Books on writing

Here are some of my favourite books on writing. I’ve arranged the shelf above in order of how much I like them (L-R), though some of the ones I talk about below are missing because one of my best writer friends has borrowed them. (Yes, that’s you, JODIE!!)

Story by Robert McKee is a must-read for every story writer. It’s full of inspirational and thought-provoking quotes about story, and I love how it dissects classic movies to explain how and why they work their magic.
QUOTE: “We go to the movies to enter a newfascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality.

I’m a massive fan of John Truby. He’s a story genius! I found his book Anatomy of Story SO helpful even though it’s heavy reading. He places a strong focus on the main character having a moral weakness which drives the plot. I’d heard about this from other writing books, but hadn’t implemented it much in my own writing until I read his book.
Milla Anderson, the protagonist in my thriller Shiver, is hypercompetitive. In the ’10 years ago’ timeline, she’s a professional snowboarder competing at halfpipe. Her desire to defeat her rivals drives the story. Her competitive behaviour causes the predicament she finds herself in, in the present day. Deciding Milla’s weakness from the start had a magical effect: my story almost seemed to write itself.
I particularly love listening to Truby talk about story. He has some brilliant videos available to watch free on YouTube. Here’s the video where he talks about his book Anatomy of Story.

Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham was eye-opening for me because it taught me, amongst other things, to think in scenes, not chapters, and to start scenes late and end them early, ideally on cliffhangers, for maximum narrative drive.

Into The Woods by John Yorke is a fascinating explanation of how stories work, as well as a critique on many other books on story.

I’m also a massive fan of US literary agent Donald Maass. His book The Emotional Craft of Fiction blew my mind when I read it a few years ago. I’ve reread it a few times since and still only feel I can apply a fraction of his advice. The book focuses on the psychology of the reader and what they experience, and details what writers can do to give their work more emotional impact.
QUOTE: “Readers fundamentally want to feel something, not about your story but about themselves… They want to anticipate, guess, think, and judge… They want to feel like they’ve been through something. They want to connect with your characters and live their fictional experience.
I love the idea that what matters most of all to a reader is how the words make them feel. His book on Writing the Breakout Novel is great when starting off a new project, for evaluating your premise.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is a short, accessible and entertaining read with some nuggets of gold. It’s written for screenwriters but the principles apply just as much novelists. Many writers swear by Blake Snyder’s ‘Beat Sheet’ for plotting a story.

These are my favourite books for the editing stage. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is full of straight-talking advice. Read it and forever after you’ll hear in your head his no-nonsense advice about what to cut and what isn’t good enough.

Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, is written by a pair of highly experienced fiction editors. It’s particularly good for pointers on how to tighten your writing. The first time I read it, I immediately slashed twenty percent off the manuscript I was working on.

Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us by Jessica Page Morrell looks at common pitfalls of querying writers and it’s another extremely helpful read. I plan to reread these three books after finishing each new project, to keep the advice fresh in my mind.

In Memory of my Dad.

I’d like to dedicate my first post to my dad, Andrew Leslie Reynolds, 1939-2018.

Mountains were my dad’s greatest passion in life. He despised flat areas – “Boring!” Work and city life were necessary evils to be endured until he could be in the mountains again. The Lake District, the Peak District, Scotland and – when he could afford it: the Alps.

He was a member of the Lincoln Mountaineering Club, met my mum in the mountains and had a huge group of mountain-loving friends. After his retirement, he assisted fellow walkers and climbers as hut warden every summer on the Scottish Isle of Skye.

In his army green cagoule and technical hiking trousers and boots, he looked out of place in a city. But when I started doing snowboard seasons, he fit right in and often came out to visit, bombing down the black runs right behind me on his skis. He gamely tried snowboarding himself when he was in his sixties. Then I began competing at halfpipe. Many dads might have worried about their daughter doing such a dangerous sport, but my dad made no secret of his approval.

He was always encouraging about my writing and was a fountain of ideas for my previous novel – another mountain-set snowboarding thriller (still incomplete). We spent many a happy hour discussing ways my villains (or the mountains themselves) could kill my characters. I can still hear his shouts of laughter down the phone at my latest gruesome idea.

My dad didn’t write – he could barely read his own handwriting and certainly nobody else could – but he was a brilliant oral storyteller with endless tales to tell. One of my favourites is the story of how, a few years before I was born, he and my mum escaped death by a millimetre on the Matterhorn. My parents, both experienced and proficient mountaineers, were roped together climbing a steep rockface in parallel, five metres apart, when someone above them shouted a warning. My dad looked up to see a boulder the size of a small filing cabinet plummeting downwards. As it neared him, my dad realised it was going to land on the rope between him and my mum. Instinctively he slackened the rope, letting it lie flat against the rockface. His quick thinking saved their lives. If the rope had been taut, the boulder would have landed on it and pulled my parents clean off the mountain. When my parents inspected the rope later, they saw a little nick from where the boulder had scratched it.

My dad passed away in 2018 so he never got a chance to read Shiver, but it seems fitting that my first published novel is set in mountains he knew and loved.