The Books That Help Us Write (part three)

In the third of our series on the books that have helped us write, Sarah Todd Taylor, Sarah Jasmon and Beth Miller reveal their favourites. (And Beth opts for three.)

THE OBSERVATION DECK, by Naomi Epel – Sarah Todd Taylor

The writing book I go back to time after time is Naomi Epel’s The Observation Deck. Packaged as a set of flash cards with an accompanying book of essays, this set is the result of years of Epel’s conversations with writers in her work as a literary escort. It’s my ‘go to’ source of inspiration when I get stuck or a springboard to ideas when developing a new project. The Observation DeckThe cards are fun and bright and you can either use them on their own to spark an idea, or you can read the relevant chapter in Epel’s entertaining and informative book, full of fascinating insights into the lives of writers. In it, I learned from Maya Angelou to write simple rhymes when I get stuck just to keep the pen flowing, and from John Steinbeck that some of my ‘dawdling’ before starting a project can be profitable. The Observation Deck is a rich resource full of advice from a range of writers and never fails to inspire me.

TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS, by Libbie Hawker – Sarah Jasmon

I bought this the recommendation of Susi (SJI) Holliday after she posted a status on Facebook about how much it had helped her to speed up the progress of her second novel. I’m not a diligent user of these books, as I’m always much too impatient to go through the stages (it was the same with those books about how to get your baby to sleep through the night!). However (and the similarity with baby books still stands) sometimes a quick browse through an encouragingly written guide can trigger the right sort of activity.

Take Off Your PantsIt doesn’t do anything new. The subtitle is Outline Your Books For Faster, Better Writing, and Hawker breaks down plot structure into numbered points which you can go through, adding information until you have a functional outline covering all of the essentials of a good story. It’s written in a chatty style, includes lots of examples and isn’t at all prescriptive. It’s a good nudge to get going and force a thinking process to become more specific than just a vague, ‘Oh well, this might happen about halfway through.’ I’m hoping that it will help me to get my plot into a workable form at the start of the process rather than halfway through. Will report back when I come out the other side!

VARIOUS – Beth Miller

Adventures in the Film TradeThe first book I’d recommend – and my desert island book – is Adventures in The Screen Trade by William Goldman. Goldman is now an elderly guy, but in his heyday he was one of the great twentieth century screenwriters. He wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride (book and film), All The Presidents Men, and loads more.

The book is about movie writing, but most of it translates to all other forms of writing. That he is also a novelist is useful, but this book is at its sharpest when it talks about the importance of story.

The first section is more about the film business than writing, but it’s no hardship to read the whole book; he’s such a charming and engaging writer. Those of us who aren’t as successful as Goldman will love the part where he recounts that at college he used to submit stories anonymously to a lit mag of which he was an editor – and he still couldn’t get the stuff accepted. “We can’t possibly publish this shit,” his fellow editors would say. Of particular interest to the aspiring writer are the chapters in Section 2 called Endings and Subtext, and the whole third section, Da Vinci. The book came out thirty years ago but I’ve never read anything else that’s as smart, or been as useful to the way I approach writing.

The Story of a Happy MarriageMy second favourite is This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Anne Patchett. Again this isn’t entirely about writing, yet has been more resonant to me than almost anything. It’s a collection of her essays, and they’re all great. For writing I particularly recommend these two: Non-fiction – an Introduction (also useful for fiction writers) and The Getaway Car – A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life. These really speak to me, and may speak to you too. ‘Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?’ Ah, lovely. The part in The Getaway Car in which she describes the act of trying to capture the beautiful idea in her head and pin it on the page (‘…there, with my own hand, I kill it…’) produces wry laughs whenever I read it out loud to a writing group or class.

How To Be A WriterMy third recommendation is definitely more like a manual, but is so funny and relevant that I found myself nodding almost continuously whilst reading it. How To Be a Writer by Sally O’Reilly is really aimed at people who’ve published their first book and want to try for a career in writing. However, there are a few sections that are useful for all people aspiring to write, at whatever stage. I particularly recommend chapter two, The Words, about finding time to write, which is realistic, practical and funny. (Chapters 3 and 4, Learning Your Craft and Networking are also very helpful.)