How to be a writer: Three and a half guides – Sharif Gemie

There are many, many guides to Creative Writing. Some will inspire you, some will help you, some will annoy you. Here’s my top three. It’s highly unlikely that they will suit everyone, but if you’ve got radically different opinions from me, the answer’s obvious: write your own top three.  
  1. Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (first published in 1998).
The best starting-point. Le Guin really does focus on the nuts-and-bolts of writing, and does her absolute best to not assume knowledge in her reader. There’s a glossary of technical terms at the back of the book. Steering the Craft includes well-chosen extracts that are fun to read, but which also nicely illustrate her points. She does discuss grammar, which is vital to good writing. She also talks you through technical points like Points of View: omniscient narrator, third-person, first-person. Throughout the book there are exercises: these are worth taking extremely seriously. This was the first book I read on Creative Writing, and I’m sure it was the right starting-point for me.  
  1. Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)
Whenever I mention this book, a whole chorus of people stand up and tell me that King is a dreadful writer who’s written the same novel thirty times. So I’ve got to state: I’ve never read a word of King’s fiction, and I don’t think I’m ever going to. However, whether King is a good novelist or a bad novelist, he’s got something to say about writing. This is not a how-to book, it doesn’t discuss the nuts-and-bolts in detail, although some practical advice is given along the way. It’s partly a description of how King became a novelist, but mostly a description of the sort of mind-set you need to sustain a long-term, demanding project like writing a novel. King is wonderful is reducing complex ideas into single, punchy sentences: ‘Plot is… the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.’ ‘The most important things to remember about back story are that a) everyone has a history and b) most of it isn’t very interesting.’ And so on. Above all, On Writing quietly communicates the fun of writing. This book won’t teach you how to write, but it will (or could) make you think about writing in a better-prepared way.  
  1. James Wood, How Fiction Works (2008)
This is something of a left-field choice. Wood is a Flaubert-fundamentalist: he believes that all fiction can be divided into before Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (published in 1856) and afterwards. If you’ve never read Madame Bovary, you might find this off-putting. Wood has thought long and deeply about what is special about the modern novel, and relates the form to wider social and cultural changes: there’s even one chapter called ‘A Brief History of Consciousness’. His book gives you a clear and inspiring idea about what a novel can do, and this makes sense even if you haven’t read Madame Bovary. He’s particularly insightful about how the narration of a story and the identity of the main character interact.   3-and-a-half. George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946, and available in PDF format on the web). Orwell wasn’t a natural writer, and struggled long and hard to achieve the sort of clarity and simplicity found in his best writing—mainly in his non-fiction essays rather than his novels. This short essay is a wonderful polemic against dead, cliched writing. The core of the argument is that positive, humanitarian political values should be expressed in clear, transparent prose, while cloudy, complex, stale language actually assists authoritarian, mystifying politics. Towards the end, he reduces his argument to six simple points, which still stand as a good beginning-point for any writing.
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