The first book on writing I ever read – what was yours?

Most of us here probably have a shoal of books about writing craft. Here’s just one of my shelves.

writing bookshelf

But which was the first writing book you ever read?

For me, it was The Craft of Novel-Writing by Dianne Doubtfire. It was a gift from Husband Dave when we first met in 1992. It’s a tiny volume; just 87 pages including the index at the end and throat-clearing at the start. But it has everything you need – theme, viewpoint, planning, setting, characterisation, style, revision.

Dianne Doubtfire Nail Your NovelI flick through it now. At random, I can see sensible advice to use ‘he said’ instead of ‘she gushed’ or ‘he averred’. A section on writing description so the reader remains riveted, with examples from Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene. A paragraph about keeping a notebook beside the bed, including a torch. An explanation of style as ‘a quality as unique as your fingerprints’. A quote from Alfred Hitchcock that ‘drama is like real life with the dull bits cut out’. A section on first chapters, positioned nearly half-way through, because ‘it’s wise to consider … planning, scene and characterisation before you type ‘Chapter 1’.

Other books may cover all of these in more depth, but as a primer it will get you going with good habits. I’d recommend it still today.

To begin at the beginning…

I’d studied English literature at school and university. Yes, we considered theme, character, resonance, symmetries and counterpoints in character arcs and story structure. And historical and social context, an author’s place in the overall evolution in the artform. But I wanted more. I wanted to know why good was good. Reading Dianne Doubtfire was like meeting someone who thought and felt about books in the way I wanted to.

Studying literature can put it in on a pedestal as a thing to be revered. It can paralyse you with feelings that you could never, yourself, presume to write to a standard that’s even readable, let alone half-creditable.

Dianne Doubtfire’s succinct, wise book made writing seem possible.

3 nynsPsst … Speaking of writing books, and flashing forwards many moons and scrumpled drafts, I’ve been jazzing up the Nail Your Novel covers. Take a peek here…

Can you remember the first writing craft book you read? How did you come to read it? How did it affect you? Did it open possibilities? Did it make it all seem impossible? If you still have a copy, what do you think of it now?

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  1. #1 by Chantel DaCosta on May 29, 2016 - 6:34 pm

    I believe the first book about writing that I read was Stephen King’s ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.’ I think I probably need to revisit it to give a proper assessment. however, it more memoir and the life and times of Stephen King than a book on writing. It was an ebook, I still have it as a PDF I believe on my laptop, it was part of set of ebooks on writing that someone shared with me. I cannot recall who. I need to go find who that person is.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 30, 2016 - 7:45 am

      I knew it wouldn’t be too long before someone nominated Stephen King’s book. And even though it’s partly a memoir, I still think a lot of people find it inspiring.

    • #3 by Ann Heitland on May 31, 2016 - 1:16 pm

      Yes, King’s “On Writing” was my first, and still the most important, book about writing that I’ve read. It was recommended by a faculty member at our local university. I had my doubts because I’ve never been a King fan, but it got me going. Then I delved into the “How To” books, of which I think Roz’s are the best that I’ve found. I’m now trying some more academic tomes like Adam Sexton’s “Master Class in Fiction Writing” and one that was so bad that I’ve already sold it at the used bookstore. I think the best advice is King’s — just sit down and write.

      • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 31, 2016 - 6:07 pm

        I’m not a great fan of King’s fiction either, but I found On Writing so universal that his usual oeuvre was irrelevant. (Oh and thank you VERY much!!!!!)

  2. #5 by Jon Chaisson on May 29, 2016 - 6:53 pm

    Ray Bradbury’s ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ was the first one I read start to finish. Still inspires me today. 🙂

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 30, 2016 - 7:47 am

      Gosh, I have that …. and have never read it. Since I wrote this piece, Husband Dave has been rediscovering Dianne Doubtfire, so I think I’ll put on a bit of Bradbury. I find his every sentence inspiring anyway, whatever he’s writing.

  3. #7 by Denise Yoko Berndt on May 29, 2016 - 7:47 pm

    I have a book about how to research your novel which must be from the same series as it has the same cover illustration – only in red! However, my very first book on writing was Screenplay by Syd Field.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 30, 2016 - 7:48 am

      It was a series, wasn’t it? I have another in the sequence – How To Write Science Fiction by Bob Shaw. Another terrific little book.

