Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published March 19th 2020
Because we all want to write
For those unaware, I am attempting to become a writer. I have sold 70-odd short stories, 30 or so poems, a few essays and even two books. Add over two hundred columns here at WeekendNotes, a few for Inside Pulse, a few for the Horror Tree, and yet I am still not doing enough to call myself a full-time writer.
I should probably also add that I have written over 50 novels/novellas that I think are any good, more than 700 short stories, 200-plus poems, scripts, essays… I write. That's what I do.
I have also been writing for quite a long time. Here in South Australia, I have given talks on writing, students I have taught have won writing competitions and things like that. However, as I sell most of my stuff overseas, it seems most of the writers I associate with come from other countries (yes, there are some positives of social media). And as someone doing okay for myself, I get asked a lot of questions about writing.
Surprisingly, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is if there are any books I would recommend to help up and coming writers. I know quite a few people who write for WeekendNotes are also working towards becoming professional writers, and I would encourage everyone to at least give writing a go. Therefore, in that vein, I would like to present the ten books I would recommend to writers. All ten I find useful, but the first three are possibly a little niche to be suitable for everyone. The other, seven, though… very important.
1) The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference by Writer's Digest Books (1998; Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, USA)
The most niche of these books. But if you write fantasy, this is something you need. I use it often. To add a sense of realism to your fantasy, this book is essential. It explains the mechanics of things in fantasy settings – cultures, magic, economics, non-humans, clothing and war. The authors of each section do not talk down to the readers/writers but explain things concisely and logically. An example is a diagram showing the parts of a suit of armour, so when you are describing this in a story, you can use the correct terminology. I use that example because in the Arthurian story I am writing at the moment, I am using it all the time! Okay, sure, you can find a lot of this information online, I understand that. But here it is all in one place, easy to cross-reference and you can use it offline. For fantasy writers – great resource.
2) How Not To Write A Novel by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark (2008; Penguin Books, London, England)
This niche book is for those who are looking at writer longer works of fiction. As a budding novelist (2 published, 3 more contracts signed! And, no, I don't do self-publishing…), I have found this book a great resource. In a comedic manner – and it is quite funny – by the use of really bad passages of prose, it demonstrates the mistakes that too many writers make. One of them – being too clever with the use of words – was something I was guilty of, and this book made me go back and change a lot of what I had written… as in, 15 years of novel writing (at that stage) looked back on. Wow. Anyway, every single facet of the novel – character, plot, setting, voice, etc. – is looked at. If a writer wants to have a go at the longer form, this is the book they need. Not just novel, but novella, and definitely book series. Novelists should read this.
3) The Penguin Rhyming Dictionary by Rosalind Fergusson (1985; Penguin Books, London, UK)
This is the last of the niche books. For people who write traditional or form-based poetry, or who write songs, or who write rhyming prose for children… actually, there are a lot of times a book giving you words that rhyme with the word you want could be very handy. This is something I use a lot. There are three caveats. First, you need to know what the words mean (in which case, you need a dictionary – see the next entry). Second, this is based on UK English pronunciation. For Australians, that is not a problem. For those in the USA, however, people need to be careful. Third, it works a little like a Thesaurus when finding the words you need, and some people find those awkward to use. I have not found one as comprehensive as this one – including online – and heartily recommend this. I know several songwriters and all but one use this. Important book.
4) A Dictionary
It does not matter what sort it is, this is the main book a writer needs. You need a dictionary. If you're not sure how a word is spelt, do not trust spell-check, look it up. Affect or effect? Look it up (affect is the verb; effect is the noun… except in very specific cases). Yes, there are some online ones that are fine (dictionary.com springs to mind), but too many are not. Get a paper one. Also, get one that suits your region. Now, I rarely use a dictionary, but if you look at the picture, you'll see that this one is an American dictionary. I use this because, as I said, I sell a lot overseas, especially the USA, and so I like to keep this on hand to ensure what I am writing will suit the publishers willing to take a chance on me. I do have an Oxford for my UK English and a Macquarie for my Australian, but I very rarely need them (not big-noting; it's experience – I was an English teacher); the USA, though, I do have to check. And that's why a dictionary is so important.
