• Kurt Dinan

5 Books on Writing That Helped Me

When I started writing, I discovered pretty quickly that I had a lot to learn. I still remember Sam W. Anderson holding up the short story I’d submitted at a workshop for critique and saying, “You have no idea what the correct format for submitting a story, do you? I’ll have to explain that to you because you can’t turn in a story looking like this to a publisher.” I’m pretty sure it was single spaced, but I’m not certain. What I am certain about though is that I’ve always hated being ignorant of things. When I find holes in my knowledge, I try to fill them the best I can. Most writers will tell you the best advice they can give you if you want to be a writer is to–say it with me–read a lot and write a lot. I’ll add a third, read a lot of books on writing. Some really successful authors out there have written books discussing writing craft. Some are real stinkers, but here are five books that I found useful.

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell This is the first book on writing I ever purchased (10 years ago, almost to the day), and I still go back to it on occasion. Bell has his own system for plotting–the LOCK method–that was a good starting point for me. It covers pretty much all parts of writing a novel, and gives a lot of helpful choices for outlining, plotting, and scene construction. As a beginner, I learned a lot from this book. It really was the perfect place to start.

On Writing by Stephen King An obvious choice, and one that everyone else mentions, and for good reason–it’s excellent. The first half of the book is King’s autobiography as a writer, the second half an exploration of the craft. I love both parts, but what I really appreciate are the specific nuts and bolts lessons and strategies in the second half. I find that a lot of books on writing are general in nature–Show, Don’t Tell!; Outline or Don’t; Don’t Use Adverbs!–but King’s book, while he does hit on that stuff, offers up a lot of very specific advice on how to do things. Also, I still teach his lesson on writing description, and I’ll never forget his comparing writing to telepathy. Great stuff.

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks This is an interesting book that argues that most blockbuster best sellers follow the same plot architecture, almost down to the page. Even if you disagree with his thesis, Brooks has a lot of really useful strategies in this, breaking the book into “six core competencies” that I find pretty helpful. The competency he spends the most time on is story structure, something I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on. Brooks’ site, storyfix.com, has a lot of great information and advice, too.

Now Write! Mysteries I just finished this book today. 75 (give or take) mystery and suspense novelists each contribute essays and exercises on writing crime fiction. Since this contains so many different authors writing on different topics, not all of the pieces are going to hit home, but you’ll definitely find helpful advice in here somewhere. I especially found pieces in the Creating Scenes, Revision, and From Book to Series sections extremely helpful.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott I mentioned this book in my last blog post. Lamott’s book is more a comforting “I’m-with-you-this-writing-thing-is-hard-but-here-are-some-things-I’ve-learned-that-might-help” book than a nuts and bolts, how-to book. But maybe that’s why I like it so much. Lamott’s like a mentor you meet up with for coffee who commiserates and offers advice. Or maybe she’s more like a therapist. Either way, it’s great.

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