Lucy van Smit, author of A Writer's Journal Workbook, recommends five creative writing guides that you might not know about.
“If one must make a choice between reading or taking part in a workshop, one should read.” Mary Oliver
A legend in one field, can be virtually unknown in another. Novelists and screenwriters might think poetry is not their thing, but if you want your writing to scale great heights, Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook is a masterclass on how to make your words and writing sing with meaning and purpose. I was familiar with her poetry, but this handbook was new to me.
Mary Oliver’s core advice is to observe closely, and read widely. Read for pleasure, read with your writer’s hat on and notice how other authors master their craft. You cannot fix what you do not notice. Her explanation on how letters in the alphabet create different sounds, meaning and rhythm is genius in its simplicity. A brilliant read for any writer who wants to know their craft and their writing to be vital, wise and beautiful.
You cannot fix things you do not notice
Writing guides save you reinventing the wheel and come into their own for beginners. They show why and how a writer uses certain tools. Writing guides can jump-start authors when they get stuck, inspire you to keep going and brave the unlit road again.
Some brilliant writing guides dazzle, you devour every word, but feel unable to let go of the handrail to have a go yourself. My battered copy of Robert McKee’s Story is testament to this. I love his brilliance, but you can sabotage your writing with perfectionism. This is really procrastination, cunningly disguising as a virtue. You must practise what you learn.
Knowledge without action is meaningless
A writing guide that doubles as a workbook has one big advantage. It shows you how to take immediate action and implement the new lesson in your own writing. Repetition is essential to master new skills, or you will keep forgetting.
The feted Hollywood story consultant, Pilar Alessandra and her The Coffee Break Screenwriter breaks your project into ten-minute actionable chunks. Aimed at screenwriters, it works as well for novelists and outclasses many more famous books on structure and character that turned Joseph Campbell’s ground-breaking mythic work The Hero’s Journey into a fifteen-step Hollywood cliché, used in every movie since Star Wars. Instead, focus on Character as Plot.
Upbeat, practical, brilliant, The Coffee Break Screenwriter demystifies story to its elemental structure. Emotion + Action = Story. Genius simplicity. Pilar Alessandra considers writer’s block to be a lack of Craft Know How, ignorance over what step to take next. I love how the workbook immediately sets the writer an exercise to practise their new skills. This is excellent for novelists who need to break up a story. It shows you how to find your major turning points, and improve every one of your scenes in a couple of minutes. A great investment.
To cook your ideas, plots, setting and characters to a new level, check out Jorjeana Marie’s Improv for Writers: 10 Secrets to Help Novelists and Screenwriters Bypass Writer’s Block and Generate Ideas.
Seasoned Improv writer-performer, Marie noticed writing friends had tortured approaches to writing that blocked their creativity and created anxiety, something she never experienced. She sets about to show you how the first rule of Improv, always say, ‘Yes, …And.’ will free up your imagination.
This anarchic, lively workbook will have you churning out characters and ideas with ease. Joyful, clever games keep you writing with a smile, with lists to generate characters and settings in the appendix.
My reading habits are eclectic; I take expertise from another discipline and apply it to writing. It helps to see life with fresh eyes. If your self-discipline and writing routine need tough love, try Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life.
One of America’s greatest chorographers, Twyla Tharp emphasises the old-fashioned values of hard work, routine, discipline, and preparation. I love this book. All her exercises are applicable to writing. Tharp shows you how to scratch away at your ideas, find the spine of your story and reminds you to watch life and get it down on paper.
“I read for growth, firmly believing that what you are today and what you be in five years depends on two things: the people you met and the books you read.” Twyla Tharp
As the author of A Writer’s Journal Workbook, I love the writing diaries by authors who talk to you conversationally about their process. My interest is in consciousness and staying awake as a writer. John Steinbeck’s doubts in Working Days, the journal he kept when writing Grapes of Wrath, never fail to inspire me. “I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” Steinbeck continually reminded himself that once he sits down and starts to work, his doubts will vanish. “I keep forgetting.”
“Writing isn’t just a job that stops at six thirty… It’s a mad, sexy, sad, scary, ruthless, joyful, and utterly, utterly personal thing. There’s not the writer and then me: there’s just me. All of my life connects to writing.” Russell T Davies
My favourite guide on writing seems niche, but is breath-taking in its voice and vitality. Dr Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter by Russell T Davies started with an email question from journalist Benjamin Cook to one of our greatest TV writers about his writing process.
What follows are the daily musings of a brilliant mind. It’s the TV equivalent of having Dickens answer your questions one-by-one and tell you how he is writing Great Expectations. Davies has never read a book on craft – his process is organic. He understands character from his observations on life. It helps to be familiar with Dr Who, in its heyday with David Tennant, but Russell T Davies’ voice and Cook’s questions are a masterclass in writing. Imagine having a daily email conversation with a great writer, where they iron out their problems with characters and their writing process. My copy is so battered, it’s completely fallen apart.
Don't confuse your story with too many ingredients
My go-to writing advice for overwhelm is not a book, but to watch an episode of MasterChef. Every week the contestants make two of the very same mistakes commonly made by writers. They use too many ingredients. This confuses the identity of their dish. And they ask the wrong question. The contestants ask how can they impress the judges? Showing off too many skills ends up in poor execution and confusion. Do less and ask a better question: What am I trying to do here?
What works for one writer might not work for you. Hunt down your favourite authors on their process. Try Marita Golden’s The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing. If you love Stephen King, read On Writing. If you admire Ursula Le Guin’s vision, read My Words Are My Matter.
“Hard times are coming… We will need writers who can remember freedom.” Ursula Le Guin
Lucy van Smit is an award-winning author, a screenwriter, and an artist who regrets selling off most of her paintings to pay the rent. After boy trouble, Lucy dropped out of Art School for a year, ran away to New York and dared herself to sell encyclopaedias door-to-door in America. She got her BA Hons in Fine Art, blagged a job in TV, travelled worldwide for NBC News, flew on Air Force One with President Reagan, got surrounded by tanks at Manila airport during a coup, before she chilled and made documentaries for Canadian TV on writers like John Le Carre and Ian McEwan. Lucy is dyslexic with a Distinction in MA Creative Writing. Her debut YA novel The Hurting (Chicken House) won the inaugural Bath Children’s Novel Award. One of six siblings, Lucy lives in London.