"How To Write" Book Reviews

How to Write Your Own Book and Make it a Bestseller by Rachael Bermingham

Rachael Birmingham, best-selling author of 4 Ingredients, shares her self-taught marketing secrets in this 89-page book. She includes specifics (in Australia mainly) on self-publishing, distributing, and promoting a book, and how to manage brand and business.

This is an exceptionally easy and quick book to read with to-the-point advice and personal encouragement (Ms. Bermingham was a housewife from the Sunshine Coast with no formal writing or marketing qualifications). Not all of us have Ms. Bermingham's outgoing personality, but one cannot ignore the tips and information on resources contained in this tiny manual when contemplating the business of selling one's product.

Gotham Writers’ Workshop, Writing Fiction edited by Alexander Steele

The folks at the Gotham Writers' Workshop, New York, have compiled a concise guide on creative writing, including exercises that focus on key elements of the craft, such as designing characters with desire, complexity, and ability to change (even if they don’t), and the importance of the Major Dramatic Question, e.g., will he win the girl, will she find the treasure?
Writing Fiction contains a good discussion on point of view and a handy checklist for revision. Raymond Carver’s short story 'The Cathedral' is used extensively as an example throughout, and thankfully, is included in the appendix.


Writing: Unit-Lessons in Composition by Albert L. Lavin et al.

This simple volume, published in 1965, is authored by six, Californian English teachers. Each chapter begins with a brief and telling piece of writing from a respected author, followed by a discussion of the topic, and includes a number of practice exercises (that can easily be done in the head, if not on the paper).

I found the sample pieces most useful. Hemingway is the model for honest and necessary words; Shakespeare illustrates the power of sensory experience; E. B. White shows us how to combine fact and feeling, and Irwin Shaw demonstrates how to build a sentence rich in meaning. The tools of emphasis are explored through discussions on parallelism, brevity, repetition, concrete devices, paradox, and rhythm, and abstract themes are considered through an excellent article about ostriches. The final chapters discuss techniques of argument: analogy, induction, and deduction, and combining narration, description, and exposition forms.

Although academic and technical, this collection of lessons is presented in under 200 pages and is very student-friendly.

On Moral Fiction by John Gardner

I won't pretend to be on an intellectual level capable of agreeing or disagreeing with Gardner's philosophies, but the man's carefully crafted and brutally fearless criticism of modern (as in a few decades ago now) literature is mildly entertaining, even for a novice like me.

Months after reading On Moral Fiction, I discovered that Gardner's 200-page rant caused quite a stir when it was published in 1978, and I can't say I'm surprised.

Here's a sample: "For years fiction has been generally unsatisfying. It may seem at first glance that no single cause is behind the badness - that things are just bad, there's some befuddlement in the case of each writer." Gardner is not shy about mentioning names. On Moral Fiction is literary criticism at its best... or worst, depending on your perspective.

The Craft of Fiction by Percy Lubbock

The Craft of Fictionis the work of an intellectual critic exploring pictorial versus dramatic story-telling. It wasn’t until the third last page of this 274-page book that I realized Lubbock’s intensive discussion of method was, in fact, an assessment of ‘show vs. tell.’ Lubbock dedicates almost half of the book to the methods behind Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, comparing them to the techniques behind Flaubert’s, Madame Bovary. The discussion then moves on to the world of Thackeray, the pictorial tendencies of Henry James, Balzac’s use of facts and detail to tell his stories through situation, and Dickens’s mastery of action and dialogue over description. Lubbock explores the voice of the author, and the role assigned to actors, how they mix, and how they don’t, as demonstrated by the effectiveness of the story-telling.

Breathing Life Into Your Characters by Rachel Ballon, Ph. D.

Psychotherapist and writer, Rachel Ballon provides insight into emotionally and psychologically unstable states-of-mind, with discussions on the mind of the villian, sources of and reactions to conflict and trauma, dysfunctional families, disorders and troubled personalities, and unspoken communication.

