Top Ten Books To Improve Your Writing
A likely first stop on the journey of any aspiring writer is the purchase of a writing book to teach them about the subject. Often they’re drawn to titles like “Write a Bestseller in Six Months,” or “Making Money from Kindle Publishing.” First and foremost though, the goal should be to master your craft, from the basics of structuring a story to the complexities of characterisation and subplots. With that in mind I came up with a list of books that are most likely to measurably improve your writing skills, books that clearly and concisely impart how to be a better writer, and since we’re on Fantasy-Faction, I tried to include ones that lean towards fantasy and science fiction.
1. Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Lisa Tuttle
As introductions go this is a great starting point, the book does a good job of detailing basic concepts and terminology with regards to the genres and broad aspects of writing. It’s a perfect ‘how to’ book for beginners, with chapters on story structure, language and the principles of worldbuilding. There’s also a nice section on rewriting which can be very useful and serves to introduce new writers to the vital skill of editing. Rounded off with a bit of business talk at the end, the book is a solid starting point.
2. The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
Another good introductory book, it has the benefit of being packed with essential theory while being easily readable, unlike some of the very academically ‘thick’ texts from writers like Jung or Campbell. That the book uses popular films to illustrate its points means the reader can easily absorb and apply the information without having to plough through an English class’ reading list. The points and formulas described are just as applicable to novels as they are to film and the book is filled with information on classic plot forms and archetypes. While a writer may not choose to slavishly adhere to these formulas, knowing the historic formats and how the industry views them is invaluable.
3. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White
It’s not fancy or exciting but this little book is an excellent resource for a beginner wordsmith. Setting out basic rules of the English language with clear examples and explanations, this is one to reach for when you’re unsure if you’ve phrased a sentence correctly. The language is a bit thick, coached in terms of independent clauses and parenthetic expressions, but it’s much simpler to understand than you realise. The book also contains sections of general writing advice suitable to prose or essays and is well worth a read in helping an author establish their own style.
4. The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans
This book makes a strong effort to cover everything you need to know about writing fantasy and science fiction, from storytelling methods to characters, to genre specific queries like crafting measurements and language in worldbuilding; Athans doesn’t leave much out. All this information is neatly and precisely organised in short, focused chapters that always deliver what they promise. The books contain excellent examples of the techniques that steadily grow and change as Athans elaborates on each point, making them very easy to understand. Every aspect of the craft is given a high level of detail, and by constantly asking questions he encourages the reader to think through their own work and so develop their writing skills. If the dragon on the cover didn’t already sell you, the terrific advice inside should tip the decision.
5. Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
True to the title, this book contains everything you need to know on the subjects, it details the essential parts in creating and developing your characters as well as how to utilize viewpoints and craft an effective narrative voice. All this is done in an articulate, conversational tone with detailed examples that show the reader precisely how to use the techniques. The narrow focus of the books allows Card to explore in depth the process of a character engaging with the reader and of their relationship to the story. Whether you’re crafting a hero or villain, a love interest or placeholder, this book has you covered.
6. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones
A bit of an oddity on the list but I think it’s a particular necessity for any would be fantasy writer. It can be all too easy to get caught up in the wonder of what you read, and upon trying it out for yourself, churning out a derivative mess of stereotypes and clichés. Seeing a book like this poke fun at an alphabetised list of tropes is the writing equivalent of a clip round the ear to make sure the author understands their work does not exist in a vacuum. Aside from being an entertaining read in itself with notes on bicycle-like horses that breed by pollination, this book will impress upon the writer the need for originality.
7. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card
Another text by Card, this is a more general writing guide but with very genre specific ideas and concepts. With a basic introduction to the genres the book quickly moves to a detailed instruction on worldbuilding using examples from Card’s own work to explain his points. There’s also a well presented chapter on story construction dealing with the mechanics of developing a story and fleshing out your ideas. A short chapter looking at writing craft and style is followed by a section on business and publishing which certainly gives a feel for his experience. For genre writers this book has some great tips.
8. On Writing by Stephen King
Part autobiography, part writing guide, the book blends the two forms together with grace and skill. You can feel the voice of experience in the pages as King recounts his life and journey as a writer, the events of his past told with the same eloquent prose as any of his books. Rustic stories and toolbox metaphors serves as the medium for how he explains the craft. The middle section of the book is devoted to the nuts and bolts of writing in general, without a real focus on a specific genre. With few chapters breaks the book tends to run along in a series of thoughts and musings on various subjects, yet the light tone and skilful explanations mean you learn a lot without realising it. The book leaves the reader with a sense of optimism and inspiration that’s almost as helpful as the writing information contained within.
9. Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and Getting Published by Brian Stableford
For a writing guide, this one is more high concept and with more complex ideas. Stableford’s book is a bit academic in terms of content and requires thought and concentration to appreciate, but the intellect of the writer clearly shows through in how he expresses his ideas. Covering beginnings, endings and everything in between this book has a wealth of knowledge to be tapped and will prompt the reader to look at the deeper meanings and aspects of their own work.
A writer should always be learning their craft, you need look no further than the book in front of you. Whether it’s bad or good, the novel probably has something to teach you. Study the language, the characterisation, the narrative mesh, what is the author trying to accomplish, could they have done it better, how would you have done it differently? Every book is an example of the craft in action and as such there are few better places to learn from. Once a writer has got the basics down they can begin to evaluate and critique all the works they read, further broadening their knowledge.
What books and guides have taught you the most? Leave a comment below.