When I decided I wanted to pursue a career writing fiction, I did what any prudent person should do upon taking up a new endeavor: I assumed the role of a serious student. It has become clear that if we aren’t growing, we are dying, and we must water, fertilize, and nurture the seeds we want to take root in our lives.
While I found many helpful booklists online, I also found sparkling gems hidden in the forwards and acknowledgments of novels by some of my favorite authors. Below are some of my favorite books on the craft of writing. Like all endeavors of creativity, the serious student will find that intelligent instruction involves the structure of science surrounded by a changing whirlwind of art; rules to know, only to break later; a delicate dance of guidance and intuition, conformity and inspiration.
“Life is not a support system for art, it’s the other way around.”
If you love Stephen King (or don’t) and want to become a successful writer, this is a must-read. I thoroughly enjoyed the highly readable blend of memoir and instruction within these pages. King’s anecdotes, personal struggles, and adamant advice contain a lifetime of wisdom for the aspiring author. I also particularly enjoy the included lists of King’s recommended reads. One of the key takeaways that stuck with me was about how we are telling ourselves our story while writing the first draft, and our job in editing is to remove the aspects that are not the story.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.”
Anne Lamott‘s book is one you’ll find on most lists of recommended reads for aspiring authors. This book contains excellent advice, quirky humor (I laughed out loud repeatedly while reading), and to me, reinforced the idea that writer’s madness may very well be the source of their genius. Lamott’s idea of keeping notecards everywhere to scribble down ideas, inspirations, observations, and recollections is an invaluable tip for the serious writer. Replace the notecards with a digital notepad or journal on your smartphone, and you’ll have no excuse to jot down nuggets throughout the day.
“The writer who has a definite meaning to express will not take refuge in such vagueness.”
Don’t let the small size of this book fool you; while it is a testament to Strunk and White’s charges for brevity, clarity, and conciseness, most writers could benefit from keeping this book close at hand. Rules of usage, principles of composition, instructions on style – Elements of Style, is packed full of timeless advice for any writer, of any sort.
“To be really good at something, we have to work at it.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Elizabeth Kracht at a writer’s conference I attended in Los Angeles. Her book contains a myriad of advice provided in easy to find sections. Need information on dialogue, pacing, word count? Personally, the chapter on prose helped me cut thousands of words from my manuscript by limiting qualifiers, intensifiers, omitting needless filler words, etc. The samples and sections on query letters and synopses are particularly helpful for new writers seeking publication for their first novels.
“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” – Ray Bradbury
There’s no one quite like Bradbury, and for me, this book was gasoline on the fire of my inspiration. The energy and zeal contained in his words not only created a hunger to read more of Bradbury’s work, but inspired me to feed my Muse more than mere sustenance, but endless delicacies. Writers must find their joy, and if most of us found half as much of it as Ray Bradbury had while putting words on the page, we may find our aspirations close at hand.
“As a friend of mine, herself a writer, says, “People who spend the most meaningful hours of their lives in the exclusive company of imaginary people are apt to be a little strange.”
Telling Lies for Fun & Profit very well might be my favorite book I’ve read thus far on writing as a career and a craft. I found invaluable advice on how to draw the reader in close, and the things novice writers do that creates more distance than desired. Narrative techniques become apparent and applicable; complex plots become manageable; rejection becomes something not to be feared, but embraced. I found Lawrence Block‘s book full of essential tips, and damn good fun.
In closing, I’ll say this is a list I could (and likely will) add to, easily. I’m sure I’ll discover dozens of other books that help me in my journey over the coming years. Most importantly, remember this: Instruction is powerless without inspiration. And…
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
― Jack London