Monday, August 11, 2014

My Favorite Writing Books!

by Anna Campbell

In the second half of 2014, I'm running a course called Express Year of the Novel for the Queensland Writers Centre down in Brisbane, the capital city of the state in Australia where I live.  For five full days between now and December, I'm working with a bunch of enthusiastic aspiring novelists to help them develop the skills to write a saleable longer piece of fiction.

Putting together the course has had its challenges - five full days is a longish time, but not when you're covering everything a person needs to learn for writing a novel! One of the things I realized as I was designing the program was that I should brush up on some of my writing textbooks, especially when it came to complex subjects like the hero's journey.

Among the resources I've put together for the group is a list of recommended writing books. I'm a bit of a how-to book fan so I've read lots and lots of writing books. Looking at the list, it was apparent to me that a couple of books have given me help and advice that has stayed with me over a long time. In preparation for running the Express YOTN course, I've re-read some of them and they're still as useful as they ever were.

So here are my four favorite writing books.

The first is an absolute classic. Dorothea Brande's BECOMING A WRITER has been in print since 1934. I've read it a few times - it's quite short and you can knock it over in a couple of hours. And it never fails to help me with my writing life. It's not a book about the nuts and bolts of writing, it's about how to find motivation and inspiration and how to persist in this odd occupation we've set ourselves to mastering.

The second book is a more recent classic - Anne Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE. This one is great when it comes to needing that push to get words down on the page and when you have to overcome the fear factor. The title comes from a story Lamott tells about her brother doing a school project about the birds of America. Like a lot of kids, he left it to the last minute and then floundered around in a panic. Lamott's father sat down with him calmly and said, "The only way we can do this is bird by bird." When you write a book, it's word by word. I've heard this approach also called 'baby steps' and it's amazingly wise. My critique partner and I often just say "bird by bird" to each other when we're starting to get into a flap and those three words alone settle us down.

The third book is New York agent Donald Maass's WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: WINNING ADVICE FROM A TOP AGENT AND HIS BESTSELLING CLIENT. I was lucky enough a few years ago to attend a full day workshop with Donald Maass and I still use a lot of the tips that he gave to the room full of aspiring writers. This book is wonderful for turning a good manuscript into a great manuscript. He's fantastic on how to lift tension and pacing and how taking risks can pay off when you write. If you're not sure why your story isn't hitting the high points, I highly recommend this book.

The last of my great quartet is Christopher Vogler's THE WRITER'S JOURNEY: MYTHIC STRUCTURE FOR WRITERS. This is a great introduction to how the work of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung can help strengthen the structure of your novel and give your story a universal appeal. And there are fascinating analyses of popular films like THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS and THE WIZARD OF OZ, drawing on the mythic superstructure that has made these movies into timeless classics.

There are some wonderful books on writing on that list of resources I gave the YOTN class, but if the crunch came, these are the four I'd save from the burning building. If you haven't read them and you're interested in writing either as a writer yourself or as a dedicated reader, give them a go!

If you're a writer, do you have any favorite books that have helped you with your craft? If you're a reader, do you ever read books about writing to give you an insight into the writing process?


Angelina Barbin said...

Someone gave me the 'Bird by Bird' book but I haven't yet read it. I guess I need to do that. :) I have read 'On Writing Romance' By Leigh Michaels but I learn better with classes or just sitting down and writing.

Anna Campbell said...

Angelina, I don't think anything replaces what you learn by writing - in fact how to books and classes can be used a excuses NOT to write. Hope you enjoy Bird by Bird. I think it's wonderful!