I feel uncomfortable as I begin this post. I do not consider myself an expert or even good at writing fiction. On one hand I know this is a sentiment most writers feel, yet on the other hand, I have only been writing fiction for five years. I have written much non-fiction: management consulting reports, some IT technical writing such as manuals, some minor web content, and of course hundreds of hours worth of diabetes, nutrition, social, and political debate in forums and various online outlets. I estimate I have written 2.5 to 3.0 million words since 2006. But quantity does not mean quality. If you do not actively learn theory, assess your own writing, and learn from your mistakes, you will not advance. This post is about theory and where to find it. Where I’ve found it.
There are several aspects to writing. A writer needs to know grammar (I will not debate this) and sound grammar is ubiquitous to all writing. The set of techniques needed to write a novel is different from the techniques to write a short story, yet there are similarities besides the variances, and variations besides the assumed. One cannot say “these are the rules.” And then, perhaps outside boundary, are more general, creative elements: sentences, paragraphs, openings, scenes, closings, the give and take sine wave scene-sequel construct, motivation, routine, and a host of technique living somewhere between grammar, form, and end product.
These are simply the books that have helped me become a better writer. They are not about technique for writing stories. I don’t give you scene, plot, or story element theory, the Hero’s Journey for example. These books are about writing. I begin at the basics and move into more advanced topics. I fear my explanations will be thin. Get copies and read them yourself!
Painless Writing Studying grammar is difficult. Often we do not know our own weaknesses — the blind leading the blind — and we need help. Strausser leads you through the relevant basics that will improve your writing. It is a timeless book, and I plan on re-reading it soon.
Writing Well: The Essential Guide The entire book is worthy, but the section I found most useful was Tredinnik’s discussion on sentence types. 13 total with hints on usage. If you don’t know what a triadic sentence is, then you may need this book.
How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One Stanley Fish is an unbearable blowhard, yet I found this book most fascinating. There are perhaps a half-dozen important lessons in this book that every writer must know. I am sure a lengthy blog post could cover them all, yet the writer in me says this is where the real writer needs to work. Work through this book and I guarantee you will be a notch above 90% of all other writers; though neither of us will be able to explain exactly why.
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them This is not a detailed how-to book but a learn-by-example book. Many have criticized it. Her chapter on dialogue is priceless! Those who persevere through this book will be the stronger writers.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print This is as much a book on how to write as how to edit — two sides of the same coin. Show don’t tell, dialogue, narrative, point of view, proportion, voice, sophistication, and more. This book is a gold mine for the new writer and a useful refresher for all writers. I will read it again more than once.
Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively Who knew there was so much to think about when describing something? A fantastic exploration. This is somewhat a reference book and is useful to review when stuck writing description. If you think description is simply finding words to describe, you are so wrong! *grin*
Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing If was limited to one craft book, it would be Douglas Glover’s. This collection of essays is rich and deep, a lifetime of knowledge packed into not-easy-to-extract-and-assimilate narrative. The “Drama of Grammar” alone is worth the price of the book. Google ‘Glover but construction’ for hints and what this contains. I plan on pass #2 sometime soon.
How Fiction Works This is not a how-to book. Subjects such as plot, characterization, dialogue etc. are not covered. This book is about lubrication and engineering, not design. How come writing works so well? What are those gears turning inside that box really doing? What kind of grease does that writer use? When I hear two workshop leaders, a poet and an eminent Canadian author (Lisa Moore) recommend this book, I pay attention. Read it with an open mind; it will pay dividends.