Ballon advocates creating characters from the inside out, and exploring what really makes a character tick. The exercises embedded within each topic are intended to remind us that we, as writers, can call on our own memories and experiences to add depth to the characters we create.

Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale

The title says it all. Hale explores the basics of language and grammar, that is, words (nouns, verbs, adjectives etc.) and sentences (structure, phrases, clauses), and includes a section on the music of language (voice, melody, rhythm). Each chapter is divided into: Bones, Flesh, Cardinal Sins, and Carnal Pleasures for each topic to show that there are good and not-so-good uses of every aspect of language. Hale includes the usual advice, like 'watch the adverbs' and 'use original metaphors' and presses her point with plenty of good examples.

Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow

I didn't quite make it through Elbow's concluding essay, and for me, I found the discussion lengthy, that is, by the second paragraph of a topic I found myself thinking, 'Yeah, I get it' and pushed through the rest of the section with no great expansion of understanding, but many of the points Elbow raises make sense to me.

'Start writing and keep writing,' and using this as a tool to move through 'desperation writing' to 'magic writing' is a valuable lesson in growth, and one that I feel I'm experiencing without really knowing it. The interaction process, particularly between words and messages, has started me thinking about the value of words and passages, which I feel can be useful for editing, i.e., what does that sentence add to the story's meaning? And a discussion on the psychology of editing approaches the topic in a way that I find useful.

The book describes the 'Teacherless Writing Class' in great detail. I am skeptical about the value of trying to convince people to think and act in a certain way, but Elbow does provide concrete tools to help writer groups function constructively.

And credit must be given to the man who welcomes chaos, and demonstrates this by allowing his readers to experience the unadorned thoughts of the author through diary excerpts.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

I frequently came across this title in other 'How-to-Write' books, so I was thrilled when a friend found it in a second hand shop and passed it on to me. I was surprised to learn that the book was about non-fiction writing, nevertheless, the author presents his material with such wit that I could tell he enjoys what he does and had a rollicking time compiling the book.

And, to me, that is the crux of his message. In any writing, perhaps more so in non-fiction, the author must inject himself or herself into the work if the reader is to appreciate the fullness of thought that went into writing it.

Zinsser damns the disease of clutter to the point of hilarity: "When an Air Force missile crashed, it 'impacted with the ground prematurely'." He talks about interviews, travel, memoir, sports and humour writing, and includes some of the most lucid examples I have come across; examples that have you thinking, "I want to write like that."

Zinsser sums it up when he describes how sensitive he is to editing: "I've always felt that my 'style' - the careful projection onto paper of who I think I am - is my main marketable asset, the only possession that might set me apart from other writers."

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

"The root problems of the writer, whether the writer is young or old, just starting out or much published" says John Gardner in his foreword, "are personality problems." Does this mean we're all doomed? On the contrary, Brande declares that, "This book is all about the writer's magic."

When I finished reading Becoming a Writer, I wondered what exactly I'd gotten out of it; it contains no technical content afterall, and that is what my 'learning style' thrives on. I then wrote two posts based on Brande's ideas (Self-Awareness and The Artistic Coma), found myself agreeing with her observation that every writer must appreciate both personalities (the creative one and the objective one - I think I'm still sane), and have since taken to early morning journal writing as recommended by Brande in her chapter titled 'Harnessing the Unconscious.'

The fact that Brande's ideas and suggestions have lodged in my brain and introduced me to practices that I am finding useful is exactly the point of her book; becoming a writer is a state of mind.

Writing True-Life Stories by Susan C. Feldhake

This is a book for freelance short-story writers, written by one of Writer's Digest's instructors (at the time the book was written), and clearly focuses on the commercial business of writing short tales for quick money.  There is no artistic romance or desire to express one's innermost creativity here.

