First things first. If you're busy with a shitty first draft, you will probably not want to get stuck into any of these just now - though some of them are just the right size for a stocking. Hurling a story down any old way that comes, "building up, not tearing down" as the NaNoWriMo website puts it, is usually not helped by an attack of standing-outside-it-ness, of self-consciousness, or a cool new costume for your Inner Critic.
But for the rest of us (and NaNo-ers in due course) these are all books that I've read recently which have been both fascinating and useful to me as a... I've just dithered about whether to write "as a writer" or "as a reader" but those aren't just two sides of the same coin, they're the same side of the coin: for me the other side of it is "as a teacher". However much you are of any of those three, help yourself to these:
Q: What's wrong with fiction, my best, most precious thing?
Q: What's wrong with me?
A few years ago Jenn Ashworth, with four novels published and any amount of stories and essays, found she could not write her fifth, because she could not write what needed to be - demanded to be - refused to be - written. These essays start with the trauma of childbirth gone appallingly wrong, then weave to and fro among Ashworth's Now and all sorts of her Then, often layered within the same sentence as these things are in our memory-layered minds. Here are sharp, hazy, partial, complex memories of a strange and difficult childhood growing up Mormon in the apparent ordinariness of working-class Preston; of mad, sleepless nights watching horror movies and the far worse stuff on YouTube; of school and work and reading and parents; and of a gradual, inch-by-inch reckoning, with the help of reading others' writing, with how the self sickens, or is made sick by what others do to it.
Notes Made While Falling and This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin could not possibly be more different books to be sheltered by the same wide, leaky but rather wonderful umbrella whose segments are labelled creative non-fiction, memoir, the personal or lyrical essay and the creative-critical text. But they are both about not being able to write, and they both came about partly as an act of paying attention - staying curious, as Ashworth would put it - to what is going on when we do (fail to) write. By way of the child-at-risk register, Jessica Fletcher, trepanning, King Lear, baptism-by-immersion on behalf of the deceased, and other extraordinary and ordinary life-stuff - and despite the fact that "we writers truck in epiphanies all the time" and rarely are they entirely honest - the book builds to a profound meditation on what we owe to our own and everyone's fragile and vulnerable person-hood.
Words are virtually useless until they're connected, and how they're connected makes all the difference. But I only realised how this delicious book works at the end, when Moran himself realises that his "style guide by stealth seems to have turned into a love letter to the sentence". In the reading it seems more like the other way round: it starts by evoking the love that any writer worth their salt feels for the fundamental molecules of their trade, and gradual unpacks itself.
Even so, there's a definite lack of bullet-points, exercises, chunks of quotation, panels of "inspirational quotes", or all the other apparatus of a conventional how-to-write book. Only gradually are we led by Moran into more practical, this-is-what-works-best-most-of-the-time-but-not-all territory. the chapter "Nouns versus verbs" does what it says on the tin, and in "Nothing Like a Windowpane", he pins down how and why "classic plain style" is not plain at all; he's my hero in "The High-wire Act" for a brilliant analysis of the joys of the long sentence; "Foolish Like a Trout" explores sentences that don't expect themselves to be immediately, superficially clear and thinks how they might create a reader who's willing to wait and work for that clarity. I read First You Write A Sentence. on a train, with no pencil to make notes with, but I'll be going back in with one soon.
If I were being pretentious (moi?), or writing a funding application, I'd say that Mary Karr's book enacts what it teaches. The voice could not be any other than her own, and she sets about exploring and explaining how memoir works, and how to write it, in a way which is both delightfully idiosyncratic and amazingly clear and practical. Karr has taught memoir for more than thirty years, and although of course she draws on her own experience of writing bestselling and critically acclaimed books, her teaching experience shows: her anecdotes are always illuminating, even if your own project - and your own sensibility and psychology - are wildly different.
From ways to work out whether you're actually ready to write your own story, to working out your own rule-book, and how to get family on-side with the project (top tip: get them to choose their own pseudonym), it's stuffed with wisdom and wit. Honesty, too: Karr was one of the writers who endorsed Binjamin Wilkomirski's notorious fake Holocaust memoir Fragments, and even if you've no intention of writing memoir the ways she explores memory, boundaries, ethics, faking, truth-telling and everything in between, is immensely thought-provoking. And the very generous reading-list/bibliography at the back is an absolutely goldmine.
Bell and Commane, too, declare that theirs is not a how-to-write book - but "a kind of handbook to the poetry life". It's true, in the sense that it's not set out like a text-book. But they do talk about what it is to write poems, as well as to read them, share them and publish them - so, actually, in covering perspiration, inspiration, technique and industry know-how, this is a book about how to write.
As Itch regulars will know, I'm not a poet, but I know many poets, and I'm always saying that prose writers benefit from taking poetry courses, because thinking-like-a-poet is immensely useful to us. And it's not only about learning to wrangle words in a form which both grants greater freedom and makes greater demands of our words; we fictioneers could learn a lot, too, from the poets about doing events, networking, reading aloud and so on. It's humane, practical, and sufficiently subjective that you feel you're in touch with two vastly experienced teacher-poets, while sufficiently in-depth knowledgeable to make it worth paying close attention. And - the acid test, perhaps, of even not-really how-to-write books: it made me itch to start get back to writing poetry.
If you've ever read one of the classic story-structure books - Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Robert McKee's Story, or Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey - you, too, may have felt as Kim Hudson did: in these profound and practical explorations of human actions and how humans have always made sense of them by shaping them into stories, "There is more than a touch of testosterone". (And this, by Kathleen O'Mara at McSweeny's, is another very funny take on the problem). If your characters are struggling against internal obstacles to make their lives mature and meaningful within their community, to find strength and independence inside themselves, with friends rather than allies, then how much can the "hero's journey" concept help? It can only really be a metaphor, and for it to be any use you have to distort either the story-structure, or your actual story, to the point where one or other collapses.
But what other help is there? That's where Hudson starts. I first learnt about The Virgin's Promise in a workshop at the Romantic Novelists' Association conference, where Fiona Lucas's presentation was based on Strictly Ballroom. That should give you a clue to the kind of story that is illuminated when you look at it in terms of Hudson's stages, from "Dependent World", by way of "Dressing the Part" and "Caught Shining" towards "Kingdom in Chaos" and the final resolution. And her archetypes, too, are drawn from "female life" and experience, often having similar roles to the "male"s of Campbell & Co but played out in very different ways: in a story centred on the Virgin (Hero), with help from a Goddess (King), the antagonist might be a Hag (Miser) and so on. Actual gender doesn't come into archetype-wrangling, of course: what was clever about using Strictly Ballroom is that both Scott and Fran follow a Virgin's Promise arc.