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The Top Ten Books that have Inspired me (as a Reader and a Writer), Part 2

The Top Ten Books that have Inspired me (as a Reader and a Writer), Part 2

In my last post, part one of the books that have inspired me as a reader and a writer, I focused mainly on my early years ... the books that I loved as a reader into my late teens and which I found began to influence my early writing. This week I'm going to focus on the books that have been influential in terms of helping me tackle specific issues in my writing.

6. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Stephen King's book is enjoyable to read cover-to-cover, as well as being inspiring to anybody writing their own stories in any genre. At 80,000 words it is the length of a novel but has a succinct contents page, my edition starting with three forwards before continuing with

  • What Writing Is
  • Toolbox
  • On Writing
  • On Living: A Postscript
  • And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open
  • And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklist
  • Further to Furthermore, Part III

Your writing room doesn’t have to sport a Playboy Philosophy decor, and you don’t need an Early American rolltop desk in which to house your writing implements. I wrote my first two published novels, Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot, in the laundry room of a doublewide trailer, pounding away on my wife’s portable Olivetti typewriter and balancing a child’s desk on my thighs [...] The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
(from chapter 3 of the On writing section)

If “read a lot, write a lot” is the Great Commandment—and I assure you that it is—how much writing constitutes a lot? That varies, of course, from writer to writer. One of my favorite stories on the subject—probably more myth than truth—concerns James Joyce. According to the story, a friend came to visit him one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.
“James, what’s wrong?” the friend asked. “Is it the work?”
Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?
“How many words did you get today?” the friend pursued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): “Seven.”
“Seven? But James ... . that’s good, at least for you!”
“Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is ... . but I don’t know what order they go in!”
(from chapter 2 of the On writing section)

On a sad note at this time of Coronavirus, the last acknowledgement in my edition is to the singer-songwriter John Prine, whose song Granpa Was a Carpenter is quoted in the Toolbox chapter. John was born in Illinois on October 10, 1946 and died from Coronavirus in Nashville, Tennessee on April 7, 2020 aged 73.

7. How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published by Helena Nelson

when a poet realises how many other poets are submitting to the same magazines and entering the same competitions as you, it can be very daunting and the chances of success seem vanishingly small. Once you have started to get some poems in some magazines, and made a few competition longlistes, shortlists and maybe even made the winners podium, how do you then move on to interest a publisher in publishing a book of your poetry? Helena (Nell) Nelson's book is packed with insightful wisdom about what to do and, more importantly, what not to do!

studies are fictitious, though similar situations occur in a publisher’s life on a regular basis.

The bright yellow cover features a large bold title, underneath which there is a graphic of either a poet or editor groaning and tearing her hair, much in the style of Olive Oyl in Popeye.

(from the front matter pages of How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published by Helena Nelson)

The one thing that I particularly want to draw your attention to there is the description of the cover. I've mentioned such things before and, no doubt, I'll mention them again ... blind and visually impaired people still like to know what a book cover looks like! I applaud any publisher who takes the time to include a couple of sentences about what a book's cover looks like. I have not seen any publisher do it better than Helena Nelson's HappenStance Press :)

This book contains pertinent information not only on the mechanics of getting your poetry out into the world, but also advice on making the web work for you, social networking and whether poets should blog; it was on the advice of Helena Nelson that I started this blog and published the first post on 5 March 2016 ... last week's post was my 150th :)

Here’s a confession. Twenty-five years ago I put a set of poems together and sent them to Faber & Faber, whose address I had found in the Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book. I had no idea of the poetry editor’s name. I probably wrote ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. Oh dear. Looking back on this now, the title of the collection strikes me as profoundly ironic: it was The Disappointment Laundry. When I packed off my baby in a fever of optimism, I had had perhaps two poems accepted for magazine publication in my entire life, neither of which I thought to mention in my covering letter. I nevertheless believed my work was excellent and was confident it would speak for itself. I was wrong on both counts. Of course the poems were returned (eventually). I knew something about poetry at that time, though not as much as I thought I knew. I had no idea how poetry publishing worked. I have learned a thing or two since. And in the last eleven years I have learned from the inside.

(from the forward to How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published by Helena Nelson)

My first attempt to get my poetry into print followed much the same route. It was circa 1995 and I'd not long completed my BSc in chemistry. One of the books I included in part 1 of this list of the top 10 books that have inspired me is Blue shoes by Matthew Sweeney. I didn't have much access to the internet in 1995 so had no contact details for Secker & Warburg, the publisher of Blue shoes. I typed my poems on my Brother Word Processor, printed them out and popped them in the post to Secker & Warburg! It didn't take long for me to receive a reply ... which in itself is heart-warming in this day and age when the internet means that publishers are swamped with submissions so rarely have time for any reply ... and of course they returned my manuscript with a note that they didn't accept unsolicited manuscripts. If only How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published had been published twenty-one years earlier ;)

