Learning to write whilst spending a bit of money: some creative writing books that are worth the investment

In September I wrote a post about learning to write without spending any money. My point was that you don’t NEED creative writing courses, useful as they are: many of their elements are things you can access in other ways, more cheaply.

While many of the aspects of the creative writing course experience can be found online, I’m going to get old-fashioned for a moment and say that the one thing you can’t do without is books. You need the long, undisturbed periods of engagement that books provide to take on board some of the complex ideas about writing that some of these authors offer. Of course, if you’re writing you probably like books, so you probably won’t see this as a problem!

One of my biggest regrets about my writing journey is not discovering sooner what a tremendous depth of knowledge creative writing books offered. When I first had a publisher interested in my writing, years back, after a story I’d written was published in an anthology, I went off and bought the first ‘how to write’ book I could find. I’m not going to name it, because I hate criticising other writers’ work online, and anyway, this is going to make me look like an arsehole, but it all seemed terribly pointless and obvious. I knew books had to have beginnings, middles and ends. I knew characters had to be consistent and not change their eye-colour halfway through the book. I wrongly concluded that, firstly, this was typical of the level at which creative writing books were pitched, and secondly, that I knew it all. What I didn’t realise, of course, was that there was far more to it all than that: many ways less obvious than eye colour that a character could be inconsistent through the course of a book, and that while I knew a book had to have a beginning and an end I couldn’t actually have told you what that meant at anything more than a superficial level.

Once I finally got my head round how little I knew about the mechanics of fiction, a new addiction was born. I discovered that creative writing books aren’t just good for understanding how fiction works, they’re also there to help you solve problems: they help you understand why your hero is a bit lacklustre, or what kind of plot development would add intrigue to the boring bit. Now that I’m evangelical about it, of course, I’m always getting asked for recommendations, so here they are.

I currently have a shelf of about twenty or thirty that have been useful to me in some way, but as this is meant to be a ‘beginners’ post I’ll limit myself to talking about a few of the stars. These are all books that have worked for me – if anyone would like to add their own recommendations to my list, feel free!

To make the subject more manageable I’m going to divide them into categories, starting with:

1. Books for inspiration and ‘permission’ to write

Dorothea Brande – Becoming a Writer

This book is much loved for pointing out that if you write, that makes you a writer. I mostly like it for telling you that if you want to be a writer the first thing you need to do is to organise your life so that you actually have the time and space to write. People often miss the fact that they don’t have any time in their schedule, because they’ve been told that if they’re determined enough, they’ll do it. Well, so they will, but only if they remember the crucial intermediate stage of sorting things out so that they can.

Stephen King – On Writing

When you read this you end up wanting Stephen King to be your new best friend, which is not something you would expect from reading his books. It’s part honest memoir, part advice for new writers, and it talks you through his writing life (he accumulated more rejections as a teenager than many, less determined writers, do in a lifetime, and kept them all on a spike) and his thoughts on the essential ‘toolkit’ of the writer (tools being things like plot and characters, not highlighter pens and Tippex).

Anne Lamott – Bird by Bird

I haven’t read all of this but enough of my friends love it that it didn’t seem fair to leave it out. The title comes from her father’s advice  to her brother aged ten, who was trying to write a big report on birds that he should have started months ago and didn’t know where to start – ‘Just take it bird by bird.’

2. Books on story and plot

Sometimes books primarily aimed at screenwriters turn out to be useful for fiction writers.

Robert McKee – Story

is one of those. This is the kind of book you should buy rather than get from the library, because you will want to come back to it.

John Truby – The Anatomy of Story

Truby is one of those writers who likes breaking down stories into their component parts and analysing them. You might not agree with his principles but many writers find them extremely useful as a way to build a story. I’ve found his insights invaluable.

3. Books to get you to aim higher

Jessica Page Morrell – Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us

This book bills itself as a ‘compassionate guide as to why your writing is being rejected’. It comes in particularly handy at revision time, but also helps you think about the eventual reader when planning the book. It’s also quite funny.

Donald Maas – Writing the Break-out Novel

It sounds a bit arrogant to be thinking about how to write your break-out novel when you’re still on your first, but this book is actually surprisingly good for the beginner. Maas uses his experience as a literary agent to analyse what ‘break-out’ books – where an established writer jumps into a whole new level of sales- have in common. The resulting discussion covers every aspect of the book from themes through characters to language.

