People always want to know what writers have influenced you. Who’s your favourite author? they ask. What’s your favourite novel?
I find these questions impossible to answer, for reasons that might well bear discussion some other time. Last week, at the Hot Press Write Here Write Now awards, I offered a list of practical books on writing-as-craft as an alternative to my faulty favourite/influence response. But I got distracted and went off on a tangent instead. So here’s a short list of titles I’ve found helpful when I run aground, or in the later stages of rewriting and editing:
James Scott Bell The Art of War for Writers: fiction writing strategies, tactics, and exercises
The principles of Chinese general Sun Tzu adapted for writers. This (little, red) book offers aphoristic advice. The chapter headings alone amount to a rough guide to writing: ‘To survive over any length of time, you must turn any criticism into a strength.’ ‘An army travels on its stomach, so spear some fish.’ ‘Turn envy into energy and more words …’
Lawrence Block: Telling Lies for Fun and Profit
The title is a clue: this is a no-nonsense, fun and practical guide to matters such as: ‘He Said She Said’; ‘Never Apologize, Never Explain’; ‘Burning The Raft At Both Ends’; ‘Writing With Your Eyes Closed’.
Renni Browne and Dave King: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird: Some Notes on Writing and Life
Wise, comforting, practical and funny. This is especially good if you’re in the early stages of your writing life – or for all shades of black moments later. Take a break and go for coffee with Annie, it’ll restore your understanding of (and affection for) the weirdness that writers, of necessity, inhabit. At the very least, she’ll make you laugh at yourself. You’re only human.
Sol Stein: Stein on Writing
Sol Stein’s best advice (imo) is that writing, like sex, should be good for both parties. But it doesn’t stop there. His approach to understanding conflict and making trouble for your characters alone make this a guide worth keeping. Use it when your imagination gets sluggish.
Lynn Truss Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
Because these things matter – but they can be fun as well.