Feldhake is a realist by any definition, and provides practical advice on how to approach and achieve publication through article writing.  Her main discussion focuses on 'confession' writing for predominantly women's magazines, but also touches on writing factual personal experience for a wide range of publications, including outdoor, religious, paranormal, humor and (if it tickles your fancy) consenting adult magazines.  I was a little surprised at the touch of moralistic judgement late in the book, considering some of the titles the author has used to hook editors ("Fantasy Lover," and "Broken Love Promises" being just two) but who I am to argue considering her success as a freelancer.

Feldhake's book is for the working writer, and if nothing else, assures the reader that becoming a published and, more importantly, paid writer is within the reach of anyone who can structure a believable story and put it in an envelope.

Thirteen Types of Narrative: A Practical Guide on How to Tell a Story by Wallace Hildick

This book is older than I am (and that's pretty old), but story-telling is timeless, right?

For a start, Hildick's style of presentation appeals to me. He doesn't open his book with explanations of what he's doing or introductions that try to make the reader feel good - he dives right into what he wants to say, and I like that.

Hildick applies his thirteen types of narrative to a simple, consistent, sample story to demonstrate how each effect the story, and includes examples from other authors as further clarification.

As for the thirteen types of narrative, such as third person present tense, first person past as if spoken, diary form etc, Hildick didn't reveal too many new secrets to me, but he did get me thinking about how I can combine different types of narrative for effect.  He reminded me that flexibility with style and approach can get a whole lot more out of a story, and all it takes is a little bit of thought.

Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer

I have no interest in writing an autobiography, so it was little wonder I felt no inspiration to do so when reading this book.  Having said that, I found pertinent pointers relevant to my interest in fiction writing, both idealistically (the first half of the book), and technically (the second half of the book).

Rainer provides excellent examples of autobiographical authors who have demonstrated enormous strength to tell their stories with honesty and fairness.  There's that word again - honesty, and in the case of the true story, the opening up of oneself is potentially painful and even heartbreaking.  I think those of us who choose to explore made-up worlds with made-up characters can learn a great deal from the rawness of emotion that goes into an autobiography or memoir.

On the technical side, Rainer uses the image of a string of pearls as a metaphoric link between summary narrative and explicit scenes, the string being the thematic throughstory that ties everything together.  Her chapters on the different types of dialogue: summary, indirect, direct and subtext, I found informative, and I enjoyed the discussion on vertical and horizontal time devices.

It was only after I finished reading Your Life as Story that I appreciated how well Rainer structured this book.  It starts with the abstract ideas relating to 'true' storytelling and builds to concrete advice on how to do it. 

For those interested in autobiographical writing, it's definitely worth a look.

Your Novel Proposal: From Creation to Contract by Blythe Camenson and Marshall J. Cook

If the process of preparing and submitting a manuscript to agents or publishers is a bit of a blur, this is an excellent book to consult.  It is set out clearly and logically, and guides the hopeful writer through the step-by-step process of writing a query letter, pitching a story, and preparing a submission package in anticipation of those magic words:  "Yes, I'm interested.  Please send more."

Your Novel Proposal is easy to read and the examples given provide practical clarification of the material.  The book highlights the importance of being succinct, professional, and most importantly of all, prepared.

Writers on Writing edited by James Roberts, Barry Mitchell, Roger Zubrinich

Twenty-four Australian and international authors (Janet Evanovich the only one I've read, I'm ashamed to say), speak candidly about writing and their attitudes on inspiration, writer's block, traits of a writer, point-of-view, editing and marketing.  They offer their advice to aspiring authors, and inbetween the sound but predictable recommendation to read alot, there are many original and thoughtful tips that I'll note in my own collection of things to try.

One such tip is from Nicholas Shakespeare, who says that before he goes to bed, he finds it useful to write a paragraph with the criteria that it be about something he's never admitted to himself, or that it not be tasteful, and then he writes it without thinking.  Shakespeare uses these paragraphs to inject fire into his story when he feels it's needed.  Interesting.

