Over the past several years, my writing has drastically improved. One of the things that has helped my writing get better is books on writing. So, here are five books that have taught me how to craft better stories.
Note: For this post, I’m focusing on informational books—the ones that talk about storytelling and writing style—rather narrative books that tell a story.
Storytelling and Character Development Books
The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird
Secrets of Story pointed out many of the things I already saw happening in stories and made them obvious. The book focuses on storytelling—plot and characters. It gave me an overall framework to think through characters with.
One of the biggest things I’ve taken away from this book is that I need to make sure my readers can connect with my main character. Bird suggested that having your character not fit in or not belong is a perfect way to do this. The idea is that everybody wants to feel wanted, like they belong: It might be a bit corny, but everybody wants to feel loved.
The other interesting thing that I learned from this book is that my stories need a hero. It can be an anti-hero (my favorites), and heroes can be (and probably should be) flawed, but the story needs a character that my reader can identify as a main character, a character my reader can relate to, a character my reader can root for.
The Negative Trait Thesaurus, The Positive Trait Thesaurus, and The Emotion Thesaurus by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman
I’ve had these three books for over half a decade and still turn back to them for reference. They taught me how to think about character flaws and traits. I summarize much of what I’ve learned about character flaws and character backstory in another blog post.
Developing a Character’s Fatal Flaw
Flaws are one of the important aspects to develop in a character. And also can be tricky to get right. So, here’s what I have found works.
But the tldr is these books have changed how I think about character creation. My focus with characters is now on their backstory and how their history has shaped who each character is. I now have a much more purposeful way of creating characters where I know what different elements I need to address to make a character that makes sense as a whole.
Writing Style Books
Understanding Style by Joe Glaser
One of the areas my writing has most improved in recent years is in the area of style, which I attribute in part to this book. This book taught me what writing style can do for my stories and what good (and bad) writing style is.
Four years after reading Understanding Style, I still spot bad writing and think, That is exactly what Understanding Style uses as an example of how not to write.
It’s one of the things that made me understand why people use certain writing styles, too. I never understood why people would write in such incomprehensible ways (beyond just stuffed-up jargon), but I realized that people use bad writing style to (ironically) impress other people. In short, this book made me realize that sometimes (usually), simple, clear, and concise is the best way to write.
Guide for the Advancing Grammarian by Kathleen Black
This book is the other book that has led to my writing style’s improving: It completely changed how my perspective on language and writing. And it’s a book that I keep referencing back to. I actually talk about it in a few different blog posts.
I really appreciate the technical side of tasks, and this book gave me a very analytical and logical way to use writing style to create better drafts and final products. It analyses language structure and syntax, breaking down language into constituent parts and examining what stylistic effect these parts have when combined together.
Writing Philosophy Books
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird has helped form my philosophical perspective on writing. Lamott talks about the trials of writing, which I found encouraging to hear about from an established writer, and describes the writer’s dilemma (writing is hard but writers also have a need to write) most aptly.
This book has also been a source of writing advice for me. For instance, I have to remind myself it’s okay to write really terrible first drafts and that’s the point of a first draft. This is something I even still struggle with. But as Lamott points out, I just need to take it “bird by bird.”
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