Hi, Kate Flora here, writing about writing. Because it comes up so often in conversation with other writers, and in class with my students, this post is about the writing books that writers turn to. While some writers are “go it alone” types, most writers have some special books about writing that have guided them along the way. Some are books we read when we were just starting out, some books we read when we are stuck or need advice about rewrite or revision or we need help in understanding our characters or making them deeper. Some are books we return to time after time because of their inspiration or their wisdom.
Kate Flora: I have a whole shelf of books that I use, because I teach writing as well as “do” writing, and often I’m looking for the clearest way to explain some particular technique of the craft to my students. Among my favorites is John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. When I first read it years ago, as a very new mystery writer, I decided that according to Gardner’s lights, I wasn’t a writer at all. Over the years, though, I’ve found so much in his book about the craft of writing, and it’s a different book each time I reread it. For nitty-gritty basics, I often turn to a book with a bit of a Hollywood sensibility, Saul Stein’s Stein on Writing because his advice is so clear and practical.
For solid, basic writing advice, writers Sandra Gardner and J.M. Cornwell both suggest Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. Gardner adds Rita Mae Brown’s Starting from Scratch.
William Martin: When I teach writing, I have my students read Stephen King’s On Writing, though
he doesn’t believe in outlining, which I think is essential especially for beginners who hope to write any kind of genre fiction. I also have them read Christopher Keane’s How to Write a Selling Screenplay. Why a screenplay book for novelists? Because the structural principles are the same, and he does a very good job of laying them out for you. The book has never been out of print in twelve years.
Daniel Moses Luft: I really like Writing the Popular Novel by Loren D. Estleman. There is absolutely no romance of writing in this book. It’s all very nuts and bolts kind of advice about how to tell stories
King’s book comes up repeatedly on writer’s lists as a guide.
Adam Olenn also suggests Stephen King’s book, saying On Writing is probably the best all-around book on the craft of writing. Olenn is also an advocate for another book about screenwriting, Story by Robert McKee and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.
Kate Flora: I recently bought the Vogler book for my shelf because so many writers have suggested it. The idea of returning to myths as the basis for storytelling comes up again and again when writers talk about their craft. It’s interesting, too, how many of us also turn to books about screenwriting. Maybe because it is such a highly structured version of storytelling. Among my favorites is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, a book that really pushes us to know what our story is ‘about.’ Can you do an elevator pitch for your story? I still need a very tall building, but Snyder has helped.
Steve Liskow, whose crime story in the Blood Moon anthology is nominated for an Edgar this year, also suggests a screenwriting book, John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, that helps blend character, plot, and setting. Liskow says Nancy Kress’s book, Characters Emotion & Viewpoint is terrific for character work, and Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure is a must.
Tess Collins suggests The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. And James N. Frey’s series of books on writing– my favorite being The Key–How to write a damn good novel using the power of myth.
Kaitlyn Dunnett: I think I’ve said before that I’m not a big fan of how to books. Frankly, they intimidate me, lead to self-doubt, and generally have a negative effect on my productivity. I don’t really know what I’m doing but somehow it comes out right if I trust my instincts. If I start worrying about whether I’ve done all the things I’m supposed to do to write a good novel, I don’t get any writing done. And no, I don’t keep a notebook, either. At best, I occasionally scribble an idea down on a scrap of paper and stick it in a file folder, but then I hardly ever look at what’s in the file folder.
That said, there is one writing book I will recommend, even though I’ve only used it once in writing my own books. It is The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D. When I was working on Face Down Before Rebel Hooves, the Lady Appleton mystery that uses the greatest number of real people in the plot, I was faced with the dilemma of distinguishing between two historical figures who, on the surface, were very similar. I won’t change anything that’s in the historical record, so it Edelstein’s chapter on Adult Styles was a life saver. Her lists of character traits helped me create two distinct individuals, characterizing one as what she calls a “bossy” and the other as an “adventurer.”
When we posted a query about favorite writing books on Facebook, some of our friends also weighed in on the question of books that help to understand/develop character traits:
Lise McClendon: My new favorite is Wired for Story, about the brain and human storytelling. Good stuff.
Maggie Toussaint: My go-to book is Are you My Type, am I yours? Relationships made easy through the Enneagram, by Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele. This helps me set up conflicted characters in a heartbeat and has lots of cool examples to cement the character type in my feeble brain.
For writers struggling to get started, or those whose creativity may need a writing prompt, John Clark says: I still like What if?: writing exercises for fiction writers, Anne Bernays, Pamela Painter. I came across the first edition when I was asked to teach a creative writing class for the local adult education program when I lived in Chelsea. It’s a great book to encourage beginning and struggling writers because it’s chock full of easy to jump into exercises. I also like Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach for anyone wanting to write about families or their own life. Every time I open it, I can see Bill in the small room at Chewonki 12 years ago with his easy going style, pulling a diverse group of would be authors into the realm of possible.
Kieran Shields: I wouldn’t say that I “rely” on any writing book. I think that does more harm than good. One book I did I use was Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. It puts a focus on editing what you’ve written, which is where much of the focus should be. The authors do a good job of providing concrete examples of bad, good, and better pieces of writing so that you can more easily grasp the ideas or techniques they discuss. But in my opinion, sooner rather than later, you have to put manuals and guides aside and just keep learning by doing. Read a lot and see what works, keep writing and see what works.
Kate: Another great go-to book for editing is Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery. And the book that came up over and over again as one that every aspiring writer should read is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.
As Rick Helms says: Not so much about writing, but about the writing life. I read it pretty much once every couple of years to recharge.
One last thought: Don’t, as one of Kate’s students once did, rush out to buy all of these books, but this can be a very helpful list when you’re stuck, looking for a fresh take, need a break from your book, or are snowed in. Some of the books may be out of print. That doesn’t mean the advice is no longer worthwhile.
And you can join the conversation: What writing books will always have a place on your shelves?