When non-writers learn that you are a writer, the reactions are generally classified into two major groups: the ones that think you’re some kind of celebrity who bathes in champagne and is airlifted everywhere on specially modified helicopters and the ones who assume (based on the fact that they haven’t seen your books at their local bookstore window) you are an unpublished novice who needs all the help you can get.
That second group wants to assist, so they tend to give you writing books as gifts.
I’m certain that there are newbies out there who call themselves writers who genuinely need these books. In my own case, I never told a soul about my writing until I had a number of published stories under my belt (published by other people, not self-published), so I was pretty familiar with messrs Strunk and White (even though I never read their book until much later) when my friends started giving me writing books.
Writing books, I’ve found, are mostly aimed at the writer who’s never sold a word of prose in his life (I assume there are similar tomes aimed at the aspiring poet, but I have no first-hand knowledge of these).
Still, other writers will know that writerly self-image–even those of people who have published a lot–tends to be a fragile thing, so I always read the ones that people give me. Can’t risk having hubris make you miss the piece of advice that turns you into the next gazillion dollar bestseller.
The latest batch I read included two books.
The first was Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (since updated to 55 it seems – god, I hope that the one I need to become a gazillionaire isn’t one of hose extra 5!) This one is one of those that I consider a standard writing guide. My impression as that it’s a solid primer that lists the things you need to do to avoid embarassing yourself and cut down on the unnecessary rejections (as well as the unfinished projects and the badly edited work sitting in your hard drive).
Perhaps the main thing I can say about this one is that it’s a great guide to what you need to learn and an even better list of the rules you have to break once you learn them. A friend of mine says that you need to transcend the rules, not merely break them. For that, I guess you have to know them first. This is, as far as I can tell, a reasonable place to start.
Published authors may want to give it a miss, though.
The second book is the one writeng book I’d recommend to absolutely everyone. The author starts by saying that he doesn’t know s**t about what works and what doesn’t and goes from there.
Most of you will already have guessed that I’m talking about Stephen King’s On Writing.
I won’t pretend that I’m an expert on King. I don’t read that much horror, so I’ve read three or four of his books at most, and find his style accessible to point of annoying me at times… but no one who can’t tell a story extremely well will have sold as many copies of any genre as he has. Any writer who doesn’t respect King is likely either a snob or a wet-behind-the-ears newbie with no clue what publishing looks like. He has earned the right to make us listen.
And his writing book is marvelous. He doesn’t try to tell us what we have to do. He tells us what he did, and what he does. He tells us his life story, and how he came to be a storyteller. He tells us what it felt to make a life-altering (at least on the economc front) sale. He tells us how important it is to have a support structure in place.
Then, in the least interesting part of the book, he goes on to tell us what works and what doesn’t, contradicting himself, but giving us value for our money. “If this is what works for Stephen King…” we say, and try to do it. Even these bits are well written and a lot less dry than most writing books out there. So, yeah recommended.
Anyway, if you’re just starting out, then read both of these. The Clark first. But if you know what you’re doing, and haven’t done so, pick up the King. It is so much more than just a book on writing. It’s the writing memoir you wish you could have written.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist. If you followed a link here because you saw Stephen King’s name on the post, and are a horror fan, you might like Gustavo’s story Pacific Wind – available for Kindle at 99 cents!