4. Books on revising and editing

Renni Browne & Dave King – Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

This is an old favourite, much loved by writers and editors alike. It ranges from the basic (consistent point of view) to the subtle (eg the chapter on how to make your writing more sophisticated) but it is essential if you want to turn in a professional piece of work. It also has hugely difficult exercises.

David Madden – Revising Fiction

This book is hardcore. It’s like those medieval ‘have you ever fornicated with your sister? with a donkey?’ lists of sins you had to go through to examine your soul. For instance (opening the book at random): ’84. Are your transitions from one place or time, or from one point of view, to another ineffective?’ ‘184. [This is the killer:] Is your story uninteresting?’ There’s a particular moment when you need this book. It’s when you’ve revised four times already and your beta readers have run out of things to say but you’re just desperate to make your book better because you know it’s still not a millionth as good as Codename Verity and you would give your right arm or at least a little finger for any more clues as to what it might be. Just don’t even think about opening it until then.

5. Books on how to get published

Nicola Morgan – Write to be Published

The best thing about this is that it’s not just a book about the mechanics of getting published, it’s also a book about having the right attitude: getting published starts with writing something good. This is the one to recommend to anyone who goes around saying it’s not worth trying to be published because publishing’s a closed shop. Nicola Morgan brands herself as the ‘crabbit old bat’, which really just means she’s refreshingly blunt. She’s also done useful little e-books on how to write a synopsis and how  to write a cover letter to an agent.

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (revised annually, published by Bloomsbury)

This used to be totally essential. These days, use it in conjunction with the internet – the listings of publishers and agents are pretty thorough but might not be completely up-to-date. It’s pricey for something you would need to replace every year but libraries are very good at stocking the latest edition.

And, for fun:

Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark – How Not To Write A Novel

The authors have had a blast making up lots of parodies of bad writing. Embarrassingly, I learnt a lot from it.



Acorns, crabs and bloody slaughter, or, what did the Tudors do in November?

Calendar page for November with a miniature of a nobleman returning from a hunt, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), Additional MS 24098, f. 28v. Note the force-fed pigs.

Calendar page for November with a miniature of a nobleman returning from a hunt, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), Additional MS 24098, f. 28v. Note the force-fed pigs.

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by the Novemberness of November today. It’s damp and drippy and everything in the garden is dying but the Christmas build-up hasn’t quite started yet, and… bleurgh.
I’ve decided this is the fault of twenty-first century life and if I was Tudor I would be far too busy for Novembery moping so I’m going to jolly myself along by thinking bit about what they would have been busy doing.

When I was writing Five Wounds, which is set mainly in the agricultural landscapes of the north, I was very conscious of how peopled the areas round settlements would have been. These days, farming takes very few people. One man can combine a field that would have taken a whole village to harvest in the past. We might notice the fields change colour from brown to green to golden, but it’s unlikely we’ll have much to do with it. In societies where more people are involved in agriculture, the changing seasons and hence the shifting calendar of agriculture have much more effect on what the people you know are involved in and what’s going on around you.

In a society without refrigeration, canning or air freight, of course, food will also be seasonal, and when the year is going to be shaped not just by the farming calendar but by the religious one, the annual round of festivals will give each month its particular character.

For this reason, one of my starting points for research was the Book of Hours. Books of Hours are devotional books, of which quite a number still exist from the fifteenth into the sixteenth centuries. They are often richly illustrated and, unlike wall paintings which rarely survive undamanged, they often survive as brightly and exquisitely detailed as the day they were painted. What makes them so useful for our purposes is that they generally include a calendar of church feasts, illustrated with full-page pictures representing the months of the year and the activities that were taking place each month. For the Tudors, 1st November, All Saints Day, was the first day of winter. But this didn’t mean farming activity stopped: work went on throughout the year.

Obviously, you have to be a bit careful if you’re writing about the north of England and you’re looking at a Book of Hours from southern Europe – the differing climates can mean different months for activities like harvests and planting. Another source, this time from England, is Thomas Tusser, who was born in Rivenhall in Essex. His ‘A Hundred Points of Good Husbandry’ was published in 1554. It gives rhyming advice for what to do in the garden and fields each month, for example,

‘Set garlic and peas, St Edmund to please.’

