As an author of books, and a writer of anything that pays, I'm always trying to get better at stringing words together. Here are some titles that I can personally recommend.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: From the Man Booker Prize-winning, New York Times-bestselling author of Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders£16.98 £15.79
George Saunders takes seven Russian stories and deftly dissects them to show how, and why, they work. It's based on a #CreativeWriting course that he teaches at Syracuse University, and is ostensibly aimed at budding writers, who will, undoubtedly, find it incredibly useful; but it's of huge interest to anyone who reads fiction. This is not the kind of writer’s manual that tells you (again) to avoid adverbs or the passive voice; instead, it shows how to create character, use point of view, turn a sequence of events into a story, and iterate to improve your work. Likeable and authoritative, Saunders illuminates his points with arresting images. His love for the source material is infectious: and as this book’s sure to find a huge audience, I am confident that many readers will turn to Chekhov et. al for the first time. I certainly plan to.
This makes you feel like you can knock out classic long-form journalism with the best of them - Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, whoever. Zinsser excels on the craft of sculpting punchy paragraphs that hook the reader, stimulate the reader, and bounce the reader off to the next, hungry for more. And he practices what he preaches, so his advice is pithy, elegant, and fun. I found myself copying particularly choice lines into my notebook: here he is on endings: “When you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point that you want to make, look for the nearest exit.” And here, on avoiding overblown words: “Leave ‘myriad’ and their ilk to the poets. Leave ‘ilk’ to anyone who will take it away.” If you’re writing non-fiction of any kind, Zinsser’s indispensable. Read him today!
Joe Moran£9.99 £9.29
I nearly put this down after the first chapter, and boy am I glad that I didn’t. Unlike most practical books for writers it doesn’t dive straight into the practical tips and ideas, but there are plenty in there. For example: he introduces a concept which I can’t get out of my mind, the noun-verb spectrum. Running through nouny nouns, verby nouns, and nouny verbs to verby verbs, this gives you a brilliant way to look at your own work and spot where it’s becoming static. Another one: I’d never twigged how parentheses (thus) and dashes – thus – differently alter the force of their contents. One way adds force, the other takes it away. Useful to put into practice. One caveat: Moran’s references to other writers aren’t always accurate. I found this surprising, as he’s an academic at John Moores University, and you’d expect Penguin’s editor to pick it up. No matter. The book’s great.
Jessica Brody£11.99 £11.15
Steven Pinker£10.99 £10.22
Anyone who deals in words (editors, publishers, authors, copywriters...) should have a look at this book, which lifts the bonnet of well-written prose to explain what it consists of, how it works, and how to make some yourself. If you've read any of Pinker's other books, then you'll know what to expect from this one: it's lucid, enlightening, and authoritative. He's a Harvard professor, who knows Quite A Lot about language, yet also communicates entertainingly: even when he writes about horribly complicated topics, it's easy to follow him. It's full of easily-applied advice and knowledge which will improve your prose, pretty much instantly. As an author / copywriter / ghostwriter, I find it indispensable.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: Twentieth Anniversary Edition with Contributions from Joe Hill and Owen King
Stephen King£10.99 £10.22
Ever wondered what it's like to be a best-selling author? I can't tell you that (yet..?) but Stephen King can, and he's honest and open about it, which is why ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT is such a fascinating read. It's less 'useful' than the other books on my list - you can boil the practical tips in it down to a couple of pages - but there is good advice – 'write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open' – and he's irreverent, too. A one-sentence paragraph, to King, is a 'frag', a brilliant word that summons up grenades, and impact, and makes you want to throw one-sentence paragraphs around with abandon. But really, it's a story about story-telling. King pulls apart his process and career, and the overall effect is encouraging - an arm round the shoulder from a veteran of the craft.
John Yorke£9.99 £9.29
This absolutely blew my mind when I read it for the first time: I immediately went back to the beginning and read it again, taking notes. By boiling great stories down to their essentials then looking at what their structures have in common – much more than you'd think – it gives any writer a fantastic set of foundations to build their own stories on. This applies to non-fiction (which I write) every bit as much as it does to fiction. Whether you're writing a novel, a screenplay, an epic poem, or a creation myth for the religion that you're starting up, you must read this book. I absolutely guarantee you will never look at stories the same way again.
Will Storr£9.99 £9.29
Shawn M Coyne£25.00 £23.25
Roy Peter Clark£12.99 £12.08
Am I missing anything? Yes, I'm sure that I am. Why not let me know what great books for writers you'd like to see...