Guides for your Writing Journey
By Jennifer Cornick
Sometimes writing can feel a bit like wandering. In the wilderness. Without a compass. And no map. Fortunately, other writers have been there before and have written handy guides to the undiscovered wilderness of the blank page.
Writing guides largely come down to personal preference. Some advice will resonate with some writers better than others. Some will strike a chord with assiduous planners and others will be better maps for more free-spirited writers. There are plenty of these guides available on the shelves of bookstores but these are the ones we felt offer the most inspiring, intriguing, or irregular advice.
The Writing Guides
Novelista: Anyone Can Write a Novel (Yes, even you) by Claire Askew
Anything a new writer could ever want to know about writing is in this book. Askew covers everything from reassuring a writer that they can indeed write a novel to what to do while waiting for responses. She is deliberate and thorough. Her advice is based on her experiences as a novelist, poet, and creative writing teacher who taught everyone who asked.
She has cut the trail for writers to follow in the wilderness, making the process feel supportive and caring, even while not being there in the room. She encourages Novelistas (people who are about to embark on writing a novel) to know the rules and break them. She has fantastic exercises to help writers through every stage of the process, including all the times writers find themselves waiting for replies, struggling with character dialogue, and how to find an enjoyable poem.
This book is definitely for every writer but especially those who have ever looked at the vast, unconquerable terrain that is the blank page and felt it was too daunting.
The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
Strunk and White famously claim “kill your darlings”. Pinker suggests writers take Strunk and White’s advice and defenestrate it (which means killing by means of throwing out of a window). Pinker absolutely encourages writers to keep and nurture darlings into a unique voice. He uses everything from obituaries to novels which almost didn’t get published to make his point.
Pinker claims writing guides as his favourite genre of book, as they must “must be well-written” themselves. He doesn’t tell writers how to write a novel but rather how to cultivate that which makes writers unique, style and voice. He teaches writers the ins and outs of witty sentences, how to edit and not sound like everyone else, and arcs of coherence.
This book is perfect the writer at the end stages of their work, just before they submit it to publishers, agents, and magazines. Or someone who really loves grammar. Pinker reminds everyone there is civilization on the other side of every wilderness.
Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Alison
Most people are familiar with Aristotle’s Poetics. In western literary traditions and philosophies, this is the first text to discuss plot structure, among a variety of other literary terms. Alison is the “new Aristotle”. She provides modern readers and writers with the vocabulary to discuss new structures and literary forms, including passive heroes, fractal structures (a seed which blooms into something more, like cauliflower), and how a writer can meander through a plot like an aimless sunny, Sunday stroll.
Alison provides readers with modern and award-winning examples of all the structures she identifies in literature. She quotes everything from Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine to Marie Redonnet’s Hôtel Splendid. In nothing else, a writer can walk away with an inspiring reading list.
This guide is for every writer, in fact, I didn’t even know I needed this until it was gifted to me. Alison’s trailblazing guide to genre bending form is a must for everyone attempting to write a story. Any story.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
As the title suggests, this book is King’s memoir and his thoughts on the craft of writing. The second forward of the book, will tell aspiring writers to read Strunk and White. This short-ish for a King book takes readers through the details of his life as best he can remember them. He gives every writer hope when he tells them people said his books would never be published. He also manages to startle a chuckle out of unsuspecting readers with his thoughts on Anthony Trollope, who “pumped out” doorstops of books, all while he was working as a clerk for the Royal Mail and inventing the iconic red mailboxes seen all over the United Kingdom.
King helps aspiring writers with everything from grammar to description. The one piece of advice he repeats is that writers must “read a lot and write a lot” to learn and hone their skills.
This book is for every writer, regardless of the stage of their work. There is advice in here for beginning and ending a novel, as well as every step the character takes in between. Follow King’s trail as he explains how he learned the craft.
Release the Bats by DBC Pierre
This book is a rollercoaster ride on a constant steep downward incline. Pierre includes everything from fourth wall breaks to advice on the best dressing gown for writers to wear while speaking to their characters. It starts in a prison and ends in a toolbox.
He provides writers with succinct and useful advice like “eccentricities make characters”, “real dialogue isn’t natural in writing”, and, a personal favourite, “don’t move from the chapter where the protagonist hangs from a cliff to the chapter where she falls. Go to her friend’s house, push her to a cliff as well”. He conveniently provides these small snippets of advice on pages which can be torn from the back of the book and tacked to the wall, so that the office is as whimsical as the housecoat worn while writing.
The book is for the most idiosyncratic of writers. So, all of them. Pierre even hints about what one should pack for the journey home, after the wilderness of the blank page has been conquered: a cardigan.
The blank page is mappable. Every writer can do it. Sometimes, all that is required is friendly advice from someone who has tried it before. Or a little direction to send a writer down the right path.
So, pick up one of these books and start cutting a trail through your blank page!
(Every other writer on this list is named Stephen or Steven. And they disagree with each other. Just an odd observation).
Have you read these guides? Do you have a favourite? Is there one we missed? Leave a comment – we would love to hear your thoughts!
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Find out more about Jennifer by visiting her blog: The Curiosity Cabinet
A fantastic article, Jen. So many guides to choose from. I think we’re all excited about listening to Dr. Claire Askew impart her knowledge on Meet the Professionals.
A few of my writing guide favourites:1. The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird, Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers. 2. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. 3. (for editing): Rules for Writers by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers.
Great piece, Jen. I do think everyone talks a lot about Stephen King’s On Writing (and rightly so, he’s one of the world’s mega-bestsellers telling you how he does it). But it does unfortunately overshadow some other really brilliant guides out there. I’m a big of fan of both ‘Novelista’ and ‘Meander, Spiral, Explode’ which you mention. I’ve also recently discovered ‘Stealing Hollywood’ by Alexandra Sokoloff, which has a fun and unique take on how novelists can pinch ideas from screenwriters.