The pages of a book

5 of the best writing books for beginners

By BBC Maestro

Writing a book can feel like a big challenge. From the genre of your story to the number of pages you want to write, it requires some careful consideration and a little guidance. Luckily, in this day and age, there are some great tools out there from writers who have been in the same shoes as you. 

In this article, we’ve collated some of the world’s best writing books for beginners and summarised what you can expect to learn from them.

Considerations before you start writing

Before you begin your writing journey, it’s important to take some time to decide what kind of book you want to write and how you want to produce it.

You might already have an idea of what genre you would like to work with. But if you haven’t yet, there are a few prompts that can help you make your decision. You could start off reflecting on the books you enjoy reading yourself. Does the creative freedom of fiction excite you? Or perhaps retelling a story of factual events is more appealing? It’s entirely up to you.

You could take some inspiration from real life, as David Walliams says in his online writing course, “real life stories can give you some great ideas”. Perhaps a memoir, crime story or thriller piques your interest, or the simple sweetness of a love story. If it helps, you can consider what audience you would like to write for too. If it’s younger audiences, you may want to explore picture books, comics, children’s books or young adult fiction.

Once you’ve decided upon your genre, you also may have an indication of whether your story could work as a series of books, or, if it’s best, as a standalone. Although it’s not crucial to know at this stage, if you have an inkling it may lend itself nicely to a series, it can be useful to keep this in mind as you write.

It may also be worth exploring how you want to publish your book. A literary agent can get your manuscript read by some of the biggest publishers. However, having an agent isn’t crucial, as Julia Donaldson says in her BBC maestro course on writing picture books, “you don’t have to have a literary agent, I didn’t have one for years”. But as she later reveals, once you produce multiple books, an agent can be useful to help you manage your business affairs. The decision to secure an agent can be made later on in the process, but for the sake of planning, financials and writing something with commercial potential, you may want to start thinking about it earlier on.

A person writing

5 of the best writing books

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody (2018)

Based on Blake Snyder’s enormously popular Save the Cat! screenwriting book, which has sat firmly on the best-seller shelves for over 15 years, this novel-writing edition is a popular choice for budding authors. Its various editions have been hailed by screenwriters and novel writers alike. Why is this? you ask. Many praise it as a great resource that cuts through those clouds of dwell and doubt that writers face when starting their next work, and delivers the perfect formula to writing a hit success. It focuses on the basic ideas involved in structuring a story, which has made it a universal tool for all writers.

In the screenplay edition, Snyder shares the secrets of screenplay physics, delves into the creative intricacies involved in writing across a range of genres, and uncovers tactful ways to navigate conflict and emotional change. A book that inspired filmmaker Edgar Wright, it’s well worth a glance at Snyder’s work if you’re looking to make the leap into writing.

On Writing by Stephen King (2000)

Written by one of the world’s most prolific horror authors, On Writing is an ode to the magnificent craft of writing. Part memoir, part writing how-to guide, Stephen King uncovers his own experiences as a writer and unlocks some treasured advice for aspiring writers along the way too. It’s one of David Walliams’ favourites.

Organised into five sections, each part outlines a different path of advice. In the first section, entitled ‘CV’, he explores the different life experiences that shaped his writing career. In the second section, ‘What Writing Is’, he urges readers to grasp the seriousness of writing, amplifying the huge privilege it is to be able to communicate by writing. The third section, ‘Toolbox’, details the mechanics of language, whilst the fourth section, ‘On Writing’, gives advice and wisdom for fledgling writers. He rounds up the book with section number five, ‘On Living: A Postscript’, where he sheds light on his life today. Stephen King’s work continues to influence today’s leading writers, such as Ken Follett, and will likely will inspire many more generations of them too.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (1992)

This book helps aspiring writers discover their creative self. Written by teacher, author, poet, playwright, novelist and filmmaker, Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way adopts more of a spiritual and sensitive approach to writing. The book outlines a 12-week approach, aiming to help people shift creative blocks, uncover any limiting beliefs or feelings that may be blocking someone’s flow, and replace it with artistic confidence and a hunger to put pen to paper. Over the years the book has helped many creative individuals find their voice. Maybe it can help you find yours.

Story by Robert McKee (2006)

In this guide, notable author, lecturer and story consultant, Robert McKee, breaks down the craft of writing into simple, clear and easy to follow steps for budding writers. Famous for his ‘Story Seminar’, which he developed in his time as a professor at the University of Southern California, McKee condenses the content and wisdom taught in the classroom into a tool that is accessible for all. He delves into the substance, structure and style of screenwriting, but makes clear its value far beyond the screen – with insights to be cherished by playwrights, journalists and novelists too.

The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field (1984)  

This work, authored by the legendary noted teacher, lecturer and author, Syd Field, has been pivotal in the world of screenwriting. Famous for his version of the three-act structure, use of plot points and inciting incidents to kick-start the action, this writing book offers a masterclass from one of the brightest minds in writing.  Field breaks down the arguably overwhelming topic into definitive categories and steps easy for writers of any level to follow. He dives into the rules of structure, of paradigm, and what makes a good character, acting as a guide throughout the writing process. Esteemed writer Alan Moore references Syd Field’s book in his BBC Maestro online storytelling course, as it was recommended to him while he was working on the screenplay for the film Fashion Beast. Syd Field later authored The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver in 1998, which too made waves in the writing space.

Beginning to write may feel daunting at first, but with guidance from authors who have inspired some of the best stories of today, you have all the tools you need to get started. There are plenty of resources out there to help – books, podcasts, and even online writing courses too. As Lee Child puts it, “if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first.” So get started today.

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