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The Books of Magic (and why you don’t need to read them all)

Necronomicon ex Mortis (roughly translated, The Book of the Dead) is not one of the books of magic Russel would recommend unless you want to let loose a Kandarian demon on your home…

Writing — writing fiction especially — is a strange business. We are, in essence, magicians, convincing people that something that is patently unreal is actually real. While magicians do this through sleight of hand, writers do it through emotion: we convince our readers (our audience) of reality through the medium of emotion.

I touched on this briefly before, and maybe I’ll expand on this, but I was thinking earlier today that in this analogy, guides for writers are like books of magic — they exist to guide the writer/magician on their journey to creating the perfect illusion.

But while some might claim that you should probably follow instructions in any book of magic to the letter (especially if its more of a grimoire than a book of illusions; we don’t want to accidentally summon a soul-sucking demon to wreak havoc on the mortal plane, now, do we?), when it comes to writing guides, things are a little different.

There are always discussions about “method” and what method is the best. Are you a Save the Cat geek, slavishly creating “beat sheets” and “beats” and talking about the “break into two”? Or are you a little less inclined towards the spreadsheet approach and more likely to follow John Yorke into the Woods (where there’s still structure but less seemingly best-seller-ised and friendlier to those who want to take risks*?). Or are you of more literary bent and inclined to follow the works of the brilliant Robert Olen Butler who wants us to get in touch our “cinema of the mind” and let go of preconceptions we have about story.

There are a million other books and methods of writing, and all too often when I hear hopeful writers at the start of their career discuss them, they talk about following one method or another and pretty much only that method.

But here’s the secret: there’s no one book that will work. There’s no one method. No magic bullet. What works for you as a writer may not work for me. But — and here’s the secret — we can still learn from each other. Because while the totality of our approach may not line up, parts of it will appeal or open up a new avenue and approach in our writing. In other words, as writers, we create our own books of magic by taking those rituals and incantations that work for us and discarding the rest.

This is how we grow as writers, too. We experiment. We find new ways forward. We create our own methods by building on the back of what has come before. We find those approaches that speak to us.

Which is a roundabout way of getting to a list of books that I have found personally useful. I’ve taken some advice from each of these to find my own method of writing… and I’m still seeking out new methods and new ways of thinking about writing (which means, no doubt, I’ll post an update to this list one of these days). This list is an approximation of one I send to a lot of my editing clients who want to learn more about writing and to develop their work further.

I have included links to Amazon with these recs, and you should note that if you click through and buy, I’ll get a small commission for each sale. You can, however, order all of these books from the bookstore of your choice (I’m just including the link for convenience and because every little extra helps me buy food for our cats!)

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors by Alexandra Sokoloff is a clear-eyed, practical and brilliantly useful book that takes tricks used by screenwriters and Hollywood and shows how novelists can employ them in structuring their story.

Similarly, Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody adapts Blake Snyder’s popular book on script writing and structure (Save the Cat – also highly recommended) with the novelist in mind.

Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream — in particular the section on cinema of the mind — completely changed my approach to writing

Mike Figgis’s The Thirty Six Dramatic Situations is a brilliant guide to setting up various types of conflict in your story to keep it moving and developing.

David Corbett’s The Art of Character is a brilliant guide to creating complex and multi-layered characters. Not just protagonists, but also supporting characters and minor ones as well.

Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English, written by the senior copy editor of Penguin Random House, is a superb, clear, no-nonsense guide to line by line writing which really helps in thinking about style and clarity.

Finally, J Michael Straczynski’s brilliant memoir/guide to writing, Become A Writer, Staying A Writer, is just such a worthwhile read for writers at all levels. In part it’s about the journey to becoming a true professional writer, but it’s also a work intended to help us through those moments where we might be feeling down on our work and needing to lift ourselves back up.

These are my personal books of magic (or the ones that I feel closest to — I have several others in my collection!) but feel free to share your own recommendations in the comments!

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