8. Restless by William Boyd

I read a lot of books between 2018 and 2019 as part of my MA in creative writing. some of them were novels, others collections of short stories; some were creative non-fiction and others were poetry collections. If I'm honest I didn't read them all in their entirety, rather dipped in and out, starting with the first chapters and then sampling a few of the middle chapters before seeing how the book ended. There were two novels I did read every page of -- The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant and Restless by William Boyd. The style of their writing drew me in, but the plot and structure of Restless really fired my imagination. It is effectively one story told from two different points of view, one being the mother and one being her daughter. I don't know if I intentionally wrote my end-of-module assignment for Long-Form Fiction this way, but I used two different point of view characters, one being a homeless girl and the other being a Civil Servant. Their lives become connected after they meet -- the girl's life appearing to improve while the male Civil Servant's starts to fall apart until their trajectories draw them back towards each other where the underlying mystery can be confronted. I might have been nervous about writing my plot this way had I not read Restless first.

9. Helping writers to Become authors, podcast by K. M. Weiland

Am I cheating if I include a podcast series in my list of influential books? I think not ... all my books are electronic and I listen to them via my computer or a book reading device, so listening to a writing podcast seems very apt. I think I was just searching on iTunes for podcasts about writing when I discovered this series. I subscribed to the podcast and my iTunes downloaded 400+ episodes right off the bat.

Lasting between 5 and six minutes each, these podcasts are an ideal length ... I listen to four or five on my book reader between waking up and getting out of bed. There have been so many helpful suggestions that I sometimes struggle to remember everything I want to research or think more about once I've made it downstairs and got to my laptop with my first decaf coffee of the day. Katie Weiland is a novelist whose books include historical fiction and sci-fi, plus instructional writing books like Crafting Unforgettable Characters, Outlining Your Novel, The The 5 Secrets of Story Structure, and the Jane Eyre Writer's Digest Annotated Classics edition.

Which leads me nicely to my final book on this top-10 list. In one episode of Helping Writers to Become Authors, this book got a glowing recommendation and, thankfully, I was able to get an eBook version :)

10. Secrets of Story:: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers by Matt Bird

It shouldn't be a surprise to learn that the recipe for a good story contains essentially the same ingredients irrespective of whether it is a novel, a short story, creative non-fiction or a film script. As part of the screenwriting module of my MA, I read some great screenwriting theory books by masters of the form, including Screenplay by Syd Field and Save The Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. Both of those books had lots of helpful advice. This book by Matt Bird is absolutely chock-full of advice that made me stop and think, ‘I need to make sure I'm doing (or not doing) that in my novel’. Every single chapter, without fail, generated half a dozen thought-provoking aspects that I duly made note of.

You’ve just boarded a plane. Your iPhone is loaded with all your favorite podcasts, but before you can get your earbuds in, disaster strikes: The guy in the next seat starts telling you all about something crazy that happened to him—in great detail. This guy is an unwelcome storyteller trying to convince an extremely reluctant audience to care about his story. We all hate that guy, right?
But any time you write a story for strangers (any kind of story: novel, memoir, screenplay, comic, even just a cover letter), you become that unwelcome storyteller, desperately trying to make a connection before those earbuds pop.
Twenty-first-century culture moves fast, and there’s an endless amount of content bombarding us at all times. What are the new rules for succeeding as a writer in this oversaturated environment? The answer is simple: If you want to write for strangers, you have to remember what it feels like to be that jaded audience.
(from the Introduction to Secrets of Story:: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers by Matt Bird)

In my novel I was pondering how best to write my Irish character's dialogue. I suspect it's quite common for readers to have read a book where a character speaks with a broad accent that the author has painstakingly written with phonetic spellings, which is the way we hear it when an actor plays that role in a film adaptation. Reading the following from Chapter Seven, Drafting Electric Dialogue was a nudge in the right direction:

your dialogue must seem realistic. In fact, it should seem startlingly realistic. The way to do this is not to imitate the inarticulate meandering of real talk but to imitate the unique sentence structure this type of character would use.
And please don’t attempt to capture the dialect of real speech. If you find yourself tempted to spell out a character’s pronunciation to indicate he comes from a certain culture or region, stop. Instead, try to indicate that subculture or region through culturally specific sentence structure. For example, instead of having a British cabbie say, “‘At’s right!” have him say “Too right.” It’s a writer’s job to capture unique syntax, not pronunciation.

Whatever you're doing at this time of Lockdown, may your reading be informative and your writing productive :) xx

Published ineducationPoetry


  1. Nell Nell

    Cor! How lovely to be included here. I wasn’t expecting that. Thank you, Giles! I also love Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ and have read it at least three times. And William Boyd is another favourite. So of course I think you have fantastic taste!

  2. Giles Giles

    In a line from the song Meltin’s Worm, by the Boo Radleys … its exquisite tastes went to waste / on a diet consisting of sweets! 😉

    Your book had lots of helpful advice and definitely deserves to be on a list of influential books I’ve read 🙂 xx

  3. Giles,
    Great selection of books. Some I know others look forward to reading.

  4. Giles Giles

    thanks for reading the post, Faith. I am glad you found it helpful 🙂 xx

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