-a couplet which shows how the religious and agricultural calendars were intertwined in people’s minds even after the Reformation: St Edmund’s Day was celebrated today, the 20th November.Alongside cutting firewood, the most commonly illustrated activity in the Books of Hours November scenes is the fattening of pigs, by feeding them acorns. Acorns might not be anything other than waste now (unless you’re a squirrel) but in the Middle Ages, ‘pannage’, the right to feed your pigs in royal forests or on common land, was important. You will see people knocking down acorns with sticks, or hooking down the branches to reach them, and either driving your pigs into the forests to rootle under the trees or feeding them in troughs. In one picture the pigs’ heads are held in place over the trough by a yoke, to encourage them to eat as much as possible even when they were no longer hungry. Pigs were an important part of  the rural economy; for some families, bacon would have been the only meat eaten on a regular basis. It was said later on that every part of the pig, ‘everything but the squeal’ was used.Some pigs would be fattened throughout November. Others would meet their end at Martinmas, the feast of St Martin on 11th November.This was the traditional date for slaughter of cattle. It was the time of year when animals were at their fattest but the grass was no longer growing fast enough to feed them. So they had to be slaughtered now, or fed on stored food through the winter, a burdensome expense. The slaughter was followed by feasting as people ate the meat that couldn’t be preserved. At this time of year, there was plenty of other food still available for a feast. In the garden, there would be cabbages and turnips, apples, pears and medlars. The woods would provide walnuts and chestnuts .While the poorer sections of society worked hard at salting and smoking meat from the Martinmas slaughter for the winter, the upper classes could hunt, with a range of game now in season, game birds and animals including hare and venison. The Golf Book of Hours shows a nobleman returning from the hunt. There are two horses in the picture but while he rides one, his servant has to walk, because the second horse is in use for carrying a deer, slung across its saddle.The importance of the job of slaughtering cattle – a job which would have required physical strength – was one reason why battles were so often fought after Martinmas. It’s far easier to drag yourself away from home once the work is done and you know your stores of food are laid in for the winter. One thing that intrigued me about the Pilgrimage of Grace was that the rebels were away from home through the month. I wonder if the women, left at home with the task looming, took the chance of waiting till their menfolk returned even if it meant slaughtering slightly thinner stock, or picked up the poleaxe and had a go themselves.

The British Library, Isabella Breviary. Additional 18851, f. 6v: calendar page for November. The pigs are on their way to market. I think something bad is going to happen to them, also to the cows on the right. I like the way the tall tree in front of the church just has a few leaves left. Mine looks like that too.

The British Library, Isabella Breviary. Additional 18851, f. 6v: calendar page for November. The pigs are on their way to market. I think something bad is going to happen to them, also to the cows on the right. I like the way the tall tree in front of the church just has a few leaves left. Mine looks like that too.

Of course, not everybody reared pigs just for subsistence. Some Books of Hours show pigs being driven to market in the town for sale. So if you lived in a town, November might have been the month when the streets were noisy with herds of squealing pigs being bought and sold. Then imagine how busy a street like the Shambles in York, where the butchers’ shops were, would have been, as all the bought-in beasts had to be slaughtered. These very noisome activities took place not in out-of-town abbatoirs as they do today, but in the very heart of towns, and butchers didn’t just deal with ready-killed carcasses, they were butchers because they butchered.

So, November. Lots of scoffing, but also plenty of gore. We will have get in some serious eating, anyway, before the abstinence of December and the Advent fast begin.

If you want a recipe, we’ll steer clear of the blood pudding and tripe, in favour of roasted crabs.

I used to think ‘when roasted crabs hiss in the pot’ in Shakespeare’s poem about winter meant the crustacea. Actually he was talking about crab apples – little, hard, tart apples that grow wild as well as in gardens.

And why roast them? Well, if you taste one they are mouth-dryingly tart. If you can be bothered to peel them you can use them just like a normal cooking apple, though with more sugar added. But for ordinary Tudors, sugar was in short supply. If you roast them, however, slowly, taking up to a couple of hours, you will find they have turned sweet enough to eat as they are. You can do it on a barbecue, or a baking tray in the oven, and add some cinnamon if you have some.

Happy November!