Sunday 18 March 2018

My Five Best Books about Writing, By Dan Metcalf

We've all done it – paced the floors of bookshops and libraries looking for that great 'How To' tome that will tell us exactly HOW to write the book that is lurking in the back of our heads. I'm here to tell you now – it doesn't exist. The only way to write your book is to do exactly that: write it. You'll find your own way of doing it which is unlike any other. You may stumble and trip, and end up with (metaphorical) bloody knees, but you'll emerge the other side confident and ready to write the next one.

That said, it is kind of fun to read about writers and their quirks; like finding out that Philip Pullman will only write on a certain lined paper pad, or how much wild turkey Hemingway drank before starting a project. So here is my missive for you: my best books about writing. Let's dive in...

Monkeys With Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas

Scarlett Thomas is the author of best-selling books such as The End of Mr Y and Our Tragic Universe, so her writerly background bodes well for this guide on ‘how to write fiction and unlock the secret power of stories’, and as a member of the Creative Writing faculty at Kent University, you know you’re in safe hands when you open this weighty tome on all things literary.

The academic background is soon apparent as the first section of the book looks at the theory surrounding fiction, calling into play Soctrates, Plato and Homer. The style is fluid and accessible, and illuminates great swathes of fiction, discussing the difference between narrative, story and plot, the eight basic storylines and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. If you’re put off by the classic nature of the chapters so far, then hold your horses, as part two focuses specifically on the practice of writing.

Thomas looks in depth at the process of creating a character, likening it to Stanivlaski's method of acting. The text is light on do-it-yourself exercises, and chooses instead to show examples of how other create their progagonists and supporting casts. There is the interesting example in the chapter entitled 'Writing a good sentence', where she suggests having a bank of words and setting yourself a 'budget'. Some types of words are cheap (E.G. Concrete nouns are free), while others will cost you dearly (Adverbs cost £20!).

This is a hefty book which should be drank like a fine wine, but not the sort of workbook that will sit by your laptop full of pencil scribblings. It's value is undeniable, but only to those prepared to put the work in to get the pearls of wisdom out.

Writing Bestselling Children’s Books by Alexander Gordon Smith

This handy tome has the distinct advantage of being written by a bestselling children’s author, a fact which not all creative writing manuals can boast. Alexander Gordon Smith is the author of the Escape from Furnace series and The Inventors, and his tone and style in this inspirational book is light and approachable.

Broken into 52 short chapters, each expressing an idea or tip to drive your writing, the book is full no-nonsense truths, such as: ‘You have to make time and space to write!’, ‘Know your hero’, and ‘All good children’s books are driven by conflict’.

The layout and design of the book is easy to read, with bold headings and pull-out quotes to catch your eye and guide you around the book. The writing has a wonderful humour to it too, making reading text an enjoyable experience, even if you end up not putting the ideas into practice. Each chapter ends with a small Q&A between the writer (you) and the teacher (AGS), and if you work through the book you really feel like you’ve worked through a course with an affable tutor. With it’s 52 chapter structure, you could even work through this once a week, and have a whole year of inspiration! Great stuff.

On Writing by Stephen King

This part-memoir and part-guide gives King an excuse to flex his teacher muscles (he used to lecture in – where else? - Maine) and we find that the ol'fella is tenacious about grammar and punctuation (his own bible for writing is The Elements of Style by Strunk & White). It's full of amazing tales from his childhood and how he would study serial killers from the news – fuel for later scribblings.

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman

By thedemonhog [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
The veteran writer of The Princess Bride, Marathon Man, All the President's Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lifts the lid on Hollywood and tells the secrets that no one else dare to tell: that Nobody Knows Anything. Whilst this is not a writing guide, it is a fascinating memoir by one of our greatest screenwriters. See also the sequel 'Which Lie Did I Tell'?

The Story Circle by Dan Harmon

By Jesse Chang (07 dan harmon) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Ok, this isn't a book. I'm going all millenial on you and sticking a blog post in my list (SHOCK HORROR!). Dan Harmon is the creator and head writer of the brilliant sitcom Community (sometimes, when he isn't being fired from his own show...) and Rick & Morty. Apart from being a very funny guy, he's a genius when it comes to breaking down story structure theory. Ever heard of The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell? Or The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler? No? Well you should read them too (the latter is a simplification of the former). What Dan Harmon does in this inspirational series of posts is to break down how to structure a story even further.

While I maintain that no book will teach you how to write, this concept has done more to help me in my writing life than any other.

So what would be on your list? Let me know in the comments or catch up with me on facebook and twitter.

Dan Metcalf is the writer of Lottie Lipton Adventures and Codebusters. Visit him at


  1. Lots of useful titles here, Dan, and always good to hear of books that have been road tested - including some titles resting on a nearby shelf that I need to read and think through again very soon. I downloaded a copy of Monkeys on to my kindle, as real world copies didn't seem that easy to buy a while back.

  2. Great list. Most I've not got on my shelves - until now!

  3. Great list, Dan, thanks. The Stephen King is really inspirational stuff, although it is also quite a confessional in places.

  4. Yes, Steve, On Writing is a more half-autobiography, isn't it?

  5. Great list. Thank you. I love 'Bird by Bird' by Anne Lamott .

  6. Very useful and some different ones there too! I love a certain screenplay one too, which works fro novels as well... called Save the Cat.