Reading this book was like being involved in a series of fascinating conversations where only the fascinating people were talking.  And of course, now I have more names and titles on my list of Things I Must Read.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

I confess that this isn't quite my kind of book.  In one chapter, the author describes herself like this: "I realized that while I was a Jew, I was also an American, a feminist, a writer, a Buddhist," which is great and I'm all for anyone being whatever they want to be, but I found myself not quite relating to many of her views.  But more to the point, I was confused about the target audience.  Much of the book seems to be aimed at the reluctant writer, and how to confront those things that block creativity, which, admittedly, is implied in the subtitle, Freeing the Writer Within.

Perhaps the 'open-yourself-to-the-world' tone is a product of the author being primarily a poet, and one very much in touch with the need to be profound (though not necessarily complex) and honest.

Having said that, Goldberg comes across as quite a character, one deeply passionate about writing, and I found many of her stories and ideas original and intriguing.  I haven't heard of too many people who recommend sitting in a cafe with a cigarette hanging from your mouth, even if you don't smoke, just for a change of perspective.

The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass

For anyone who feels they have grasped the basics of writing and gone on to attempt a novel, read this book. 

As someone who is at this point and trying to make my scenes dance on the page - prefereably to the same tune - I am achingly aware that there are significant differences between writing a book and telling an exceptional story.  Maass wastes no words in exploring these differences with a frankness and sense of humour that makes for compelling reading.  His practical tools had me thinking hard and dashing back to the computer to insert details that I never knew existed in the lives of my characters.

Maas includes a huge range of examples from other authors (he has over seven pages of references):  many of them made sense; many of them had me wondering what I had missed, such is the variety of his choices.

This is a book compiled from years of experience reading both very good and very bad fiction, evident through the author's annoyingly sensible comments and opinions.

For more depth, more humour, more fear, or more meaning, this book shows how to get more from your story.  Well, here's hoping, anyway.

Elements of Fiction Writing: Setting by Jack M. Bickham

Who would have thought there would be so much to consider when writing about setting?

Bickham provides an uncomplicated account of the importance of accuracy, meeting reader expectations, and employing the senses when using setting to build a story.  I found some of his points repetitive at times, but just when I started to drift off, Bickham pulled me back in with practical advice that addressed some of my own uncertainties regarding point-of-view and transitioning.

I look forward to reading the other Writer's Digest Books authored by Bickham.

How to Write and Uncommonly Good Novel edited to Carol Hoover, Writers Mentor Group

What an interesting collection of essays.  The book contains fifteen chapters from eleven contributors, resulting in a surprising range of styles and discussion topics.

Michael Marsh delves into the philosophy of "Fiction: What is it?"  while Miryam B. Hirsch and Priscilla S. Randolph explore the emotional aspects of "Steps to the Attic" (accessing your creativity) and "Places in Fiction."  There is plenty of technical content with chapters on "The First Fifty Pages," "Point-of-View" (which I found quite different to the 'standard' definitions), and "Bearing and Rearing Literary Characters."

The chapters I found particularly enjoyable were; "Humor in Fiction," and "Technology of Homicide for Non-Techies," both by Francis G. McGuire, "Proportion in Plot" by F. M. Maupin, and "Word Choice and Rhythm" by Deborah Churchman.

The editor concludes the book with pragmatic pointers on yet more mistakes us beginners make when submitting manuscripts.  Sigh...

You Can Write: A Do-it-Yourself Manual by Eamon Murphy

This book targets students and professionals who are faced with the inevitable task of writing essays, reports and other technical documents.  As such, Australian teacher Eamon Murphy includes not only concise explanation of sentence composition, syntax, paragraphing and punctuation (similar to material contained within Strunk and White’s Elements of Style), but provides advice on how to review, research and reference material effectively and accurately.  

As this book is intended for those who have to write, rather than those who want to write, Murphy discusses principles of style thoroughly and simply.  He includes quick and precise exercises to test the reader’s understanding of the material, and step by step instructions on planning, preparing and presenting a report or essay.

You Can Write is a small book of 156 pages, easy to read, and I found Murphy’s school-style exercises excellent for checking my own understanding of the technical elements discussed.

