we fully understand what a writer is doing. She talks about courses she’s taught at college where students would speed read to the extent they didn’t actually know what the writer said, let alone how they got there. If we are to be good writers the first step is to be good readers. It is only by close reading that we are able to deconstruct character, plot and storyline to learn how it’s done.

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Of course, there are so many good books out there about writing. Which ones have you found useful for your own writing practice? And are you a fast writer, or a slow one? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below.

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8 thoughts on “Books about Writing

  1. I also really like the Francine Prose book, and Stephen King’s is always the one I go back to if I need a bit of encouragement ( and a kick up the backside 😉 ). Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer is another favourite – love the straightforward simplicity of it.

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  2. Hi Kendra, i love books on writing and I have a fair few, including Mr King’s On Writing and the Andrew Cowan one, which I was invited to review ( thought it was pretty good). I often have a chuckle when writers say they wrote their books in two weeks – Muriel Spark apparently wrote The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in two weeks! All credit to them, but funnily enough they tend to forget to mention the amount of time they spend editing it afterwards ;o) I think, though, while there are some good books on writing, there are an awful lot of rubbishy books too. That’s why posts like yours are so good, because they help others sort out the wheat from the chaff. Which is my favourite? Hm?? There are so many. I really like Robert McKee’s The Story and Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction. There’s also a book called What if? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, which is got great exercises in it. The John Gardner books are very good and Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing… Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird… i think i could go on and on but I’ll stop. As for how long it takes to write a novel? I think it takes as long as it takes 🙂

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    • Hi Marianne, Thank you and thanks for your comment 🙂 It is funny how some writers don’t seem to count editing time into the writing. I have the John Gardner books on my ‘to read’ list, and Anne Lamott too. I also loved Story by Robert McKee.

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  3. Hi Kendra…

    Great blog post… I think there are many great books on writing and being a writer that are helpful… The Art of writing fiction is a good one too…. I don’t know if I’m a fast writer or slow, likely some were in the middle. I’m more of a fast thinker, so most of my stories have played out in my mind long before they are fully written…

    Take care..
    Katie..

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    • Hi Katie,
      Is that the one by Andrew Cowan? I still haven’t read that one but I would like to. From what I’ve heard it sounds like a very useful book about creativity as well as writing.
      It’s interesting that you let your stories play out in your mind long before they are fully written. I think this is something we writers need to do to allow our stories the space they need to grow before they enter the page (however private, and therefore safe, the page may be at that point in time).
      Thanks for your comment! 🙂

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  4. Great post, Kendra,
    We have the same books! I like the Francine Prose book a lot, but most helpful to start with was the Stephen King. Many repeat themselves, so I’ve been making a conscious effort not to add more ‘how to…’ books unless they offer something fresh. Saying that, I doubt I will manage to resist for long…

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    • What a coincidence, that must mean they are good ones then 😉 I’m trying to resist buying more of them too, for that same reason. I tend to get given them for birthdays, Christmas presents etc. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

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