When I was at the start of consciously developing my writing – beyond fifth grade short novellas about my life as a puppy or Cinderella re-imagined with lions – I read every book on writing I could find. I read how-to writing books on everything from character and plot development to romance and mystery novel formulas. I read books on how to get published, although I think that was putting the cart a bit before the horse. Books on short story writing, on poetry, on autobiographies, historical fiction; I devoured them and currently? Remember none of them. I don’t recall ever putting any of their advice to practice, either. The reality of writing is that for many of us, it becomes exponentially more difficult when we attempt to follow someone else’s recipe card. The authors of these how-to-write recipes may be able to make their metaphorical casseroles work with crumbled potato chips on top – but that doesn’t mean your metaphorical casseroles will fail with buttered breadcrumbs instead.
The best thing a writer can do, second only to doing the actual work as often as they can, is read. Read other writers, both inside and outside our field of work. Reach for novels specifically because they’re not in our favorite genre; reach for an autobiography or other nonfiction and change gears completely. Experiencing other people’s voices, widely and voraciously, is a great way to develop our own voices. How-to writing books can help inform that voice and offer advice to help develop it, but no book is perfect and no book can teach us how to write just by reading it.
All that said, I do have two favorite stand-by advice books. These are light on the how-to and heavy on the ‘here-try-this.’ The authors are excited and impassioned by the craft and it shows on the page. One I use to broaden my scope, when I’m stuck in repetitive patterns of thought and writing habit. The other I use to tighten and add detail to ideas I have that are too broad to work with. They’re tools, no different than a good quality whisk. They can’t do the work alone, but added to your ingenuity, creativity and effort, they can help you take a flat and goopy piece of writing and fluff it into a sturdy, luscious meringue.
To Loosen Things Up:
Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
Natalie doesn’t believe in Writer’s Block, and neither do I. This book is a chunk of fresh focaccia – thin but a dense, chewy, and buttery delicious read. She weaves concepts of zen meditation and anecdotes from her life into short chapters that make for quick reading. This book was part of my curriculum when I took my first creative writing college course. I devoured it in a week before class even started, and held onto it when the rest of my texts went back to the bookstore. I look at Natalie as my private cheer coach, as the stereotypical trainer at the edge of the boxing ring ready to hand me a towel and a water bottle, splash my face, knead my shoulders and then shove me hard back out into the fray. I go to her when my writing feels stoppered up, or when my internal editor is making me binge episodes of The Crown instead of going to the page. If Natalie is good at one thing, it’s encouraging your wildest mind. Writing Down the Bones is a great resource to get your writing process started (or re-started); it assumes you’re here to get to work and it offers practical advice to get there. Natalie keeps me writing at coffee shops and kitchen tables instead of losing writing time searching for the perfect pens or the perfect writing desk. She offers suggested exercises at the end of chapters to get the reader off that stool at the corner of the boxing ring; to face down your internal editor and spit in their critical eye. She encourages setting up daily timed writing to build a healthy habit. But – for me – the best thing about this book is its insistence on not looking back as you go, and not judging yourself for your work. The time for editing is after the work exists. Write your first thoughts wildly, dig deep into your topics and write from where you are and don’t be afraid of what you want to write. It’s harder than ever to write fearlessly, and fear is stifling. If you’re struggling with getting words on the page, or fighting an internal editor that just won’t shut the heck up, this book might be of use to you. It’s blessedly short, so you can run through a chapter, and – shoulders thus kneaded – get back to your work.
To Tighten Things Up:
The Plot Thickens, by Noah Lukeman
Character development. Ugh. Some of us are good at it, and some of us; well. We try. We try really hard. When I’m making characters, I run hot and cold – too broad, or too myopic. Characters run on one trait alone, or on too many, with no particular reason for stringing them together other than “I’m presently interested in x topic.” Or, I develop one side of their life but the rest – their family, their education, their health, their job – remains a mystery while they’re off fighting the good fight or raising unicorns or whatever it is they do.
Noah’s book is jam-packed with tools to get you on the road to good, rich characters. Again, think of this book like a set of good lugwrenches, or a stick blender with multiple heads – it can’t do the work for you but it can help you make better, smoother stuff. Noah’s got years under his belt as a literary agent. He’s read a lot of novels that never made it past the slush pile, and this book is the result of that reading. It’s divided up into sections – The Inner Life, The Outer Life, etc. – and instead of giving me suggestions, he gives me questions. I’m a constant listmaker, and so if I’m stumped on a character or having a bad case of Blank Page Anxiety, I pull out this book and start answering questions about the work. It’s not a be-all, end-all book on characters, either. Sometimes doing something as simple as completing one of Noah’s character questionnaires will spur me off on a tangent that I needed, but my ferret mind was avoiding.
The other fabulous thing this book does is offer good working examples. In his section on building conflict, Noah does what I love most about this book: he offers pop media examples. You’ll find references to classic and blockbuster movies when he talks about character and plot conflict. You can easily look up the examples he gives and check them out yourself, which I adore. I’m a fan of picking apart the works I love to see why an element worked well and caught my attention. Plus, Noah’s voice in this book is so conversational. He’s not trying to impress you, but get you back to your work as soon and as productively as possible. I pick it up when I’m intimidated by a character or when I can tell my scope for a novel idea is getting unapproachable. Like Writing Down the Bones, it’s a relatively short read with nice, easily digestible chapters that don’t require previous chapters for context. You can pick up this book anywhere, look up what you need right now, put it down again and get back to work.
Which, in the end, should be the point of any good writing tool.