  4. #9 by gibsonauthor on May 29, 2016 - 11:13 pm

    Reblogged this on s a gibson.

  5. #11 by Lance Phillips on May 30, 2016 - 9:30 am

    The Way to Write Short Stories by Michael Baldwin…. Got it way back in 1988 from an English teacher who obviously saw something I still can’t see… or maybe just can’t find… ;-).. Can’t say it made much of an impression then, but re-reading it makes me smile at the world gone by… Lamottt, King, Maass, Novakovich and Bradbury have long since replaced it… but hey.

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 30, 2016 - 6:39 pm

      Maass…. he’s another of my favourites. He’s more prescriptive than some, but he really encourages you to raise your game.

  6. #13 by acflory on May 30, 2016 - 9:31 am

    I’ve only ever read one book about writing, and that was Stephen King’s horribly famous tome. Not sure why I steer clear of such how-to books. I think it’s simply the element of logic in them. I did technical writing for ten years or so and I’ve always seen myself as a highly logical person, so now what I crave is the exact opposite. That’s also the reason I listen to music while I write…because I still don’t believe I’m imaginative enough. 😦

    • #14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 30, 2016 - 6:37 pm

      The element of logic? Andrea, have you tried some of the more inspirational books? The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell; How Fiction Works by James Wood? It’s like having a conversation with a brilliant writing mind. And a great imaginative provocation.

      • #15 by acflory on May 31, 2016 - 6:30 am

        Ah sorry! I didn’t mean their logic, but mine. I find it all too easy to slip out of storytelling mode. Using my imagination is something I have to work at. 😦

  7. #18 by cavalrytales on May 30, 2016 - 11:22 am

    Dianne Doubtfire’s book was my first, but a while before you. I won’t say how long before to avoid embarrassing myself 😉

  8. #20 by DRMarvello on May 30, 2016 - 1:01 pm

    I believe the first was “So You Want to Write” by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood. At the time, it left me unsatisfied … like something was missing. I figured out later that the critical missing element was story structure. The book makes a passing mention of three act structure in the plot chapter, but that’s about it. The rest of it was unremarkable.

    Fortunately, I didn’t stop with that book. I have acquired (and read!) a few dozen writing books since that time–a selection that has very little overlap with what I see in your photo. I get a little something unique from every one (such as the Emergency Library from “Nail Your Novel.”) Early on, I ran across “Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks which more than made up for the lack of structure information in the Piercy/Wood book. If I had to nominate an overall favorite to a beginning novelist, it would be “Writing Fiction for Dummies” by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy.

    I’m amazed at how many writers I run into on forums who don’t study the craft of writing. Not everyone learns best by reading, but they don’t go to seminars or attend workshops, either. I don’t know how they manage. I didn’t get far at all in my first novel before I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. That realization began a hunt for writing knowledge that continues today.

    • #21 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 30, 2016 - 6:35 pm

      Big smiles for mentioning my NYN, your cheque is in the post 🙂

      But what’s this about writers on forums who don’t study the craft? I’m amazed by that too. I would have thought pure curiosity would make them want to know more, even if they don’t like the idea of instruction. And although some people don’t learn by reading, how can a person be a writer if they’re not sensitive to reading?

    • #22 by DRMarvello on May 31, 2016 - 2:08 pm

      Many times it’s the “I don’t need no stinkin’ rules” mentality, but that’s not always the case. I think there’s also an attraction to writing as an art with an air of mystery. We don’t know how the magic happens, it just does. Sadly some MFA programs perpetuate the mystery with graduates never learning even the basics of story structure (another shocker I learned from a recent MFA grad).

      I can’t work that way. Yes, it’s okay to break the rules, but you do so deliberately and because the story demands it, not out of ignorance. I love that so many writers have written books that share their methods and recommendations. I don’t take any of them as gospel, but every one of them helps me refine my own toolkit of writing guidelines and helps me make informed decisions about technique and process. To me, *that* is where the art lies.

      Which is not to say that no one should start writing until they’ve researched the craft. I think it makes more sense to do both at the same time, practicing what you learn as you go. The learning never ends–it just helps you get better over time.

      Sorry to rant in your comments. I guess I have stronger feelings about this subject than I realized.

  9. #24 by Ashen on May 30, 2016 - 1:04 pm

    Since you ask … ‘Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft’ by Janet Burroway. First published in 1982, with many more editions since. An amazing woman.

