The L&L Blog  /  Scrivener

Four Books on Writing by Famous Authors

Get inspired by these books on writing by well-known authors.

Four Books on Writing by Famous Authors

There are hundreds of books about writing, some about the craft in general, others about specific topics, such as dialogue, plot, constructing scenes, and more. Many of these are very useful, but there's something special when you read a book about writing by a well-known writer whose work you appreciate. Some authors write books that talk about the tools and the trades of writing; others talk about the writing life. But all these authors have long experience filling pages with words.

In this article, I'm going to look at four books on writing written by famous authors, and one bonus selection of interviews with great writers.

Stephen King, On Writing

One of the best known books about writing is Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Written in this best selling author's inhibitable style, this book is half memoir, half guide to being a better writer. First published in 2000, it is the first book that King published after he had a near-death experience. On, June 19, 1999 he was hit by a van when walking along a road near his home in Maine. (Stephen King fans will notice the numerological significance of this date.) He had started it a couple of years earlier, and used this book as a way to get back into writing as he healed.

The first part of On Writing is a memoir of King's experiences as he became a published writer. He talks about the frustrations of getting published, the excitement of selling his first novel Carrie, and his experiences with substance abuse. The second part of the book discusses the tools of writing: language, vocabulary, and grammar. He then goes on to talk about the art of writing. His most important advice is probably:

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut."

This is not a book that spends a lot of time talking about plotting, dialogue, or the small details of writing. But it does give you a glimpse into the mind of one of America's most prolific and imaginative authors.

Walter Mosley, This Year You Write Your Novel

Author of dozens of novels of crime fiction, Walter Mosley is an astute teacher. His book This Year You Write Your Novel is written to motivate those people who want to write, and just can't get themselves to start writing. He begins by saying that this book is "a guide for anyone who wishes to commit themselves to the task of beginning and completing a novel within a year’s time."

This is a short book, and doesn't go into the kind of detail that is common in toolbox books for writers, but is excellent as an overview for someone who wants to write a novel and doesn't know where to begin. There are no recipes, no structural outlines to follow, but rather tips about the basics of writing: narrative voice, character development, plot and structure, and more. As with the section on craft in King's book, this is more like an author chatting with you about the fundamentals of writing than a book of rules to follow.

Like King, Mosley points out that, "The first thing you have to know about writing is that it is something you must do every day."

George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

This book by George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a discussion of short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, and is based on a course that Saunders has been teaching to university students for twenty years. This hefty tome reads like a university level discussion of literature, looks into the details of how stories work. Analyzing seven stories - all included in the book in English translation - Saunders discusses character, narrative, description, and the expectations we have when reading stories.

Saunders says that "For a young writer, reading the Russian stories of this period is akin to a young composer studying Bach," and, while many writers may never have read short stories by Russian authors of the 19th century, the principles presented through these stories are universal. This is less a book to motivate you writing and more a book that makes you dig deep into stories to look at the way writers create their worlds.

He points out in the introduction that, "A story is a linear-temporal phenomenon. It proceeds, and charms us (or doesn’t), a line at a time. We have to keep being pulled into a story in order for it to do anything to us." And his goal is to show how you can keep readers reading, one line at a time.

Marguerite Duras, Writing

When she was in her late seventies, French author Marguerite Duras wrote a brief book called Writing.
It is a stream of consciousness collection of essays, of fragments about writing and solitude. As an author of several dozen novels, and having lived a life full of adventure, Duras muses on what inspired her to write, and how writing requires that one be alone.

All writers know that writing a book is not something that is shared; it is a one-person process, and you spend months or years alone with your ideas. Many people, like Duras, find that "Writing was the only thing that populated my life and made it magic. I did it. Writing never left me."

Duras writes about solitude, about how the death of a young English pilot inspired her writing, and talks of a painter at work. She shows how small events can be the germs of stories. This book won't tell you how to write, but it may help you understand the writer's life.

Bonus selection: The Paris Review Book of Interviews, Vols. 1-4

The Paris Review has long published interviews with authors, and four collections of these interviews are available in volumes around 500 pages each. The first volume alone contains interviews with authors like Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Billy Wilder, and Joan Didion. Read these books to be inspired, and to learn about how great writers work.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

Keep up to date