Updated: Jan 13
When you’re a reader, especially if you’re reading the kind of stuff you want to write, a lot of the basic conventions become internalized. You know when dialogue is bad because you’ve read (and spoken, and heard) a lot of good dialogue. So you can hear the words in your head, and you know when it sounds natural and when it doesn’t. You instinctively know when something is bad or boring or doesn’t work, and it irritates you, but you might not be able to put your finger on exactly why. Reading about writing will give you the vocabulary to articulate what’s good and what’s not, and you have to know what’s wrong before you can figure out how to fix it. It will also familiarize you with the types of things that readers expect and publishers look for.
It can be kind of a chore to read about writing. Just keep in mind that nobody can really tell you how to write. Anyone who says they can give you the absolute 100% best way to create a character or get from plot point A to B needs to sit down. But they’ve probably got some good advice that you can store in your head and use at some point.
Books on writing
First things first: read Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s inspirational and full of good stuff. Sometimes when I post here, I’ll talk about some of the same topics he does, but from an editor’s perspective. And I probably won’t be as entertaining :( Sorry in advance.
Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy. I haven't read this one, but it's got great reviews. Here's an essay by the author on what it’s about and why he wrote it. It looks pretty good, and it’s specifically about genre fiction.
Writing Deep Point of View. This has a lot of good advice on getting deep into your character’s perspective. It’s got some bad advice too, including a whole chapter on “biological gender differences,” like how men like tools and women like flowers. Despite that and some really bad examples it gives (like using “his heart pounded” to show every emotion), I still recommend picking this one up. Just, like, take it with a grain of salt.
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. I haven't made it all the way through this yet, but I do know VanderMeer is a great author and probably worth listening to. It’s big and it has fantastic art, making it one of those books that gives you a good reason to buy a physical copy.
The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing. Okay, so I haven't made it through this either. (What? I stay busy.) But I love it so far.
Some stuff that’s been recommended to me that I (still) haven’t read yet
The Chicago Manual of Style. This is the style manual that most fiction publishers go by. It can be intimidating because it’s a doorstop, but that’s what makes it good. It’s got the answers to about 98% of all the questions you’ll ever have about grammar, style, and usage. Nobody expects you to write in perfect English, but there’s probably going to come a time when you'll want to figure out how to make it look less stupid to have four different punctuation marks next to each other. So this is good to have around if you're a writer (and non-negotiable if you're an editor). There’s an online subscription version too.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. David Bowie preferred Oxford (and I do too), but most publishers go by M-W, and it’s the dictionary CMS refers to. Most of the differences between M-W and the US version of Oxford are in hyphenations.
The Elements of Style. This is a great refresher if it’s been a really long time since your last English class. It’s particularly good at showing you how to cut superfluous and unnecessary words in order to be more concise. It uses simple language that’s easy to remember, and you’ll come out of it cringing at stuff you used to write without thinking (like “most unique”). A lot of people swear by this tiny book, and it does have a lot of good advice, but it also has some dated rules and stuff that applies more to formal writing and journalism. It’s good to have on your shelf, but I wouldn’t buy into it as gospel (or anything else, really).
Writer’s Digest. This site has lots of articles, forums, and resources. Several teachers and editors have recommended their various books on writing to me (like Crafting Novels and Short Stories, above). They also have info on agents and a list you can subscribe to of publishers and their contact information.
Scrivener. This is a writing program that I haven’t tried but I’ve heard great things about.
Ywriter. Same deal.
Grammar Girl. Whenever I'm googling some weird style point, she's usually one of the top results.
Electric Literature. Fun essays, good links, writing contests, etc.
If you guys know of any great resources that I haven’t listed, please feel free to comment!