5) Bryson's Dictionary For Writers And Editors by Bill Bryson (1991; Broadway Books, New York, USA)
Another dictionary? Well, this is the one where those little questions are answered. Things like affect/effect mentioned above are explained. And that is why this is so good. It is a clarification. There are sometimes just words without a meaning, which is to show how they are spelt. It does not cover everything – of course not – but it does cover the most common things. It is like a "common mistakes corrective" tome, and that is so very important. I pull it out occasionally just to clarify something, especially when someone has corrected me and I think they're wrong (which is why I changed editors 10 years ago – too many of her corrections ended up being wrong). Still, valuable work.
6) The Writer's Source Book by Chris Sykes (2011; Hodder Education, London, UK)
This is a basic "how-to-write" book with one pretty big difference – the exercises are awesome! Every section, from character to plotting to dialogue to everything else, comes with a heap of exercises. The problem with a lot of writing books with exercises is that what they get you to do is dull or does not work (not all – Lillian Rose's Cultivating Creativity has some fine exercises in it); this one they actually make sense in context of the ultimate goal, and quite a few are challenging. I've used a few of them as a teacher and they worked for all levels. There are also little highlighted bits of advice that could make a great list for every writer to just remind themselves of.
7) The Elements Of Style (4th Edition) by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White (2000; Pearson Education, Boston, USA)
This is a dry textbook. It covers similar ground to Bryson's book in part, but also how to put a sentence together, some grammatical rules (which so many self-published authors need to learn), how to put a paragraph together, form, etc. The thing about it is that it is not long; my copy is 85 pages. And so it has all the important technical information in a succinct, easily digestible form. I do know it can be boring, but this sort of thing is vital for any writer. Learn the basics; this book will help. There might be more recent editions, but 4th is what I have and it is fine.
8) Reverse Dictionary by Reader's Digest (1989, reprinted with amendments 1996; Reader's Digest, London, UK)
Know what you want to describe, but can't find the word? This is the book for you! I mean it – this is the book for you! I use this a lot. A lot of entries, and with a lexicon of difficult words at the end, like a dictionary. Google can do the same thing, but Google is based on viewer algorithms and paid content, so a lot of the information cannot be trusted. This book has some great stuff; for example, your story includes a guy who likes fishing, in this dictionary, look up "fishing terms" and there is a decent list. Simple. My copy is an Australian version, and I have been trying to get the US version (for reasons I have mentioned already). Still, a valuable resource.
9) Roget's Thesaurus (1972; College Books, London, UK)
Look at the photo – see how battered the cover is? I use this book a lot. One thing about especially writing fiction is that using the same word over and over can be annoying and boring for readers, so you need to find different ways to say the same thing. That is where the Thesaurus comes into play. For example, I wrote a story where the colour red was an important element. Red, red, red, red, red… yeah. Red, crimson, scarlet, cardinal, vermillion, cherry, cerise… Now it's interesting. See what I mean? Now, I know a thesaurus is often complex for some people to use. But with a bit of practice, it does become pretty much second nature. Oh, and while I'm here – thesaurus has nothing to do with dinosaurs. "Sauros" is Greek for lizard; "Thesaurus" is Latin for treasure. Different language.
10) On Writing by Stephen King (2000; Hodder & Stoughton, London, UK)
This is the single most important writing book in my collection. The first 80 pages are an autobiography. Fine. But then we hit the 'Toolbox' and 'On Writing' parts of the book. The most important bits. I read these sections every couple of years or so. In 150-odd pages, he explains how to write, what tools you need (not just physical), how to make stories sing and then, so vital for me, how to edit. And edit properly. So very important. Anyway, here's some quotes to whet your appetite:
"Stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea."
"The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question." (This is how I write 90% of my stories – from a "what if…?" question.)
"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." (The most important bit of advice for each and every writer.)
This book is my inspiration. I wanted to be a Stephen King. I did not get there. But I am a writer, and Stephen King is one of the main people to thank for that.
So, there you have it. If you want to be a writer – and I seriously recommend at least giving it a go, especially if you are stuck at home at the moment – then these books are well worth your time.
I have a Rhyming Dictionary, an Australian Crossword Dictionary and other reference books. Have found them invaluable when writing comments to newspapers, poems for family and friends.
Will check out your selections and perhaps purchase (or suggest my family to!)
My U3A Creative Writing classes have helped also.