Ever since I started getting serious about writing, I’ve been an avid reader and collector of “how-to” books on writing. While some artists cling fiercely to the notion of being “self-taught,” I’ve always felt there’s a lot to gain from exploring the opinions and insights of those who are further along in the game.
Even now, as a published author who has also been privileged to receive the coveted key to the Top Secret Writer Unboxed VIP Champagne Room (or, TSWUVIPCR)*, my appetite for books on the craft of writing hasn’t diminished. In fact, I’m currently reading three of them, including the excellent new book that WU’s own Donald Maass just released.
* While I may have been given the key to the TSWUVIPCR, what I really need is directions. So far, none of my WU colleagues has deigned to tell me where the damn place is. But I’m sure I’ll find it eventually…
So why the hunger for the how-to’s? For one thing, they help keep the tools sharp and the batteries charged. And I’ve seen repeated proof that the shopworn advice to “just write the best book you can and the rest will fall into place” really doesn’t begin to prepare a writer for the job of creating truly marketable fiction. That’s why I want to make sure I am armed with the best current thinking on what really works in fiction, as well as what doesn’t.
As I’ve amassed these books over the years, some clear favorites have emerged, most of which I’ve re-read multiple times. So I thought I’d share some of them with you, with the hope that they might prove as helpful to you as they’ve been to me.
Stephen King: On Writing
I know praises of this book have been sung previously here at WU, but that praise bears repeating. Even if you’re not a fan of King’s fiction, I truly believe every serious writer will get something out of this.
In particular I recommend the audio version of the book, which Stephen narrates himself. Listening to him, you feel like you’re just sitting down and having a casual chat with your good friend Stevie. In fact, the tone is so comfortable and conversational, I actually checked the audio book against the text of the printed version, to see if maybe Stephen was just paraphrasing for the audio version. But he’s not; the book is a testament to King’s skill at maintaining a conversational tone – one of those seemingly effortless effects that most writers soon realize is extremely hard to pull off.
But the real takeaway from the audio version is that this guy freaking loves writing. Seriously, when you hear King speak, the guy’s passion for writing is flat-out contagious (and his love for his wife is really touching). I listen to this every year or so, whenever my literary batteries need recharging.
Sol Stein: How to Grow a Novel
I like the title of this book: an acknowledgement of what a huge task it is to write – or grow – your book. But the subtitle of the book (“the most common mistakes writers make and how to overcome them”) should let you know why I love it so much: it’s about solving problems.
And Stein knows his stuff – he’s an author, screenwriter, poet, and editor, so he’s able to take a very holistic but analytical look at the whole process of creating marketable fiction. Another excellent Stein book is his own On Writing (a popular title, it seems), but of the two, I found “How to Grow” more helpful while I was working on my first piece of book-length fiction.
Donald Maass: Writing the Breakout Novel
While Stein’s book is a powerful tool for troubleshooting your writing, this book takes it to a whole new level. Believe me, I’ve read a ton of books on writing, but I can think of few – if any – that have resonated so completely, and that offer such clear-cut instructions for elevating your game. I like every one of Donald’s books, but to me this is where it all began, offering the first cohesive look at why some books break out, and what you can do to push your own writing in a similar direction.
The funny thing is, his advice is not shocking. It all makes perfect sense. But it’s like when somebody tells you that if you eat right and exercise, you’ll be healthier. That advice alone can’t change your life, but what you DO with that advice can. Same thing with Don’s book. You can read and nod your head and say, “Yeah, that’s a great idea,” or you can take the next step and actually apply what he’s advising to your own writing. I’ll wager that anybody who does take that next step will see a radical change in how others react to their writing.
Strunk & White: The Elements of Style
Most of us are aware of this literary classic, but how many have actually read it? If you haven’t, do it now – I’ll wait. Seriously, it won’t take long: the copy I currently own – a 1959 edition that belonged to my mother – is only 71 pages long. But those 71 pages can make a real difference in your writing.
I still remember my parents giving me my own first copy of this little book, with all the reverence and ceremony that some families might reserve for handing down the family Bible. Then again, given the fact that both my parents were journalists, in many ways it was their Bible. And when I re-read this book every few years, I am reminded of why.
William Zinsser: On Writing Well
This book is actually targeted at nonfiction writers and journalists, but the advice Zinsser offers is equally applicable to fiction. Like Strunk & White, his goal is to help make your writing more vigorous and crisp, by keeping you focused on what matters, and pointing out common pitfalls to avoid.
This is another one that I like to re-read before launching a new writing project. Think of it as a literary tune-up and oil change.
Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird
Because I’m so darn rugged and manly (and spend so much of my time doing rugged, manly things like kicking lumberjacks’ asses and doing handstand pushups over red-hot coals), I don’t usually make much time for reading “touchy-feely” books about writing. But this one is a notable exception. The candor and vulnerability Lamott displays in discussing the emotional challenge of trying to pursue a career in professional writing make this an incredibly refreshing read.
This book is both highly compelling and a wonderful reality check, letting you know you’re not alone in harboring the insecurities and less-than-noble sentiments that often plague those of us who are cursed/blessed with the literary calling. Seriously, if you find the challenge of being a writer sometimes leaves you emotionally raw and beaten, take heart and read this book. It’s like a much-needed hug.
Ahem – now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go drop a new transmission in a buddy’s ‘72 Trans Am, before sitting down with a brewski to watch the big game. After a few pushups, of course.
Merriam-Webster’s Manual for Writers and Editors
Over the years I’ve been surprised by how few writers I encounter who have bothered to invest in any guides on style or usage. Maybe they are intimidated by the cost (and/or the user-unfriendliness) of the mammoth Chicago Manual of Style. Or maybe they simply don’t know that such guides exist, and instead have come to rely on the convenient (but often woefully inaccurate and inconsistent) information the Internet provides.
The reality is that most of us learned the basic mechanics of writing many years (or decades) before we became “serious” about writing. So it’s no surprise that we may not have an encyclopedic grasp of punctuation, capitalization, abbreviations, style conventions for numbers, and so on. That’s where a good style guide is invaluable. It can save time, and help you add a level of polish and consistency to your writing that elevates you above The Great Literary Unwashed.
Of the style guides I’m familiar with, such as Chicago, AP and a few others, this is my favorite. It’s concise, much easier to use than Chicago, and – most attractively – it’s cheap! This particular edition is out of print, but you can find used copies in good shape for less than a dollar. A newer (and oddly, even shorter) edition is now available under the title of Merriam-Webster’s Guide to Punctuation and Style. But I’ll stick with my old edition – I’ve already flagged the pages that I refer to most frequently.
So, what’s on YOUR bookshelf?
As a how-to junkie, I have many similar books on my shelves, some of them quite good. And more are being published every year, so there’s always something new for me to explore. But so far these are the ones that have made themselves indispensable to me, so they’re the ones I chose to spotlight in this post.
How about you? What are some books that have been indispensable to YOUR writing? And why? Thanks for reading – I look forward to hearing from you!
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