My Top 5 Books for Writers

For a few years it seemed that every other book I bought was about writing. I felt certain that there were shortcuts and secrets that successful writers knew, and I wanted to know what they were.

Eventually I realised that the vast majority of books about writing repackage the same techniques and advice in different ways and once I realised this my book buying habit came to an end. I had to admit that there were no shortcuts, no easy wins, and the best book I’d ever own to help with my writing would have Moleskine embossed on it’s back.

Still, some of the books were useful and contained advice that stuck with me. Some books mattered more than others, and these are they:

1. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King

Buy Now for £9.30 new / £4.27 used 

selfeditCovering the basics in an easy to digest fashion, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is my favourite book about writing. I’ve gone back to it many times as it covers the basics so well. Starting with the obligatory show don’t tell chapter, it moves on at a pace to cover point of view, dialogue, interior monologue, beats, and a range of other areas. The content is well organised and there are plenty of practical tips.


2. Solutions for Writers, Sol Stein

Buy Now for £12.99 new / £4.09 used

solsteinStein has edited some of the biggest names in the business and really knows his onions. Solutions for Writers, (along with Solutions for Novelists), covers the expected range of topics with authority. Dialogue, plotting and first-lines, are discussed most effectively. Again, it’s a resource you’ll find yourself coming back to again and again.


3. Save the Cat, Blake Snyder

Buy Now from £6.09

Ssavecatome of the most useful books about plotting fiction are about writing screenplays and Snyder’s snappy guide to plotting Hollywood money-spinners is a great way to get to grips with, or reaffirm the basics of, driving your story forward. The same criticisms levelled at this book apply whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay – it’s about writing stories that sell, not necessarily about being a great writer – but if you’re having issues with your plotting, this book can help you work out what to do next, or at least what not to do next.


4. On Writing, Stephen King

Buy Now from £5.49

81-SLYWaQ-L._SL1500_There aren’t many contemporary ‘best books for writers’ lists that don’t have On Writing in them, and that’s because it’s one of the most interesting and unique books on the craft out there. Roger Ebert said of On Writing, that it ‘had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style‘.Part childhood memoir, part writer’s tool-kit, On Writing is eminently readable and contains plenty of no-nonsense, tough-love advice in a tone of voice King’s readers will appreciate.


How Fiction Works, James Wood

Buy Now from £3.77

howfictionworksThis slim volume is something of a must read, an enthusiastic examination of the writer’s art, beginning with Flaubert and narrative and moving on to cover character, language dialogue and realism. It’s much less a how-to than the other books on this list and is more about deconstructing why a good piece of writing is good, what makes it work and why. The blurb calls it playful and profound, and I’d tend to agree.


Honourable mentions for: Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee; The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, Elements of Fiction Writing – Beginnings, Middles & Ends, by Nancy Kress and Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go, by Les Edgerton.

These are the books that have stood out for me – that are different enough or effective enough to be worth a place on my book shelf. Which books about writing have stood out for you?



Cover Inspiraton for The Art of Misdirection

I’m preparing to brief the illustrator who will be creating the cover illustration for The Art of Misdirection in the next few weeks. Seeing as it’s a pretty lengthy novel it’s unlikely he’ll get the chance to read that much of it before he starts work. So, how best to give a flavour of the stories contents and tone?

I’m trying a Pinterest board to begin with, pulling together images and photographs that reflect the story and setting and it feels like it will at least help to prompt some ideas.

Sidney Paget keeps coming to mind, but how this would work for the cover, or how it could look contemporary and capture that kind of feel, I’m not sure.

Still, the Pinterest board is a nice easy way to pull together a mood board to brief in the illustrator – and seeing as he won’t have to wade through 120,000 words, I’m sure he’ll agree.

To self-publish, or not to self publish?

It’s hardly a new question to consider: hold out for an agent and a publisher that will hopefully lead to a big things, or self publish and work to build an audience yourself.

If you’re keen to snag a traditional publishing deal you might well be spending your time submitting to agents, writing and rewriting synopsis’, dealing with rejections and re-submitting, in the hope of finding representation.

Who knows? Maybe you’re brilliant, or maybe you’re lucky. You might get the advance and the multi-book deal you’ve been dreaming of. And if you don’t, at least you’ve kept your integrity, right? At least you aimed high. At least you didn’t stick it on Amazon and set it adrift amidst the sea of self published flotsam, the fifty shades of shit we now have to wade through whenever we want to browse through our biggest digital bookstore.

I’ll admit it, the above was my own view for many years. Even when writers I knew and admired ‘went digital’, I felt vaguely superior in holding out for a major agent/publisher.

Well, last week I arranged for a fantastic illustrator to design a cover for my first completed novel, The art of Misdirection, which I’ll be self publishing in April, and next week I’ll be arranging for an editor to do a final pass.

So, what changed?

Time plays a part here. While I’ve focused on finding an agent, some of my writer friends are pushing ahead, getting their content out there and moving on to the next thing. Science fiction writer David J Rodger (a man with a work ethic comparative to Balzac), and Cthulu obsessive John Houlihan, who recently published four books in one day, are both currently self publishing in earnest (not that they haven’t both dabbled with traditional models in the past).

Talking to Rodger or Houlihan is inspiring stuff – not only are they good writers, but they’re getting on with the process of writing and publishing their work, ultimately they’re being read – which is what a writer wants. If you’re not being read, it’s arguable that you’re not really a writer at all. Besides, being read can lead to other things too.

Recently stricken by a music analogy, I wonder how many bands are sat at home rehearsing, only ever playing live in the hope of being signed by a major label? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it.

There’s a great piece by David Vinjamuri that expands on a lot of the thoughts I’ve been having around this, summarising some of the polarised attitudes that exist around self-publishing.

Compare Sue Grafton’s attitude:

To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. … Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall

… with Hugh Howey’s (author of the Silo Series), and in particular his summing up:

Instead of wasting one’s time writing query letters, why not work on that next manuscript instead?

All well and good to suggest if you can’t cut the traditional route you should put down your pen, but traditional publishing has plenty of misfires and mistakes under it’s belt and when the quick moving world of social media is becoming an integral part of marketing new books, it feels like the publish and be damned option is the smarter move.

Considering Howey’s success, (from self-publish, to publishing deal, to Hollywood) I’m going to self publish… and get to work on the next manuscript.



The Mailman, by Bentley LittleCurrently reading: The Mailman, by Bentley Little. Hugely enjoyable Stephen King-esque creepy horror set in small town America. How Bentley Little has passed me by so far is beyond me. If this is indicative of his other output I’ll be devouring everything I can find of his over the next few months. Perfectly paced character driven horror. Highly recommended.