(This post was originally published on Curious Fictions on November 16, 2020 -- I am rescuing them before the site shuts down!)
As I think I've discussed in a couple of places, I'm kind of a self-taught writer (which probably shows in my books, I don't know)—so over the past couple of years I've been delving into the 'writing advice' books that people have been recommending, as well as courses and whatnot, so I thought I'd finally gather up my thoughts about them in one place! (This post will hopefully keep getting updated as I read more stuff. For instance, I just bought an audio horror course and a 'how to write horror' book with my Ladies of Horror Fiction grant!)
Update already: I went looking in my books spreadsheet to see when I had read things and it looks like I didn't read a single 'how to write' book until 2018 so I don't even know. Look, I'm doing my best here, okay.
Further update: I do own a copy of Stephen King's 'On Writing' and I absolutely am going to read it one day, I swear.
THINGS THAT I FOUND USEFUL
Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, by Ursula K. Le Guin. I gave this five stars and added 'Reassuring, brisk, practical, with exercises.'
179 Ways to Save a Novel, by Peter Selgin. I gave this five stars and wrote 'Terrible title, ironically, but great book.' I loved this because it felt, to me, as if it were addressed to a seasoned writer having a hard time with one particular book, rather than the more generic and unhelpful 101-level books I kept finding.
2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love, by Rachel Aaron. I gave this four stars but apparently didn't leave myself a note. However, although this is a bit formulaic regarding plot, the actual 'how, if you so desire, can you increase quantity of writing' is immensely practical and worked great for me as I disregarded all the other material. Furthermore, the methods suggested are flexible for both plotters and pantsers, genuinely non-scary, don't require any special materials or programs or tools, and just require that you keep them at top of mind when you sit down to write, outline, revise, or make notes. I also found that I'm doing a lot less revision/rewriting/going over old ground, which is great.
Starve Better, by Nick Mamatas. I gave this four stars and added 'Finally, a non-101-level writing book that's not about formulas but lived experience and what not to do!'
Revision and Self-Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel That Sells, by James Scott Bell. I gave this four stars and added 'Pretty good in terms of non-condescending advice, and the checklist in Chapter 17.' I'll also add that I really mean it about the checklist, which is excellent even if it looks intimidating, and absolutely ensures that even in a rush, nothing will get missed by accident (of course, I miss stuff on purpose all the time).
This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley. I gave this five stars and added 'Wish I'd read this a decade ago. Intimate, friendly, concise, and ultra-supportive. And USEFUL.'
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. I gave this four stars and didn't add a note, but listen, this was exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it. Less about craft and more about how to keep your soul and body together as a writer when every single thing in publishing seems to be out to get you. (I did not need her cheery talk about working on her stories and then giving them to her father's agent, however. In terms of mentioning her actual presence in the literary scene I did a non-zero amount of screaming into a pillow.)
THINGS I FOUND MEH
The Idea: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage, or Fiction, by Erik Bork. I gave this two stars but really I just think I'm not its target audience. I feel like it's aimed at people who just decided they wanted to start 'seriously writing' about a week ago and have no idea where to start.
Before and After the Book Deal, by Courtney Maum. I gave this three stars, again because I'm not the target audience. This is very much aimed at the litfic/got an MFA/have connections with professors/workshops/got an agent with short stories etc crowd. You wouldn't think there'd be that much of a difference between litfic and genre fic but there sure is and I wouldn't have realized it until I read this book and kept saying out loud "Le what?!"
About Writing: A Field Guide for Aspiring Authors, by Gareth Powell. I gave this two stars, but again, I'm not the target audience. (And I felt bad about the stars, because Gareth is seriously the loveliest guy and I adore him, and he's very successful so he's obviously doing something right; don't listen to me.) Again, I think I was expecting more 'advanced' advice, which I did not get. This is an accurate title though, in terms of being aimed at new rather than established authors. It's very encouraging and supportive while also being strictly no-nonsense, much like Gareth himself.
Writer With A Day Job: Inspiration and Exercises to Help You Craft a Writing Life Alongside Your Career, by Aine Greaney. I gave this two stars, I'm afraid, and for all the same reasons. I'm not the target, but also none of the exercises were useful or helpful. I think I was really looking for a 'how-to' but it was more of a pep talk on how hard it is to write with a day job, which, yes, no denying that here.
This is going to be a little bit thin for a while, but I signed up for the Rambo Academy For Wayward Writers and can absolutely recommend:
Writing Flash Fiction. This is worth it just for the timed writing exercises alone, and I've gotten a great amount of enjoyment so far, if not any sellable stories, from doing them. This is a superb class in particular because it does focus on flash though, and how a flash differs from a longer short story. Anyway, the 'stretch' you feel when you do the exercises is impossibly satisfying, and I almost always start a writing session now with a couple of stretches of two or three minutes.
Moving From Idea to Finished Draft. This is also really good. I'd spent a couple of years figuring out my own 'how to go from idea to draft' process, so this was additive to that rather than a replacement. I recommend this very highly. It's immensely practical and, like the flash course, has no dead weight.
Truthfully, I've learned a lot more from attending panels to listen to current authors, reading books I get a good vibe from (??? I don't know ??? I have no good criteria for how to evaluate a book???), and getting edit notes back from editors than I have from writing advice books. That is to say, after writing for about twenty-five years, I've already figured out the solutions that are presented to the problems in the books, for the most part. Where I get very excited about a writing book is where it presents a solution I haven't come up with or a problem I haven't encountered yet.
Is it more efficient to be taught how to write? Probably. Am I still going to keep teaching myself? Also probably. But at least I've started to narrow down what feels useful and what doesn't!