Ever since I’ve been writing novels I’ve been searching for help with this mammoth task, wanting to steep myself in craft and learn all I can from other writers. I’ve gained a lot from listening to guests at Novel Nights over the last three years and my writing group, but I’m still hopeful surely, there must be a secret that, once cracked, could lead to publishing nirvana.
Now I’m studying on my Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University our tutors tell us, ‘there are no rules.’ Except for the ones we break, obviously.
Here’s a short round up of my favourite how-to books on technique taken from the many on my shelves.
1. Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas
This is a dense text that needs to be read slowly, like an essay, with highlighting tabs to hand. Thomas teaches creative writing at the University of Kent and the text is full of helpful advice for writers. The first part of the book is called theory and will help you understand the difference between narration, plot and story-telling, how events need to be shaped to be compelling and gives examples of how to subvert basic plots.
Thomas references a huge amount of literature to back up her points and questions hypotheses which make Monkeys with Typewriters an intellectually honest read. She provides a very useful story matrix that she uses with her students to generate ideas for their novels.
The second part of the book deals with practice. There’s a whole chapter devoted to, ‘Writing a good sentence,’ which goes beyond the usual advice of deleting adverbs or weasel words. She discusses the differences between minimalist and ‘expansive writing’ and thoughtfully challenges assumptions on minimalism. I found some of the book’s exercises particularly useful including finding a ‘seed word’ for your novel to energise it.
This book is the sort of thing you can keep at your bedside. It’s thoughtful encouraging style and will help you dive deeper into your writing, and provides gentle encouragement.Solutions for writers by Sol Stein.
2. Solutions for Writers by Sol Stein.
This writer’s handbook gives examples of how you can improve your writing, and starts with questioning your responsibility to your readers. Chapters worth reading include ‘The Secrets of Good Dialogue’, What is unique about the book is that Stein gives an example of poor writing and then an example of an improved version. Stein has edited authors such as Dylan Thomas, James Baldwin and W.H Auden. The only downside of the book is the tiny font.
3. Write Great Fiction: Revision & Self-Editing & Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
If you’re looking for something more didactic with easy to follow headings, bullet points, well laid out text and lots of short exercises then try James Scott Bell. He writes Write Great Fiction series of books; useful to have next to your laptop. Whilst most of his examples come from the commercial end of the publishing market there are many basic principles which will be helpful to all writers.
By Grace Palmer who directs Novel Nights.