I’ve had the daunting privilege of spending a lot of time with first-time writers over recent months. Some of them have been part of our internship scheme at Fine Rolling media and others have reached out via email. It’s been amazing to see what these passionate individuals can achieve with their writing in such a short space of time. One of them, for example, has recently finished her first short film script which is set to go into production this summer, another has been accepted to study the same master’s degree I took at Leeds Uni: Writing for Performance and Publication; and another is on the verge of publishing his first short story.
Whilst talking with these talented writers I’ve found myself recommending numerous books to help their writing progress in various ways. This got me thinking of some of the books that have helped me along my journey to become a better writer – and why exactly they helped. So, after slacking on my blog output I decided to dedicate this one to outlining my own ideal syllabus of books that are guaranteed … or at least have a good chance, of making you a better writer.
This list is applicable to any kind of writing from prose, to screenplays, to greeting cards; so, you’re sure to find something in there that is suitable to your current writing needs, whatever they may be.
1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.
Yeah, yeah, I know, a boring little book about grammar and the English language. Well, this boring little gem has been a life saver for many writers over the years.
Aspiring writers can avoid their manuscripts being binned by frustrated editors and agents by familiarising themselves with some of the rules that Strunk Jr sets out here.
Some of my favourites include; ‘omit needless words’, ‘write in the active voice’, and ‘avoid fancy words’. In other words, don’t write like a dick.
2. Misery by Stephen King
One of Stephen King’s most underrated novels deals with the writer Paul Sheldon being forced to write a novel for his ‘biggest fan’, Annie Wilkes, as she holds him captive in her cabin.
Every writer at some point writes a story about a central protagonist who is themselves, a writer. Most of them are shitty little adventures about self-centered individuals. Stephen King’s Misery is far more than that. In this novel, Paul Sheldon must literally do what many of us have felt we were doing while jamming our fingers over and over into a keyboard – he must write for his life.
This book is also a great example of why you can’t cheat the reader. Whole chapters are taken up by our hero, Paul, agonising as to how he can justify bringing a character back from the dead in a way that will satisfy his captor.
3. Story by Robert McKee
Love him or hate him, Robert McKee is Hollywood’s resident screenwriting guru.
His ‘cut the crap’ style of writing can be a little jarring at first, but as he lays out his years of experience on what makes a good story, and what kind of a person you have to be in order to tell one, it’s easy to see why his writing has helped so many writers over the years.
Here’s a clip from the film Adaption, 2002 – in which Brian Cox plays a fictionalised version of McKee. This is a telling example of how sometimes good advice can come out of an asshole.
4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
So, you’re a prose writer? Wanna freak yourself out? Read Nabokov’s most famous novel. There’s plenty to unsettle the average reader in this book when it comes to the pedophilia present in the plot. But, the aspiring writer will also be unsettled by the fact that Nabokov’s writing will show you just how much better he is than you.
If you find yourself falling out of love with your canvas as a writer (the English language) Lolita will have you tumbling back in love with it all over again.
5. The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
John Truby is a challenger for the position of Hollywood’s salty, screenwriter guru in residence. This position has been long held by Robert McKee, but in Anatomy Truby gives him a run for his money.
If you don’t like ‘being told what to do’ as a writer, Truby’s constant listing of rules and structure mainframes may not be for you – but he is an invaluable resource when it comes to outlining your scripts and stories.
Perhaps his most useful contribution is his ‘debunking’ of three-act structure as overly simplistic in describing what writers are consciously doing on the page and in their scripts.
6. Matilda by Roald Dahl
To be a good writer you must first be a good reader. The process of becoming a good reader is developed during childhood if it is to develop at all. Dahl’s Matilda is a heroine with superpowers that loves nothing more than to read – this is the perfect gateway drug to hook young readers with.
For writers hoping to write for younger readers, studying Dahl’s style and tone will give them a good footing on which to build on.
7. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
The one Stephen King book that nobody talks about – unless you’re a writer that is.
One-part memoir, two parts instructional pamphlet, the familiarity of King’s voice guides you through a string of sound writing advice such as, ‘I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs,’ and, ‘Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.’
One note of caution; don’t let King’s distaste for outlining his stories provide you with an excuse for laziness. He is a literary genius with little use for planning ahead — you and I, are likely not.
So, those are just some of the many books that have inspired me to keep improving as a writer over the years. There are notable omissions to the list, such as George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, Aristotle’s Poetics, and a whole host of books by the usual suspects such as; Syd Field, Blake Snyder, and Christopher Vogler. But, you could do far worse than to read the books on this list at any point during your journey as a writer.