There’s a moment in the film Wonder Boys where Michael Douglas’s creative writing lecturer character talks with his editor about a prized writing student of his who will soon be expelled:
‘It doesn’t matter. Nobody teaches a writer anything. You tell them what you know, you tell them to find their voice and stay with it, you tell the ones that have it to keep at it, and you tell the ones that don’t have it to keep at it because that’s the only way they’ll get to where they’re going.’
And I think this is true to a point. Can anyone teach a writer? Can anyone teach writing? It’s not like there is a body of knowledge out there that any one person can bestow on another in order to make them a writer. There isn’t a prescribed syllabus, or an instruction manual, or even an answer.
But still, knowing that doesn’t stop thousands of words being written in books for aspiring writers, it doesn’t stop them from spending hundreds of hours in lectures and tutorials, conversing with mentors and editors and helpful readers.
So we’re in one of those situations where there is no key, there is no secret to the writing vault, no answer that can unlock a book, and yet we’re forever searching for one. And often, hoping that those who have gone before us can lead the way.
There are some books on writing I’ve found enormously beneficial over the years. Some others I’ve avoided, and others still that I’ve taken a lot from only to find they were steering me down a path that I’d rather not go with my writing. But I don’t want to stray too far into personal dogma or sanctimonious spouting of advice, because ultimately it’s all about individual preference. And individual choice.
What follows is merely a list of the books that I find helpful and instructive, for a variety of reasons. These are the ones that work for me, that identify and examine features of writing that I value, or that I’ve had to learn to value in order to improve. But one writer’s treasure is another’s trash, and for every golden piece of advice in these books there is something in them that others will disagree with, or rail against fervently. But that’s the nature of any advice: easily taken, easily discarded.
The most important thing is with these books – and plenty others – they don’t provide me with any conscious instruction, but more put me in a position to be happy and confident to write – where I can let the words flow.
On Writing – Stephen King
Hardly a surprising choice. But for a book on writing from a writer viewed by most as a horror writer, it’s unbelievably practical and enabling. Look elsewhere for tips on horror writing – Danse Macabre is probably better suited – this lean book comes complete with a toolbox on good vocabulary, good sentences, good editing, and well-natured warnings against adverbs and adjectives. It also boils down – for me – what writing and reading is: telepathy, from the author to the reader. King challenges writers to be honest to the vision of a story in their heads, and ensure that’s what ends up on the page for the readers.
Screenplay – Syd Field
Most will recommend Robert McKee’s Story for a book on structuring plots and developing narratives that function and entertain – especially after being mythologised in Adaptation – but Syd Field came first in laying down the perfect three-act structure; the paradigm that would inform generations of screenwriters, and a billion derivative books on screenwriting. This is short, sharp and abundantly clear.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell
The monomyth has become so overdone of late that one can hardly move for all the thresholds and call to arms and supernatural aids that litter our screens and our books and TVs. But Campbell’s original study of different mythologies and cultural traditions in storytelling is far more than a derivative model for every story ever told. The best thing about this is its comprehensiveness, and the infinite varieties that Campbell presents – some in detail, others in passing reference – which generate an endless list of starting ideas when the words run dry.
The Art Spirit – Robert Henri
Not really a book about writing, but David Lynch cites this as the biggest source of inspiration and influence on his career since he was a struggling art student in Philadelphia. It’s an odd, haphazard collection of anecdotes, lessons, letters and offhand pieces of advice from Henri to his art students, but they work just as well for any writer, especially in the development of a visual language. Furthermore, Henri promotes the individual’s own language and vision as the key, rather than conforming to preconceived expectations.
And then there are the other pieces of advice along the way. The style manuals, such as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style – ‘omit needless words’ – are brilliant in times of need, and there are endless lists of helpful (and not so helpful) do’s and don’ts from every famous author since Cervantes. My favourites: Cormac McCarthy on punctuation – ‘no reason to blot up the page with weird little marks’ – and Elmore Leonard on writing popular fiction – ‘leave out the parts readers tend to skip.’
Ultimately, there’s help and advice for every writer, from every writer. But it doesn’t have to be listened to all the time, nor followed with no regard for alternatives. Indeed, if we followed every single rule ever set down about writing, I doubt whether any writing would actually get done. So use and abuse and appropriate and adapt and ultimately follow what feels right. The words will come.