Three Creative Writing How–to Books that Actually Help

What goes into a story, beyond the platitudes of “there must be a beginning, middle, and end,” or “there must be a protagonist with a goal and obstacles to overcome”? How do I revise without going in circles? And, most importantly, how do I improve as a writer? 

If you want to know the answers to these questions, read a how-to book. Most how-to books are trash, but a few are very helpful. They won’t make you a genius, but they will help you develop a level of basic competency in your work. In other words, they’ll ensure that you don’t spend all your time flailing around in confusion and frustration, relying more on luck than anything else.

This post introduces you to my favorite three “craft texts” (in no particular order), plus a bunch of honorable mentions (some of which I’ve read and some of which I haven’t). This is not a complete list. Nor do I pretend to be an expert. Anyone who knows me knows it’s a bit rich that I’m giving out writing advice. But, at the risk of coming off as a braggart, I thought I’d share my ~tiny grains of knowledge~.

1. Story by Robert McKee

“[Story] offers guidance to the aspirant and redirection to the perplexed. If you recently ventured into this art and find yourself backed into a creative cul-de-sac, [this book] will put you on the path to excellence [??? ok ???].”

Along with Screenplay by Sid Field, Story is one of the two most important (or at least most popular and most recommended) guides to screenwriting. Robert McKee has a reputation as a screenwriting “guru,” and as a controversial figure. This may put some people off. Nonetheless, this book really is one of the most detailed and comprehensive guides out there for those wanting to take part in any type of long-form, narrative writing.

If you can only buy one book on this list, this is the one.

The first several chapters cover dramatic structure, but also provide great general creative advice (on the place of research in the creative process, for instance), that I feel would be just as helpful for novelists, short story writers, and even nonfiction writers.

McKee is concerned mostly with teaching what he calls “classical” or “arcplot” structure (protaganist overcomes obstacle to achieve goals, etc.). It’s probably not the most helpful book if you’re planning to write a 200-page prose poem, but even if so, there is unquestionable value in understanding the more conventional or classical ways of doing things. And the book also does a good job of dissuading certain creative writing students who mistake lack of training for lack of innovation. As he says, “Anxious, inexperienced writers break rules; rebellious, unschooled writers break rules; an artist masters the form.”

The major drawback to the book is that it’s a bit dated in terms of its sensibilities. Some of the examples he gives in the way of hypothetical stories certainly haven’t aged well and seem a bit off color. He also has an unfortunate ire towards “art films” that can sometimes make him come off as a hack. But on the whole, it’s really a great book to read cover to cover.

McKee begins by laying out the basic function of a story, and as the book progresses he becomes increasingly “craft-based” and practical. Though, as he quite convincingly argues, knowledge of form is nearly as important as understanding more microscopic questions of technique – sometimes blockage in the creative process is a question more of not knowing the choices available to you (not knowing your form, genre conventions, etc.) at a particular point in your story.

Before we move on, let me list a few of the passages and quotations from Story that I’ve found helpful. Let them function not as a summary of the book but as an incentive for you to buy your own copy (don’t recall the copy from the library because THAT ONE IS MINE!!!1!!!!11!).

The avante-guarde notion of writing outside the genres is naive. No one writes in a vacuum. After thousands of years of storytelling no story is so different that it has no similarity to anything else ever written” (86).

A story must obey its own internal laws of probability. The event choices of the writer, therefore, are limited to the possibilities and probabilities within the world he creates” (70). [Basically, creative limitation, whether that be through genre, shrinking the setting of your story, helps keep you from flailing around on the surface of whatever you’re trying to do — lets you dig in and p r o d u c e. Definitely never been in that situation, haha!]

Research from memory, imagination, and fact is often followed by a phenomenon that authors love to describe in mystical terms: Characters suddenly spring to life and of their own free will make choices and take actions that create Turning Points that twist, build, and turn again until the writer can hardly type fast enough to keep up with the outpourings.

This ‘virgin birth’ [WTF?] is a charming self-deception writers love to indulge in, but the sudden impression that the story is writing itself simply marks the moment when a writer’s knowledge of the subject has reached the saturation point. The writer becomes the god of [their] own little universe [???/!!!] and is amazed by what seems to be spontaneous creation, but is in fact the reward of hard work (74-5).

What McKee calls “research from memory, imagination, and fact: 1) Memory = bringing your own experiences to what you’re trying to write, via exercises that help dredge up memories of experiences similar to the ones your characters are going through 2) imagination = exercises, such as the writing of character sketches, “how do they buy groceries,” “what does their daily life look like,” and other basic fleshing out by the writing of scenes that won’t make it into the final work but are useful for exercise 3) fact = factual research, i.e. from newspapers, books about relevant areas, that help deepen your understanding of your story world.

McKee emphasizes the importance of all three, and that writing and research are a push-and-pull, alternating process. One does not “do all the research” and then “do all the writing.” It’s a matter of stop-and-start.

2. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

This book is more about what mindset to have while writing than any finer, practical advice on structure or form. In short, it’s about process — how to shake up your mind, get new ideas, and maintain a healthy attitude towards your work.

The most revelatory sections are contained within the first 36 or so pages, up through the chapter entitled “first thoughts.” Here is an excerpt:

The basic unit of writing practice is the timed exercise…whatever amount of time you choose for that session, you must commit yourself to it for that full period:

1. Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.)

2. Don’t cross out. (That is editing while you write. Even if you write something you don’t mean to write, leave it.)

3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)

4. Lose control.

5. Don’t think. Don’t get logical.

6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

Another great quote:

When you want to write in a certain form — a novel, short story, poem — read a lot of writing in that form. Watch how that form is paced. What is the first sentence? What makes it finished? When you read a lot in that form, it becomes imprinted inside you, so when you sit down to write, you write in that structure (124).

The chapter entitled “rereading and rewriting” is also very helpful.

If the book has any flaws, it’s in Goldberg’s style, which, to be frank, verges on the incomprehensibly ethereal and needlessly poetic (hot take! please @ me!). Otherwise, it’s sound creative advice.

3. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

This book is a classic, and multiple Wes professors teach with it. The most helpful passages are contained in the chapters on technique, plot, meta fiction, and the list of exercises Gardner provides as an appendix. He gets into the nitty gritty of what makes good sentences, how prose writers should engage with prosody, and how to devise technical exercises that help you improve as a writer.

The book mainly deals with the construction of short stories, but also covers how to plot a novella or even a novel. The last form is treated in Greater detail in Gardner’s other book, On Becoming a Novelist. Though, The Art of Fiction is a better place to start, as it deals mostly with smaller forms for beginning writers.

The book’s major pitfall is that it sometimes strays into vagueness. And Gardner’s sensibilities, like McKee’s in Story, often appear dated. But, for the most part, The Art of Fiction is a sturdy guide.

Here’s one of the more insightful passages:

What the young writer needs to develop, to achieve [their] goal of becoming a great artist [Well, Mr. Gardner, I’m flattered!], is not a set of aesthetic laws but artistic mastery. [They] cannot hope to develop mastery all at once; it involves too much. But if [they pursue their] goal in the proper way, [they] can approach it much more rapidly than [they] would if [they] went at it hit-or-miss, and the more successful [they are] at each stage along the way, the swifter [their] progress is likely to be. Invariably when the beginning writer hands in a short story to [their] writing teacher, the story has many things about it that mark it as amateur. But almost as invariably, when the beginning writer deals with some particular, small problem, such as description of a setting, description of a character, or brief dialogue that has some definite purpose, the quality of the work approaches the professional. This may not happen if the writer works blindly—if [they have] not been warned about the problems [they] will encounter and given some guidance on possible ways of dealing with the main problem set for [them]. But it’s a common experience in writing classes that when the writer works with some sharply defined problem in technique, focusing on that alone, [they produce] such good work that [they surprise themselves]. Success breeds success. Having written some small thing very well, [they begin] to learn confidence (Chapter seven, “technique”).

Like the other books in this list, I’ve found it helpful to avoid following Gardner’s advice as prescription; better to think of what he says as food for thought or as ideas to entertain — in short, as advice, not the gospel truth.

Honorable Mentions

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard — in a similar vein to Goldberg’s book. She deals with writing in general, I think, rather than fiction or nonfiction in particular.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser — lots of good basic advice on writing nonfiction/journalism

Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter — an anthology of essays on writing fiction

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose — a good starting point, especially if you’re not an English major and need help with constructing sentences and learning how to close read.

Letters to a Young Poet/Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke (probably deserves a spot higher on this list, but tbh haven’t read it yet fam.) Broadly Rilke’s observations/meditations/pontifications on creative process. In general, writers’ letters and manifestos are also a great resource.

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande — one of the earliest modern how-to guides, published in 1934!

The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives by Lajos Egri — a classic on play writing.

Poetics by you know who — Aristotle is a bit abstract, but people say he can be helpful to read after you’ve read some of the more contemporary, accessible accounts.

Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee — The “sequel” to Story. Whereas Story deals with broader structural concerns, Dialogue is concerned with more microscopic concerns — how to make your characters sound “good” from moment to moment.

Many other people also find it helpful to read literary criticism. Older works by people like Mark Schorer and other twentieth-century scholars are particularly helpful when it comes to understanding the basis of style, structure, form, etc. A good first book to read is Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster, author of A Room with a View, Howard’s End, etc.

Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg — a good overview of what a network TV show is and the basic creative problems involved in writing and producing one. A good starting point for those curious about TV.

Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas — this book is concerned mostly with the structure of network and prestige television shows. It’s not so useful for understanding the fundamentals of screenwriting. For that, she advises to return to Story or Screenplay, which I mention above.

 

P.S.: I hope this post is helpful! If it is, let us know and maybe we can put together another one for other mediums — i.e., the visual arts, acting, dance, photography, film making, etc. Shout at us, Tweet at us [at]wesleying or comment below!