  10. #26 by Lucy & Brian on May 30, 2016 - 2:43 pm

    Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg – incredible!

  11. #28 by Alexander M Zoltai on May 31, 2016 - 6:14 am

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Great re-blog today from Roz Morris 🙂

  12. #30 by henrywargamer on May 31, 2016 - 11:02 am

    “Becoming a Writer” by Dorothea Brande. As much about getting into good writing habits as about writing per se, it gave me the first bucket of cold water about being self-disciplined and not waiting for the muse. Cracking little book.

    • #31 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 31, 2016 - 6:11 pm

      Hi Henry! I’ve seen a few other votes for Dorothea Brande in comments on Twitter. That point about discipline and habits is an excellent one – and probably a real eye opener when we first read about writing. What, you mean I have to work? Yup.

  13. #32 by birdwhatwrites7 on May 31, 2016 - 5:06 pm

    Reblogged this on birdwriter7 and commented:

  14. #33 by William Grabowski on June 2, 2016 - 5:38 am

    Hi Roz. I got pulled so deeply into your blog, I decided to get my act together and follow. I remembered several other on-writing books since my LinkedIn recommendation of E.M. Forster’s ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL. They are: Milan (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) Kundera’s THE ART OF THE NOVEL; William Zinsser’s ON WRITING WELL; Norman Spinrad’s STAYING ALIVE: A WRITER’S GUIDE; Ursula K. Le Guin’s THE LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT; and—previously mentioned on this blog—Natalie Goldberg’s WILD MIND, and WRITING DOWN THE BONES.

    • #34 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 2, 2016 - 8:09 am

      Hi William! Thanks for making the crossing – and bringing such inspiring recommendations. You’ve found some I haven’t heard of!

  15. #35 by Stationery Explorer on June 3, 2016 - 12:57 pm

    My first was “Save the Cat”, of which you appear to have not one, but two copies (unless the second one is “Save the Cat 2: He’s Back and This Time He Wants Feeding”).

    The second was a little something called “Screw Your Novel” or something similar (which was pretty much the response I got from the author when I sent her the first draft of mine).

    Just kidding. Although I felt the restraining order was a little unnecessary.

    • #36 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 3, 2016 - 1:34 pm

      There is a Save The Cat 2. But we do sometimes find we’ve bought two copies of one book.

      Screw Your Story? I know it well. Also, have you tried: Characters to Put Readers Off For Ever, and Plots that Go Nowhere? To be followed by Don’t Try This At Home.

      • #37 by Stationery Explorer on June 3, 2016 - 5:48 pm

        Roz, you must be psychic – I’m sure I referred to all those books when I wrote my first draft. I think next time I’ll use your books – if I can ever face the drastic re-write which is required – I’ve heard they’re very good indeed.
        See you on Facebook – lumps to Bryon.

  16. #38 by bozobuttons on June 7, 2016 - 4:19 pm

    I’m late to the party. Although I can’t remember the first book on writing I read, the only one I’ve gone over more than once, besides NYN, is The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus. It’s useful far beyond it’s stated scope and a very fun read too.

  17. #40 by Vince Nakovics on July 17, 2016 - 2:43 pm

    The Weekend Novelist – I skipped through it and applied some of it over the years, about 20 of them, maybe more, I forget.

    • #41 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 17, 2016 - 6:32 pm

      Hi Vince! I’ve looked at that one many times but not actually read it. I bet some of its principles still stay with you if you’ve had it that long.

  18. #42 by climatecommunity on August 11, 2020 - 7:47 am

    Yes, that was my first book on writing too. I bought it while I was in highschool 1989 or something. You wouldn’t believe how many times I was searching for some details on Dianne Doubtfire on the internet. I was curious. I think she at least deserves a photo of her next to her book on creative writing on GoodReads. I guess, because she was one the pioneers in the area of books on ‘how to’ in 1980’s on creative writing, and she was also writting a lot of romance novels, she went into oblivion. That book make me still nowadays warm at heart and is equally on my desk with books on creativity, writing blocks, design thinking and time management. Dianne Doubtfire deserves more respect 🙂

    • #43 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 11, 2020 - 2:35 pm

      Hello! How lovely to meet another person whose first craft book was Dianne Doubtfire. That must make us twinned in some way. Thanks for stumbling into my blog and leaving your calling card!

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