REVIEW Good Books About Writing

Need some writing encouragement or some technical knowhow? Julie Sullivan shares some good advice and two great links.

I can't understand why a person will take a year or two to write a novel when he can easily buy one for a few dollars. Fred Allen

Make your book as good as you can! (And then send it out. Don't forget that step.) Here are a few good books to help you get there.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

I lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years, and decided to take a screenwriting course at UCLA. I had no ambition to write for the movies, but it’s the main business of LA and everyone seemed to be writing a screenplay or working in the Biz, so I thought it would be fun to learn more about how a good film works. 
This is Hollywood. Just go outside and ask anyone you see to give you a script. A gardener, a cripple, a child molester. They’ve all got em. — Studio executive in the film The Last Shot 
That was one of the best courses I’ve ever taken. I’m still grateful, partly because the teacher required us to read Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, a slim book with some of the best guidance I’ve ever seen for writers. A movie has to cut to the chase immediately, but most of Snyder's tips apply just as much to any kind of fiction writing.

A crucial point explains the title. Snyder says that a writer must make the reader* like the protagonist immediately. In a first scene, for example, the still-unknown main character could see a cat in trouble—and saves the cat.

If the characters are just not good people, the reader still needs to like something about them immediately. Vince and Jules in Pulp Fiction are repellent murderers, but their dialogue is also very funny. OK, I'll have to take the teacher's word on this as I don't watch movies like that.

I don't think a writer can go wrong reading this book.

*Scripts have to be read, usually by dozens of people, before the movie is greenlighted.

Hard work pays off

On Writing by Stephen King

I once read a review of a Stephen King novel that said something like, 'Why does a writer as talented as Stephen King insist on writing thrillers? On the other hand, why am I gripping this book so hard my knuckles have turned white?'

Most of us would be fairly pleased to write as well as Stephen King. I’m not sure I really learned anything about writing from this moving book that describes the worst times in King’s own life. I certainly did learn something about working. Persistence and habit, not just talent, made him a good writer. 

'Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.' —Chuck Close

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

The title comes from a childhood incident where Anne’s 10-year-old brother was given a report to write about birds. He’d had three months to write it and it was due the next day. ‘He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilised by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”’

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. — Anne Lamott

Go after that bird! 

The Art of Plain Talk by Rudolf Flesch

To be honest, this 1946 book, which is more about writing than speaking, is the one that has made the deepest impression on me. I read it as a child and it has profoundly influenced all my writing ever since. Flesch, an Austrian Jew who fled to the US in the 1930s and became a best-selling author, was a proponent of clear, strong writing that uses simple words (usually Anglo-Saxon) in preference to complicated ones (usually Latinate) whenever possible. He doesn't just give this rather banal writing advice; he offers practical tips to avoid bad writing and exercises for writing clearly yourself. It’s also a very amusing book, as he cites abundant good and especially bad examples.

Brainpickings is a blog of "interestingness" whose eclectic author (Maria Popova is Bulgarian!) especially loves literature of every kind. Here is her list of 117 links to writing wisdom from great writers. I strongly advise you to consult it only on a long, lazy afternoon.

Lastly, here's something inspirational to read if you haven't been published yet — or even if you have.
Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year, by Kim Liao.

What is your favourite writing book/advice?


  Julie Sullivan does not always follow good advice.


 Photo credits 
 Screenwriter: Daniel Snyder, director of Dreams on Spec, a documentary about screenwriters: poster for       film on Wikipedia, minus the title.
 Spooky book: Mrskyce on Flickr
 Man typing: John Nursall writing, by Onomatomedia at Wikimedia Commons
 Child chasing bird: Pixabay

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