Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal: a lesson in economy, not a single word wasted. John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: the near-perfect symmetry of masterly plotting. Carol Ann Duffy’s Echo: form meets meaning as trios of words rebound between stanzas.
As all writers know (and sometimes overlook, as we rush to formalise our own words), critical, reflective reading is as important to the development of the writer’s craft as seeing our own words before us, reviewing them, revising them and, often, acknowledging that a sense of slight discontent with what we have created may always remain. Reading other writers give us models for the qualities we aspire to in our own work. The three cited in the opening line of this post sprang readily to mind when I starting thinking about examples, John Boyne’s novel and Carol Ann Duffy’s poem read recently, Zoe Heller’s novel some years ago.
To round off OCA’s writing year and offer students food for thought as a new year approaches, our creative writing tutors have nominated their choices of books that offer more direct guidance for writers than the good – and less good – examples we can all list of writers whose writing has provided us with models of what to emulate and what to by-pass.
Joanna Ezekiel: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
My choice is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (1986, Shambhala). It was the supplementary text with ‘Starting to Write’, the first OCA module that I completed as a student back in the 1990s. I opened this book at random when I was thinking about my choice, just to confirm that this is the book that, through the years, has encouraged me to continue with my writer’s notebook and keep going with first drafts. I read: ‘Don’t “make” your mind do anything. Simply step out of the way and record their thoughts as they roll through you. Writing practice softens the heart and mind, helps to keep us flexible ….’ This book is full of practical and inspiring advice that has helped many writers. I hope it will help many more.
The next choice has been made by two tutors, quite independently of one another.
Elizabeth Kay: On Writing by Stephen King
Although I’m not a fan of the horror genre I did go through a phase many years ago when I read Stephen King because he was so good, and so original. So many people have copied him since that his work doesn’t seem so innovative any more – but it was. It really was. Who else was prepared to kill off a major character halfway through a book? If that could happen, anything at all was possible. But Stephen King was much more than a horror writer; you care about his characters, and that why the books are compelling reading. He’s also a very good teacher. The guy who goes for a picnic beside a lake, and thinks – what if a monster suddenly emerged? The non-writer dismisses the thought immediately, but writers just keep on going, and the monster fleshes out. My favourite example of his is the placard, dangling above the supermarket aisle that, just for an instant, looked like a pterodactyl. What if it really was a pterodactyl? What if there were more than one… Stephen King is very readable, and this book is full of real gems. ‘Don’t wait for the muse … This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.’ And that’s what this book is. Magic.
Mary Charman-Smith: On Writing by Stephen King
I would choose Stephen King’s On Writing. I first read this book back in 2001, when I was studying for my Creative Writing MA, and it is one I have dipped into again at various times. It appears on the reading list for many writing courses and I think this book is good for aspiring writers to read as it is partly about King’s career and also deals with the process of writing itself, for example covering aspects such as plot and character. The fact that it combines writing exercises and autobiography gives the message to other writers that if they work at their craft they can achieve success.
Diane Paul: Film Scriptwriting: A Practical Manual by Dwight V Swain
I don’t usually read books on how to write but of those I have read, the one that made the most impression on me was Film Scriptwriting: A Practical Manual by Dwight V Swain (Focal Press, 1982 edition). This is an out of print book but it can be found in second hand bookshops. It was recommended when I did my MA in Scriptwriting at Salford Uni and it explained structure, characterisation and dialogue in a way that my course didn’t do, clearly and concisely in step by step procedures. It showed me the tools to do the job and how to use them and how important it is to plan in advance, so you know where you’re going.
Elizabeth Ashworth: How Not To Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
Although I have several books on my shelves that advise on the craft of good writing, my favourite is How Not To Write A Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman (Penguin, 2008). I bought it one cold March afternoon in a little bookshop in York and took it back to my holiday flat to read. It made me laugh out loud. The subtitle of the book is ’200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published’. It goes on to give exaggerated examples of bad writing and each one is followed with a few paragraphs explaining why the writing doesn’t work and suggesting ways of improving it. Perhaps the best way to learn to write well is to be told what not to do rather than what to do, which can sometimes be vague and difficult to understand. How Not To Write A Novel is entertaining as well as informative. It covers plot, character and many aspects of style including perspective and voice. And I defy anyone to get to the end without feeling worried that they have committed at least one of the mistakes outlined in the book. But at least you’ll know not to do it again.
Cedric Pickin: Reading Poetry – An Introduction by Tom Furniss and Michael Bath
One of the best books where writers can learn their craft is one written to show readers what to look for in poetry: Reading Poetry – An Introduction by Tom Furniss and Michael Bath (2007, Pearson Education). It supplies theory and practice, case studies and exercises, using canonical poems and contemporary poems as examples. I think it’s good to know what the reader is going to appreciate.
Liz Cashdan: Short Circuit: a guide to the art of the short story edited by Vanessa Gebbie Salt 2009
Tutors and students may be surprised that as a poet I’m putting forward Short Circuit, edited by Vanessa Gebbie, as it is a book aimed primarily at writers of short stories. But of course I do write short stories myself and teach on prose modules for the OCA and other institutions. This book has a lot of material by well known short story writers detailing their own experience, suggesting ways forward for other writers and students with recommended exercises and the titles of single stories and collections. Writers of prose and anyone concerned with story-telling, which could include poets and script-writers, will find a lot of helpful material about structure, plot, narrative voice, character, setting and observed details. If you don’t already have a copy, get one now.
Novel, short story, poetry, script: whatever your preferred genre: have any of the books chosen by OCA tutors’ helped you move forward as a writer? Which would your choices be and why would you recommend them to other writers?