How to be a good writer: Writing resources from great writers

Here are the writing resources that have helped me the most. These are not only “how to write” books and expert recommendations on storytelling technique, but some detail the process of writing and storytelling, which is another thing altogether.

Beyond the obvious “write more” recommendation that everyone uses, I’m not worthy of injecting my own technique or recommendations here. All of the authors below are masters and they know what they’re talking about. All of them have, I believe, improved my own skill, so I wanted to share what’s worked for me. Use what you see below to improve your fiction writing technique and become a better writer.

“On Writing” by Stephen King

“On Writing” is part autobiography, part writer’s how-to manual. However you want to define it, it’s a fascinating story as well as great instruction. A clear and very helpful introduction to the basics of good writing. If you want to write, but don’t know anything about the passive voice, or why being concise is a good thing, or why characterization is critical, then get this book.

The Elements of Style

It’s dry and boring. It’s over fifty years old. It’s still invaluable. There’s an expression: “You must know the rules before trying to break them.” Read The Elements of Style to learn the accepted rules of writing. From commas and quotes to sentence structure, Elements teaches what’s right and wrong. Use this book so that if you write something incoherent, it’s at least intentional.

“How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy” by Orson Scott Card and “Elements of Fiction Writing – Characters & Viewpoint” by Orson Scott Card

Now that you’ve read King’s “On Writing” and know the basics, it’s time to apply those lessons with more advanced technique. In these two books, Orson Scott Card deals with the more complex tools in the writer’s toolbox, including how to world-build and how to write proper perspective and characterization.

“Your Movie Sucks” by Roger Ebert

So you’ve read from King and Card, and have a perfect grasp on how to write and tell a good story. You’re far from getting anywhere good, because in order to know what to do, you also have to know what not to do. That’s where Roger Ebert comes in. Yes, he’s primarily a movie reviewer and here’s why it counts: There are many cliches and tropes and storytelling pitfalls, important not just in movies but in storytelling. Ebert knows them all, and you get to read about them in his collection of embarrassing examples.

Ebert has seen close to ten trillion movies, so if he doesn’t like something (and all movies in this book fall into that category), he can tell you why. More importantly, he can demonstrate why, how, where and when a movie failed. The book is extremely funny, but is (perhaps accidentally?) very educational.

“Adventures in the Screen Trade” by William Goldman and “Which Lie did I Tell?” by William Goldman

William Goldman’s screenwriting credits include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Stepford WivesAll the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, MiseryA Few Good Men (as a consultant), Good Will Hunting (as a consultant) and Zombieland. As for novels, he wrote many, including the classic The Princess Bride.

This is just a sampling. If you’re familiar with even one of the works named above, you know how skilled he is. William Goldman is a very, very good storyteller.

The two Goldman books linked above are a decades-spanning expose of the film industry. He’s worked with seemingly everyone, and he’s not shy about embarrassing some powerful people to make his point. When he’s not giving his thoughts on Hollywood and the movies, he talks about writing. Storytelling. Characterization. How to keep the audience involved. What mistakes he’s made, and what he’s learned over the years. These are great books for screenwriters, but there’s plenty of information to share: Authors can learn from these, too.

Now, the above are “how to write” recommendations. They are all great, but there’s more to it than having the right tools for the job. There are far more excellent authors who haven’t written any “how to” manual for aspiring writers. Find their works, read them, process them and learn.

Good luck with your own reading and writing.

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