It’s been a couple of weeks: full-time employment called, and while I may not have been engaged in the writah-dahlink life I crave, my son’s Scout Jamboree for next year has been paid for, so that’s a thing that happened.
While I desperately try to re-insert writing back into my daily routine, I’ll need a bit of help and guidance. Here, then, are five books that form the cornerstone of my industry reading, and the pillars upon which my library of books about writing stand.
5 for Friday: Books to Get You Writing
1. Booklife, Jeff VanderMeer
Booklife is my bible. It’s not a book about writing– I can do that (more or less). It’s a book the helps guide you through the experience of living life as a writer. Covering topics as diverse as social media, finding your internal peace, time management, the creation of business documents, and learning how and when to say ‘No’, it’s a how-to for the other word in the phrase ‘writing business’. As well as being a superb writer in his own right, Jeff VanderMeer is an excellent thinker about writing, a generous personality unafraid to bring in expertise where he might have less knowledge than others, and a curator of crowd-sourced opinion: there are a number of other voices presented here, to give as wide a range of alternatives as possible. I delve into this book once about every six months, for advice, guidance, and to try to crack my own brittle sense of imposter syndrome. It’s essential reading for anybody tempted to step out and make authorship a core component of their personality.
2. On Writing, Stephen King
Let me be clear: I am not a fan of Stephen King’s work. It’s mawkish, clunky, obsessed with a soft-focus Americana that doesn’t exist and which undermines any sense of terror or wonder he aims for. At best, I find his works little better than a primer for better, more mature reading to follow, and his later, please-give-me-literary-respect works are trite and well, frankly, naff. That said, one thing he is, is successful. And that deserves study in its own right. On Writing is part autobiography, part how-to guide to navigating an industry that has changed immeasurably since King first started. As an historical guide, it’s an entertaining curio. As a guide-map, it’s a worthy addition to the sum of knowledge necessary to maintain a career over an extended period of time.
3. Stand-up Comedy: The Book, Judy Carter
Bet you weren’t expecting something like this.
Thing is, way back in the day, I spent three years working as a stand-up comic. And while I was not a good stage performer, the lessons I learned about writing still appear in my works 25 years later. On stage, brevity really is the soul of wit: you can win or lose an audience in an instant. Every word, every pause, every gesture, must be perfectly timed for the greatest possible effect. I’m still applying the harsh– sometimes projected towards the stage at terminal speed– education to my stories, and still using the exercises in this book to keep my words trim and fit. Just being a writer of words is not enough, these days. You must have some sort of agency, some extra bag of tricks that you can bring to the party. The tricks this book taught me, and my stand-up experience, are mine. What are yours?
4. Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Josip Novakovich
Sometimes, there’s nothing for it but to go back to basics, re-examine your attitudes and behaviours, and work on your craft from the bottom up. A good book of exercises is worth its weight in gold. I have several. This is the best of them: broken down into conceptual chapters with analysis of famous examples and a raft of exercises to cover multiple aspects of each narrative component. Novakovich takes an academic approach to story-building, and rigorously tears apart the required elements. I’ve utilised this book for years, both in my own writing and in preparing workshops I’ve presented. It’s indispensable.
5. Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder, Robert Silverberg (ed.)
A short story collection, but one assembled by a master of the genre, with a long memoir to open proceedings. Each story– by the likes of Damon Knight, Alfred Bester, Henry Kuttner, Cordwainer Smith, and more– is accompanied by a short essay from Silverberg, in which he discusses what makes the story work, the effect it had on him as an author, and lessons in craft that the reader can take away. Not just a brilliant collection by some of my favourite authors (Bester’s entry, Fondly Fahrenheit is, in my opinion, one of the greatest SF stories ever written), it’s also a concise and illuminating view of the way an SF Grandmaster views the field and the construction of works. A masterclass for less than twenty bucks. What’s not to love?
There we have it. Five books I can’t be a writer without. What about you? What are your standard texts?
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