How to Write Damn Good Fiction: Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling, by James N. Frey
In his follow-up to How to Write a Damn Good Novel, Frey provides a different perspective on character development, and offers useful advice on creating suspense.

He dedicates two chapters to using 'premise' to design and write a story - an approach unfamiliar to me before now.

In conclusion, Frey discusses what he considers the Seven Deadly Mistakes: timidity, trying to be literary, ego-writing, not re-dreaming the dream, not keeping faith, an inconsistent lifestyle, and failure to produce.

So You Want to Write: A Practical and Inspirational Guide, by Joan Rosier-Jones

The fact that Jean Rosier-Jones changed the title of her writing instruction from Creative Writing to So You Want to Write, demonstrates the objective of this book. It is about encouraging the would-be writer to sit down and just do it. It is about pushing through the initial doubt, the illusion of continuous inspiration, and the dreaded writer’s block to get from the thrill of the idea to a completed manuscript.
On the way, New Zealander, Rosier-Jones raises thoughtful ideas about the technical aspects of writing. Her discussion on dialogue includes precise advice on layout and punctuation; the section on point-of-view is clear and concise; and of particular note is the chapter on using symbolism to enhance a story.
In true instructional style, So You Want to Write includes over one hundred writing exercises and a brief appendix on basic grammar terminology for those who are a little rusty in this area.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

I am a pragmatic person who likes structure and order when it comes to learning a new skill.  I like rules and tools and headings and dot points, and with a background in science and engineering, I believe I am good at this type of learning.

It was with great effort, then, that I committed myself to finishing Lamott's Bird by Bird. And I'm glad I did.  The lady uses upbeat language that would appeal to anyone with a human side, (I mean, a chapter than encourages a "Shitty First Draft" is a winner in my book).  She got me thinking about myself and what's inside me trying to get out by relating her own hopes and fears.  Her simple message is about being open and honest,  and displays those qualities herself through her writing.

I especially loved her fear of being told "don't ever write anything ever again, not even your name."  How that made me laugh.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

This is not the lightest book I have ever read, and I found Gardner's adamance that a good writer needs to be formally educated in the art, a little off-putting (only because I'm not, and he's probably right). 

Regardless of its academic nature, the book is full of some wonderful advice for new and experienced writers.   Gardner's message that a story should flow like an uninterrupted dream in the reader's mind is a simple and valuable concept.  His chapter about common errors that snapped a reader out of the dream, made me cringe as I recognised most of them in my own writing.  Gardner discusses different aspects of technique (vocabulary, sentence structure, rhythm etc) and recommends focusing on each of these in turn, one at a time, when learning to write.

I thought that was pretty good advice.

Aspects of the Novel by E.M.Forster

Mr Edward Morgan Forster is certainly a great writer, and if nothing else, I enjoyed reading this book for the writing.  For the impatient beginner, however, it may be a challenging read.  There is such a depth to Forster's essays that, when I read about how one should really write, I felt a little ashamed of my own shallow attempts.

He defines a novel as thought developed into action.  He advises that a story should relate a person's life (or part of it) not just in time but in values.    He explains that there are two sides to every person; the side that the world sees, and the "pure passions, joys, sorrows and self-communings which politeness or shame prevent him from mentioning." 

Capturing the deepest, human thoughts through an arrangement of words on a page surely is a challenge, but judging by Forster's literary successes, is one worth pursuing.

This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley

This is a very easy-to-read book of basics for the aspiring writer (it is less than 25,000 words, according to the author).  Mosley covers the usual plot and character development, offers practical advice on researching and writing dialogue, and discusses the power of metaphors and similes through great examples.

As a beginner, I appreciate Mosley's approach to drafting, demonstrated by the substantial section of the book dedicated to rewriting.  He enforces the idea that the first draft of a novel is likely to be, well, rubbish:
It won't be publishable. It won't be pretty. It probably won't make logical sense. But none of that matters. What you have in front of you is the heart of the book that you wish to write.

By the end of this book, one is left thinking, "Well that sounds easy."

