Brighton author Andrew Shantos has a theory: What if, instead of dying, celebrities went into hiding on an island in the middle of nowhere? That’s the basis of his first novel, ‘Dead Star Island’ and he’s put together the Six Books That Made Him A Better Writer. Check them out below.
There are twenty books published every hour in the UK alone. The average Waterstones carries up to 30,000 books. According to some estimates, Amazon has over ten million titles. As an author, it makes me wonder: if everyone’s writing a book, are there actually any readers left?
Thousands of writers have come up with a neat solution to this conundrum. Tap into the same irresistible desire that sells self-improvement books in their millions, on thousands of topics and persuasions, from better parenting to playing the piano. Write a book on how to write a book.
I’ve read plenty of them. The literary self-improvement industry has done well out of me. Here are six that I like the best.
George Orwell’s Essays
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”
Inspiring stuff, eh? Orwell wrote this in his essay, Why I Write. That’s near the end of his notes on what led him to become a writer, and luckily, by the time I came to this warning I was already hooked.
After reading Animal Farm and 1984 at school, I quickly found myself devouring all of Orwell’s essays, regardless of subject matter, inspired by the clarity and precision of his writing. And when both subject and style came together, the results were legendary pieces such as Politics and the English Language (which ought to be mandatory reading for every newly elected politician).
Politics and the English Language was the first thing I ever read on the craft of writing, on how words can be written well or badly, how they can be used to expose truths, or to obscure it.
Over the years, and taking a new insight each time I read this and other essays, one thing stays with me above all: that art does not have to be flowery and ornate; simplicity and clarity can have great beauty too.
Roald Dahl, Lucky Break
I’m fascinated by the journeys that authors take, what led them to become a writer, and how they became successful. Roald Dahl describes this in Lucky Break, and how a meeting with CS Forester (who intended to write a newspaper article on Dahl’s time in North Africa during World War 2) resulted in his first published piece. Instead of providing a set of rough notes as agreed, Dahl ended up writing a story of such quality that CS Forester arranged for the piece to be published without making a single change. But for me, the reason Roald Dahl called this story “Lucky Break” is not simply because he had the right combination of circumstances to have his first story published. It is because he found his true calling.
Lucky Break is aimed at the younger reader, and at the age of twelve or so, when I read this story, I had a profound sense of privilege, of initiation almost, as I partook in the habits and thought processes of a great writer. Dahl describes how he kept a notebook of all his ideas, and shares entries from this notebook, such as:
What about a chocolate factory that makes fantastic and marvellous things – with a crazy man running it?
A story about a fox who has a whole network of underground tunnels leading to all the shops in the village. At night, he goes up through the floorboard and helps himself.
His best advice? Write every idea down. Ideally have one book that is full of them. Ideas are like dreams; they are precious, fragile things which fade very quickly if you do not note them down.
This extended to my novel while I was writing it. Yes, it started with a single idea. But a novel consists of hundreds of ideas, which must fill your chapters, and keep your audience reading the next page with the same level of pleasure and curiosity as the one before. Almost all of these ideas I wrote down as they came to me – walking to work, eating dinner, lying in bed at night – to be used throughout the book.
Stephen King, On Writing
Before I read anything by Stephen King, I must admit to having had a certain disdain. Mainly because I have a natural disinclination towards anything that is hugely popular. I like discovering hidden treasure. But even if I didn’t want to read any of his novels, as an aspiring writer myself it seemed a great idea to read about Stephen King’s early life, his path to success, what his thoughts were on the craft of writing and how to be a better writer. So I bought On Writing.
I couldn’t put it down. Written as a story, almost a novel, interspersed with his thoughts and opinions on writing, it’s as compelling and enjoyable as any of his fiction (which I immediately turned to on finishing On Writing). I discovered that every successful writer is focussed, dedicated, and a forensic student of his craft; that it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of failure to succeed. And above all, I discovered that you can make a story out of anything. Even a book On Writing.