I’m not a big fan of self-help books. My in-laws used to sell Amway and had a shelf groaning under the weight of books touting every conceivable method self-improvement, from how to make people like you to the swiftest ways to make millions. (Unsurprisingly, they still seem like the same very likeable people they were prior to reading and not noticeably any wealthier.)
This is where I out myself as a hypocrite since I have a similar shelf in my writing studio packed with books on how to write. How to write fiction, how to write poetry, guides to narrative style and how to read like a writer. There’s even the quite hilariously titled How to make a living as a poet.
If I’ve learned anything from this shelf of literature on how to write, it’s that if you want to learn the craft there are various ways you can approach it. These methods are not mutually exclusive, in fact I would recommend all of them both individually and in concert. Lucky for you, lovely reader, my recent reading has included examples of all these various approaches. (Whether or not I successfully apply what I’ve learned from these books to my work is another question.)
Dear Writer… revisited by Carmel Bird
This is a brilliant example of a nuts and bolts “how to write” guide by one of Australia’s most gifted and experienced writers. Structured as a series of letters from a mentor to an inexperienced writer, this book is packed with sage and shrewd advice on both the art and craft of literary fiction.
Bird takes on the fictional persona of writing mentor Virginia O’Day and each chapter is a letter to her student, offering advice on the writing and rewriting of a short story. In each letter a new aspect of craft is addressed, such as point of view, narration, beginnings and endings, use of adverbs and adjectives, the role of imagination and attuning your ear to the rhythm of prose. As the relationship between the mentor and student progresses and the student’s writing improves, the advice expands to encompass the writing life – how to deal with writer’s block, keeping notebooks, dedication and time management and, finally, how to seek publication.
This book is a beautiful distillation of all Bird has learned from a life dedicated to writing. It is a beginner’s guide but has much to offer those already well down the path. It is affirming and encouraging while simultaneously insisting on excellence.
This is a brilliant example of the most recognisable variety of “how to write” literature. The next kind is a little less obvious.
The Writer’s Room by Charlotte Wood
I’m a huge fan of The Paris Review, which is a literary journal published in New York. One of the things I love most about this publication is the series of interviews with writers. Each issue has an extended interview with a writer (poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, you name it) and they talk at length and great depth about art, craft and the writing life.
The Writer’s Room is everything I love about The Paris Review interview series but instead of interviewing internationally recognisable literary names, this book focusses on the big names of Australia’s literary scene. Charlotte Wood, who is a brilliant novelist (please, please read The Natural Way of Things) has interviewed Tegan Bennet Daylight, Joan London, Malcom Knox, Christos Tsiolkas, Kim Scott and Margo Lanagan – just to name a few – and the result is completely addictive. I got to the end of this book and it left me ravenous for more and seriously wanting to plead with Charlotte to launch a serial Paris Review (Australian edition).
If you are a reader, these conversations are fascinating, insightful and engaging. If you are a writer, they are gold. Everything you’ve ever wanted to ask a writer is here and the answers are both generous and frank. Wood is an exceptional interviewer. It’s clear that she puts the writers completely at ease and the fact that she is one of them means that these are conversations between equals. To read this book is to eavesdrop on professionals talking about everything from putting words into sentences to navigating publishing and the literary life. It’s like a private literary festival happening in your lounge room while you sit on your couch with a dog and a gin and tonic. Bliss.
Barking Dogs by Rebekah Clarkson
We’ve covered orthodox guides on “how to write” and books that give insight into the lives and processes of successful writers but the third kind of book that I would recommend if you want to learn how to write is the kind that contains superb content and technique.
It’s no secret that I am one of those opinionated folks who thinks it’s impossible to become a writer if you don’t read. I just don’t understand it. Flat out do not get it. If you don’t read books then why on earth would you want to write one? And how would you know the first thing about how to do it successfully? Readers know.
Readers are intimately acquainted with what makes a good book, what makes a sentence sing and keeps people turning pages, still awake at three in the morning because sleep is impossible without knowing what happens next. They might not be able to replicate it at first if they sat down and tried to write a vampire romance or a police procedural – every skill takes practice – but they do know good writing when they encounter it.
This is why I’m including Barking Dogs on this list of “how to write” books – because I passionately believe reading excellent books to be an essential part of being a writer. If you read books with a writer’s eye you learn just as much, if not more, than you would reading a straight up and down “how to write” text-book.
Barking Dogs is a novel in stories by one of Australia’s most gifted and accomplished short story writers. Each of the stories in this book stands alone as a short story and works as a chapter in a compelling novel about a regional town being slowly and painfully transformed into suburbia. The novel is set in the town of Mount Barker in South Australia and the stories are slow burners – you’ll be turning them over and over in your mind for days afterward.
The stories are captivating but how they are written – the language, the rhythm and the space and weight given to each sentence – is just as significant. Read “Here we lie” for the dark, slow burn, “The five truths of manhood” for breath-taking use of language and ingenious structure and “Something special, something rare” for a textbook-worthy example of how a great writer uses insight and empathy to create totally convincing characters.
This is the kind of book that is much, much more than just a pleasure to read. In the right hands, Barking Dogs is also a primer on writing technique and the art of the short story.
So there you have it – my two cent’s worth on how to learn to be a better writer. Try some “how to write” books. Find inspiration by reading about the lives and processes of other writers. And finally, read great books and while you are doing this, try to keep an eye on technique. It’s hard. Good books sweep you away. But if you try to read with the secondary objective of analysing the writer’s method you’ll hopefully glean some ideas on how to apply their techniques to your own practice.