The Writing School Guide to Writing the Short Story by Roy Lomax

The (British) guide to writing the short story, published in 1983, is one of many guides in the series.  I obtained a number of the Writing School Guides from a second-hand store, if truth be told, when I first became interested in writing (and when I wasn't willing to invest money in what may have been a 'passing phase').

Nevertheless, this simple little book is 80 pages of succinct advice on humour, cause and effect, setting scenes and character development, and the examples provided are simple and interesting.  The book also contains fun lists under the heading of 'story ideas' and again, it reiterates the opinion that "you don't have to get it right the first time."

The pages are brown, the cover is marked with scribbles in red, black and blue pen, and that very-old-book smell emanates from the pages, but I keep this book as a quick and easy reference, especially useful at those times when I need a jab of inspiration.

The Art and Craft of the Short Story by Rick DeMarinis

DeMarinis presents great examples and discussion on using the 'why' of a story - starting with the very first sentence - to attract and maintain a reader's interest. 
I found his discussion on 'form' interesting for application both in short stories and possible components of a novel. He explores diary, poetic, fairy tale and various time-related forms as techniques that can be employed to achieve specific effects. DeMarinis admits to being one of those people who writes instinctively (ie. without an outline), and although I myself like to plan my efforts, I appreciate the author's attitude to spontaneity.

Almost every 'How To....' book I've read includes advice on point of view, how to create believable characters, and use of metaphors and similes; The Art and Craft of the Short Story is no exception. Nevertheless, amongst the standard advice lies a number of instructional gems, and some great exercises that are the author's own.

20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias

As the title suggests, this book is purely about plot, either physical or mental, and includes discussion on the basic structure of each of the 20 plots listed (eg. a story of maturation, rivalry, revenge etc).  It is not what one would call a 'deep' book; it is light reading, and fun to relate the plots to familiar tales or to stories that we would love to write.

Stephen King On Writing:  A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

This is a wonderful read. The author begins and ends the book with some brutally honest stories, rather than facts, about his own life and the people in it, from his humble beginnings as a horror-movie-addicted youth, to the tragic accident that didn't quite claim his life, but undoubtedly changed it.

In the body of the book, King relates his views on writing in the blatant style typical of his novels ie. with no thought to political-correctness. The tone is not so much 'this is how it is done' as it is 'this is how I do it,' which, I guess, may as well be the same thing considering his talent, dedication and subsequent success. (Having said that, I personally liked The Bridges of Madison County.)

Of all the great technical advice the author offers, the most poignant would have to be “tell the truth.” One only needs to be drawn into the honesty of A Memoir of the Craft (in addition to Stephen King's eerie world of fiction) to realize that the man must really know what he's talking about.

50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark

As a beginner writer and a person who likes order and explanation, I found this book of practical hints excellent.  The author includes personal experiences as a journalist and teacher, as well as interesting literary examples, to relate succinct advice on all styles of writing. 

The 50 strategies include hints on technical tools (eg. sentence length and structure, punctuation, and word choice) as well as writing habits (eg. reading, editing, using criticism).  The book contains plenty of white space and sub-headings, which makes it easy reading for even the most distracted reader.

Of all the excellent advice, I think my favourite would have to be "trust your hands," and write.

Writing Children's Books for Dummies by Lisa Rojany-Buccieri and Peter Economy

Okay, so this may be just another book for dummies, but seeing as I am one (certainly when it comes to the craft of writing childrens' books), it is a fitting reference.  It is simple to read and jam-packed with practical hints, has plenty of white space to soothe the brain, and somehow manages to combine technical advice with creative ideas, eg. "if you can't think of a word, make one up."

This book contains information relevant to writers of any genre I think (such as editing and marketing ideas), but for anyone interesting in writing stories for minors - babies right up to young adults - this is a great place to start. 

Other books in the Dummies series that relate to fiction writing include; Writing Fiction for Dummies, Creative Writing for Dummies, and Writing a Novel and Getting Published for Dummies.

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