Let’s face it—we were all complete and total amateur wannabe writers at one time. None of us were born with the innate ability to craft a good novel. Pick your favorite novelist, one who’s been around the block a few times. Pick up a novel or short story collection he/she wrote early in their career. Read carefully, take notes if you’d like. Now, take your fresh memory/notes and compare it to one or more of their later works. I’d be willing to bet you’ll agree the earlier work doesn’t quite measure up to the author you’ve grown to admire.
I’m currently “into” the mystery genre as both reader and writer. There are many great mystery novelists out there, but Ross Macdonald is my favorite author de jour. His Lew Archer novels have made a big impression on me, not only for their intriguing, complex plots, but also the beauty of the language Macdonald weaves between the covers of his books. I decided to delve into Macdonald’s earlier works and purchased a collection of short stories he wrote and published in pulp magazines while still honing his craft. Big difference. In the story, Death by Water, the author stretches the reader’s credulity with a plot-hole big enough to swallow a 1950 Ford Custom. Suffice it to say, his brilliant later works contain no such glaring faux pas.
While I still say the best education a potential writer can get is to be an avid reader, there are many good books available today that were written to help improve the novice and even established writers. I’ve collected and read a slew of such books over the years. Here are a few I’ve found especially helpful for our chosen craft:
The Elements of Style, by Stunk and White. This classic is considered indispensable by many. Still a quick and handy reference since E.B. White revised and expanded Strunk’s original in 1959.
Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein. From Amazon.com: “This is not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions—how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place.”
How to Grow a Novel, by Sol Stein. Another masterpiece from Stein, a master editor and best-selling author. Again, from Amazon.com: “Stein takes the reader backstage in the development of memorable characters and fascinating plots. The chapter on dialogue overflows with solutions for short-story writers, novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights. Stein shows what readers are looking for—and what they avoid—in the experience of reading fiction.”
The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner. This book by the award-winning novelist, non-fiction writer, and creative writing teacher, is compiled from courses and seminars he taught over the years. It’s been hailed as “The next best thing to a graduate workshop in fiction writing.”
Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, by Lawrence Block. Block, a multi award-winning author of over one hundred (and growing) novels lays the process out from idea to polished manuscript ready to submit. How can you argue with a guy who wrote his first novel in two weeks while still a teenager, and then sold it to a major New York publisher?
How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. The award-nominated mystery/thriller author offers a clear and concise crash course in the down-to-earth basics of dramatic storytelling. I hear there’s a new edition out that is even better than this 1987 gem.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. Both authors are seasoned editors for long-established New York publishers. The advice you’ll find within the pages of this book is sound. It’s not “Do it this way or else!” type advice. It is practical and worthwhile advice that will spare writers a lot of headaches and rewrites. One of the handiest books in my collection.
“SHUT UP!” He Explained, by William Noble. The subtitle says it all: A Writer’s Guide to the Uses and Misuses of Dialogue. This is another of my personal favorites. Noble is the author of several nonfiction titles, mostly about the craft of writing, and one mystery novel. While his fiction writing is limited, he absolutely nails the subject of writing effective dialogue. This is the clearest, most useful book I’ve ever read on the subject.
Remember, nothing replaces careful and prolific reading, especially in the genre(s) you hope to write. But good books on the craft can be a source of continuing education for us all throughout our careers. The above are a few of my favorites—what are yours?