Word on the street is that great authors possess an innate quality that separates them from us lesser, barely literate souls. Supposedly these superior writers emerge from the womb with a silver pen and begin composing Shakespearean sonnets while still attached to the umbilical cord.
That’s the myth. Here’s the truth:
Great writers are not born. They’re made.
Sure, writers spend much of their time alone in dingy rooms, clacking at fingertip-sized plastic squares. But a writer who hasn’t borrowed and learned from others is a writer with nothing to write.
Writers are inspired by the books they read and the people they talk to. Even the author of Beowulf talked to his toothless uncle about the finer points of alliterative verse.
Some writers take courses about writing. Others read books about writing.
Countless books have paved my journey as a writer. Below are a few of my favorites. I’ll update this list as I discover more.
Orson Scott Card
This is the first book about writing that I read. It’s also the best.
Before reading this book I had only a vague understanding of viewpoint in fiction writing. I recognized that authors often wrote chapters or entire books that focused on a single character, but failed to grasp the underlying mechanics.
This book taught me how viewpoint works. This lesson alone undoubtedly saved me much frustration in my writing career. The tips about characters and the fun and friendly writing style are like the icing on Ender’s birthday cake … not that Mr. Card ever rewarded Ender with a birthday cake.
Whereas Mr. Card’s book is invaluable for writers of every genre, this one focuses on helping sci-fi and fantasy writers.
This book broaches numerous topics — everything from world building, to making a living as a writer, to the benefits of writing in E-Prime.
This book also introduced me to the idea that a writer’s first million words are for practice. While I don’t strictly believe this idea, it impressed upon me the importance of perseverance in forging a career as a writer.
In the opening pages of this book, Gardner makes it clear that he has impeccable literary taste. He goes out of his way to rag on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I nearly put this book down for that tirade alone.
I’m glad I kept reading. Because if you look beyond Gardner’s opinions, you will find a hearty serving of helpful advice.
Gardner discusses everything from sentence structure to plot. His explanation of the “fictional dream” and his advice for crafting effective sentences are especially valuable.
The book focuses on literary fiction, but writers of all genres will find value in it. Check it out!
This book was published in 2000. Adverb use plummeted in the ensuing years and never recovered. Such is the power of Mr. King’s advice.
The book isn’t strictly about how to write. Mr. King uses about half of it to tell us his life story. Though I’m hardly a die-hard Stephen King fan, the autobiographical sections kept me turning the pages.
Some of the content is controversial within writers’ circles. That’s to be expected of a book this popular. I suggest you borrow a copy from your library, pore through it, and form your own conclusions about what the king of horror has to say.
The Next Tier
Ursula K. Le Guin
Because I immensely enjoyed both the Earthsea trilogy and The Left Hand of Darkness, I had high expectations for this book. While I did glean a few useful tips from it, I found it generally disappointing.
It was very short, for one, with lots of white space bolstering its page count. Also, much of the advice is better tailored to writing groups than individuals.
That said, her recommendation to think twice before using adverbs like somehow and suddenly has stuck with me. Her advice in this regard is more nuanced than Stephen King’s.
Ms. Le Guin is the rare SFF author whose best works fuse exemplary ideas with powerful prose. She is a master of her craft. Maybe you’ll find more value in her advice than I did.
Ms. Hawker’s brief guide to outlining, released in 2015, comes highly recommended. The reason it’s in this tier and not in the “must reads” is because of its brevity and limited scope.
Libbie begins by telling us why we should outline. She then guides us through her process, demonstrating how to build a novel around what she calls a “story core.” If you’ve considered outlining your stories but are unsure where to start, this is the book for you.
Again, this is short. You could read it in an hour and then put it away forever. You’d probably be better served by referring back to it multiple times.