Tuesday, March 13, 2012

10+ Favorite Writing Books

Cricket McRae

bookshelf You can’t learn how to write from a book. Wait, that’s only partially true. Because I think you can learn a lot about how to write from a combination of many books.

I cut my teeth on Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and Barbara Ueland’s If You Want to Write as basics. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Vein of Gold, and The Sound of Paper are a lot about finding yourself as an artist, and still provide inspiration when I’m wondering why the heck I do this again? But if I had to choose just ten books to keep on my office shelf (not counting things like a Webster’s Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and Elements of Grammar), these are the volumes I’d choose.

On Writing by Stephen King. Well, duh. Not exactly like I’m alone in this one. Full of practical advice, inspiration, and autobiographical detail.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Sorry – another duh, but still one of my favorite books for keeping sane in the middle of a project, reminding me that I only have to fill a space the size of a picture frame right now, not write the whole book at once, and that shitty first drafts can be fixed up later.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. A collection of essays that are not only examples of writing I want to emulate, but full of joy and passion for the craft. He wants you to love it, to do it every day, and to be true to your voice.

Starting from Scratch by Rita Mae Brown. I love her mysteries, I love her mainstream literary fiction, and I love her writing book. She includes practical writing advice (with an emphasis on the classics) but also practical living-as-a-writer advice. Things like writing with a day job, dealing with critics, editors, agents, and others in the industry, as well as emphasizing that you have to persist no matter what.

Anything by Eric Maisel. Yes, this is totally cheating because now there are more than ten books. But Maisel wears a lot of useful hats, because he’s a doctor of psychology with an MFA, as well as a professional, hands on, writer of fiction and nonfiction with a degree in philosophy. He’s a creativity coach, and understands some of the craziness writers and other artists are prone to. Of course, I’m not talking about anyone here, right? The following are a sampling of his titles:

  • Fearless Creating: A Step-by-Step Guide to Starting and Completing Your Work of Art
  • Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions
  • Mastering Creative Anxiety
  • The Van Gogh’s Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression
  • Deep Writing: 7 Principles That Bring Ideas to Life
  • Ten Zen Seconds

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. I’ve heard this modern classic called a book on formula, but I think it’s more about the universal elements of storytelling that have appealed, well, forever. He breaks things down in terms of structure, archetypes, and the psychology of myth.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. Yeah, okay, I love the movie Adaptation and how Charlie Kaufman pokes fun at McKee, but I learned a lot about storytelling from this book – including why my instincts told me to go certain directions with plot or character. It’s a heavy tome, though, and if you want a short work with many of the same concepts, try The Poetics by Aristotle.

How to Write: Advice and Reflections by Richard Rhodes. From the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, this is another book with practical advice woven into personal essay. It’s part memoir and part psychological treatise on the emotional aspects of writing well. However, the best writing advice in it might be, “Apply ass to chair.”

No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript that Sells by Alice Orr. Though the subtitle on this book is small enough that I’m afraid people in the coffee shop will think I’m having relationship problems (like they give a hoot what I read, right?) this book is chock full of good, practical stuff that, to my great chagrin, I sometimes forget: How to deepen characters, how to write a good, useful sex scene, what you need to know before you start to write even if you end up leaving it out, etc. It’s geared for novel writers, especially genre writers.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Yep, another Pulitzer Prize winner (for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). Rather than a pep talk, she delves into how hard writing can be – she really hates it sometimes – and how utterly frightening, while at the same time it can be an almost spiritual experience. Her writing is real and human and accessible while being inspirational and raw as well. Of course, I love everything she’s written, even the rather obscure The Living.

What are your favorite writing books? As a reader, do you like reading about how writers like these think?


Kathleen Ernst said...

Wow, Cricket, I'm chagrined to see so many titles I haven't looked at. Yet. I too find it helpful to dip back into helpful how-to books from time to time. Always something new to discover! Thanks for sharing.

Robin Allen said...

I've read many of those on your list, but some are new to me. My two favorites are Creativity Rules! by John Vorhaus and Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

Keith Raffel said...

Hmm. I just moderated a panel of writers that included the witty and talented Lisa Lutz. Here's her position: "The first rule of writing is that there are no rules. I have never read a book on writing, nor do I intend to." You can read more on wny not here: http://goo.gl/bdf7Q.

Cricket McRae said...

Kathleen, sometimes I just like to dip into another writer's brain. ;)

Robin, I'm adding your suggestions to my list.

Keith, I love Lisa's Spellman books, but it's too late for me to follow her advice now!

David Hansard said...

I like those books, or the ones of them I've read, especially Dillard and Lamott, but the one that helped me the most, pulled me from despair, and helped me turn a mess of paragraphs into something that looked like a finished novel was Lawrence Block's ______ (fill in the blank). Choose from Writing the Novel, Spider Spin Me a Web, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, The Liar's Bible. They are all very similar, iterations on a theme, but the advice is simple, straight forward and non-esoteric. When someone confesses they "want to be a writer",
as my niece recently did to her parents' profound mortification, I gave her Telling Lies. (Block even has advice for that: Take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room and wait for the feeling to pass. If it persists, you probably ought to write a novel).

Shannon Baker said...

I love all of these I've read and want to read those I haven't read yet. When I first started writing I went to a Rocky Mt. Fiction Writer's con and Alice Orr was there. What a perfectly wonderful curmudgeon. I didn't know she had a book.

Beth Groundwater said...

You missed my favorite, an oldie but goodie: How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey.


Cricket McRae said...

David, I've heard good things about Block's writing books but haven't ever read one. You've inspired me!

Shannon, that's hilarious about Alice Orr -- makes me want to meet her.

Beth, another friend recommended How to Write a Damn Good Novel just last week!

RkLewis said...

We've read so many of the same books. I LOVE reading books on how to write. I would also throw Sol Stein's book, "Stein on Writing" into the mix, too. That book really opened my eyes. And lol regarding the James Frey book. I met him once. What a cantankerous man! He really raked my writing over the coals, which hurt, but it was probably THE incident that made me work harder and harder. And I read "Bird by Bird" just for the heck of it now, as I just enjoy her voice so much.
Great post!

Linda Hull said...

Another odd but good one is Save The Cat. It's about screenwriting, but incredibly useful.