Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

This volume brings together an assortment of essays written by the author at various points in his career. It’s not really a writing guidebook, more a random collection of wise autobiographical observations. You won’t find anything on punctuation and grammar in here. If anything, the chief subject is inspiration.

These are essays which were not originally intended to be placed in a single volume, so there is a degree of overlap at times. One topic that is mentioned more than once is a major turning point in Bradbury’s life, when he wrote a short story called “The Lake.” This story was semi-autobiographical, in that it tells of a little girl whom the author remembers wading into a lake and never coming out again. He wept after writing it, and realised that for the first time ever, he had written something beautiful. It was a turning point because it was the first time Bradbury had written from the heart.

I didn’t agree with everthing Bradbury had to say. For instance, he is very fond of the idea of writing one thousand words per day, every day. He belives that being super-productive is the way to go, constantly churning out more and more work. In contrast, I believe that a writer should limit himself to writing what he believes is his most excellent material. I also believe there is great benefit in going for long periods without writing, granting the imagination space to develop ideas before commiting them to paper. (I had the idea for Chion at least four years before I wrote it, and it’s three times the novel it would have been, had I rushed things.) Bradbury is, however, stating what has worked for him, rather than laying down definitive strategies for all writers.

I find it difficult to believe Bradbury’s claim that he always writes with passion – that’s it’s more like play than work. That’s not a criticism; I see it as something to aspire to. In many ways, it reflects the kind of creativity I remember being capable of when I was in my late teens – something I partially lost when I got older. Maybe something I need to try and reclaim.

I didn’t find Zen in the Art of Writing as inspirational as Stephen King’s On Writing, but it’s still a useful book for a writer to have in his arsenal. I came away from it feeling refreshed, with renewed passion to write from within myself and a determination never to end up a hack.

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The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White

Take heed, aspiring writers. This little book is essential reading for all of you; it is, in effect, your field manual. Don’t let its tiny 100-page size fool you; it is crammed with important information about the English language, and there is zero waffle.

The book is divided into five chapters: (1) Elementary Rules of Usage; (2) Elementary Principals of Composition; (3) A Few Matters of Form; (4) Words and Expressions Commonly Misused; (5) An Approach to Style. Each chapter is broken down into a series of points, rather than reams of prose. Ideal for reference.

In defending this book’s must-have status, here’s a little challenge to the aspiring writer. How many of you can answer yes to all the following questions?

1. Would you have known that a phrase such as “as to whether” is better rendered simply “whether”?

2. Did you know that there is no such word as “alright,” but the correct form is always “all right”?

3. Do you know the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested”?

4. Which of these words is correct English: “flammable” or “inflammable”?

5. Can you tell when to use “that” and when to use “which” (e.g. “the dog that/which pooped on my lawn”)?

6. Would you have known that in cases where the word “very” is in front of a word, both words can usually be changed for a single stronger one (e.g. “very tired” and “exhausted”)?

If you can’t answer yes to all the above questions, study The Elements of Style, and supercharge your writing skills. Far too many independent writers are taking the sloppy, easy route. Don’t do it.

Digital Fantasy Painting Workshop by Martin McKenna

This volume contains 160 full colour pages featuring work by many of today’s leading fantasy artists. More than simply a showcase of talent, the book features digital paintings at various stages in their development, from the first pencil marks on paper to the final glorious image on the computer monitor. Martin McKenna has invited these artists to share their tricks of the trade with the average reader.

This is not a comprehensive guide to digital painting. Each artist is given only a handful of pages with which to teach us, so details are sketchy at best. What you get is a broad overview of the varied techniques employed. Some artists will start on paper, then scan their sketches in and paint over the top; some start by taking digital photographs of people, places, and things, which they then modify; still others feature 3D rendering in their work.

This book is an appetizer, and as such it works very well. What it will not do is turn a non-artist into an artist. There is no short-cut to beautiful paintings without a carefully honed skill at traditional drawing. The book’s purpose is to clue you into the possibilities. Many years ago I got my A-level Art qualification, and I’ve dabbled with Photoshop; and I left this book with a sense of optimism and excitement about being able to go further.

Bear in mind that these experts are working with nothing more than a PC equipped with a graphics tablet and a copy of Photoshop or Painter. If you have an interest in bringing your art skills to the digital plane, you would do well to read this book.

On Writing by Stephen King

If I were in the business of giving aspiring writers advice (says he who is still an aspiring writer himself), and if I were only allowed to say 5 words, they would be these: “Read Stephen King’s On Writing.”

This is no ordinary writing textbook. In fact, it’s not really a textbook at all. It is simply Stephen King in friendly conversation. The first third of the book is taken up with biographical material, where King gives a brief overview of his life. This may be of little interest to some readers, who would want to get into the nitty-gritty of learning about writing straight away, but I jumped at the chance to learn more about the author I’ve admired since I was fourteen. More importantly, I think the biography is a fitting inclusion, because what you are as a person flows onto the printed page. At least, that’s how it works with all good fiction.

In the central, largest section of the book, King gets down to business, sharing with us what he’s learned about the craft of writing in his lifelong experience. Pretty much everything is covered – grammar, plot, characterisation, theme, revision, etc., etc. At no point does any of it get boring. King’s is as good as a lecturer as he a storyteller. One idea of his that is found fascinating is the idea that a story is a “found thing,” like a fossil dug out of the ground. At the start it is covered in earth and must be excavated very carefully, using the right tools so as not to break it. This section of the book is, in fact, entitled “Toolbox.”

I’ve been writing on and off for over fifteen years. I’ve learned a lot of about the craft of writing just through practise alone, and there were a lot of things I suspected I was getting right. It was an exciting experience having Stephen King confirm many of my suspicions, rather than blow them to bits. However, there were some things I was getting wrong too, and I was glad to have these corrected.

I’m very grateful to have been able to learn from the one man earth who is surely the most qualified to give advice on the subject. This book refuelled my enthusiasm for the craft, at a point in my life where I had lost most of it. Without On Writing, I am certain my own novel Ulterior would never have come to be.