The Writing Books on My Shelf


I wasn’t sure if the writing books on the shelves in my library said anything about me but I thought they would at least have the makings of a blog post.

When I pulled them all out, I realised there were some themes that could be broken down into this:

*It’s clear I’m not just a writer but also an editor. The number of “grammar nazi” books (for want of a better descriptor) exceeds what is required by people who consider themselves just writers.

*I used to have a different focus. If you could go back ten years and meet me, you would encounter a writer convinced that her future lay in film and television writing. If you could go back fifteen years, you would meet someone who hoped she might be the next queen of romance fiction.

*I don’t discriminate by selecting writing books only by hugely successful writers. Yes, I have Stephen King’s On Writing but it was a gift. Yes, I have Emma Darcy’s The Secrets of Successful Romance Writing and although I know who she is, I doubt most people would have a clue. (She’s Australia’s most successful romance writer and was actually a husband and wife team, Frank and Wendy Brennan, until Frank passed away and Wendy shifted focus to write crime with the Who Killed…? series.) Most of the books were written by people I wasn’t even aware of until I found their books in the book store.

The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary by Frances Stillman
A must for anyone who writes rhyming poetry – I love this book so much. No surprises there. It’s a dictionary, after all!

The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide by Pam Peters and Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers Sixth Edition revised by Snooks & Co
Guides for editors primarily but absolutely essential references as far as I’m concerned.

The Secrets of Successful Romance Writing by Emma Darcy
This is a terrific book if you are interested in writing what Emma Darcy calls “category romance”. It’s pretty good regardless of what you want to write actually. It’s also a quick read, which is what writers want so that they can get back to their own writing. Here’s a handy piece of advice from Emma: “Readers don’t want a short course on business ethics, environmental issues, feminism, sexual politics or any other issue. They want a [insert relevant genre here]. That’s why they bought the book.”

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and EB White
This was the first book students had to buy when I embarked on my two-year writing and editing course nearly two decades ago. (Seventeen and a half, to be more accurate – where do the years go? God, I’m so old!) It was then and it remains now a classic on how to write well. While some entries are no longer relevant because English is one of the fastest evolving languages in the world, it is still chock full of handy tips. Like this one: “Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try… Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.”

Clichés: Avoid Them Like the Plague by Nigel Fountain
This book was a gift with purchase but it’s a handy reference – basically, if it’s listed in this book, then it should never appear in your writing. Although it doesn’t appear in this book, my pet hate is “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” Because, as this is a sequential statement, you can have your cake and eat it. What you can’t do is eat your cake and have it, too. Which is how this cliché is supposed to be written. The easiest way to avoid this mistake is to avoid the cliché altogether.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
This book is a must for all grammar Nazis like me, even if only to understand how perfect the title of this book is. Will it make you a better writer? No. Lynne Truss asks, “[I]s there any art involved in using the apostrophe? No. Using the apostrophe correctly is a mere negative proof: it tells the world you are not a thicko.” And same goes for all other types of punctuation.

Usage & Abusage by Eric Partridge
I bought this book second-hand and it is essentially a dictionary of what to do (usage) and what not to do (abusage). You can probably tell by the title that the author takes spelling and grammatical mistakes as a personal affront but that doesn’t make his advice wrong. This on italics: “Italics should, in good writing, be used with caution and in moderation; their most legitimate purpose is to indicate emphasis in dialogue, and, everywhere else (but there too), to indicate foreign words and phrases and titles.”

Breakfast With Sharks: A Screenwriter’s Guide to Getting the Meeting, Nailing the Pitch, Signing the Deal, and Navigating the Murky Waters of Hollywood by Michael Lent
Big Screen, Small Screen: A Practical Guide to Writing for Film and TV in Australia by Coral Drouyn
The Script Is Finished, Now What Do I Do? by K Callan
Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin
All these books are specifically to do with screenwriting, which I don’t do much of anymore, but the principles of one kind of writing usually transfer to other kinds. The majority of these books are about making it in the US and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. As I’m sure is patently obvious, I have not yet made it in the American market but that has little to do with the quality of these contributions. Practical and useful, although sometimes depressing.

Story by Robert McKee
Robert McKee is a legend in Hollywood and runs highly regarded writing seminars. He was also written into the movie Adaptation by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (if you haven’t seen this movie, you must – as a writer, you can’t not have seen this movie.) I haven’t read Story for many years but I remember having very strong feelings about this book – and not in a good way. I should read it again to see if I still feel the same way and to remind myself why I had those negative feelings because I just can’t recall.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Part how-to, part autobiography, this is a cracker of a read but the thing that really makes Stephen King memorable to me is something he had absolutely no control over: being hit by a car while out walking. Stephen King is a cautionary tale for creative types (stay away from the substances, people!) and by rights should never have done so well, but he has and it’s a testament to talent: it can overcome everything else that works so hard to keep hard-working writers down.

From the final pages: “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends… Some of this book – perhaps too much – has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it – and perhaps the best of it – is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”


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