Finding the Words

a blog devoted to the art, craft, and frustration of writing

Books on Writing April 26, 2007

Here’s a list of books that have helped me. Well, maybe it’s premature to make such a statement. Perhaps I should wait until I’ve actually been published?

The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch
Ah! An indispensable book! I troll through the pages routinely, picking up tidbits I missed the first five times, or however often I’ve read it now. This is my go-to book, for when I’m feeling insecure, when I’m confused, even when I’m bored. Koch is a storehouse of writing experience–he’s taught creative writing at Columbia University for 15 years, or something like that. He’s able to make generalizations and offer advice from observing the struggles of hundreds of novices, and some experts. Anyway, his advice ranges from generating story ideas, developing style and voice, and a jewel of a section on rewriting and revising.

The most important thing I learned from this book is the process of finding the story. His point, you have to tell the story in order to find it. You are the only one who can tell the story, and this is the first time it’s been told, and in order to invent it, you have to go through the iterations first. So don’t be afraid of first drafts. And never, ever judge your first draft. Read it, decide what’s interesting and what’s not, but don’t judge it–it simply was never meant to be judged, and it has no meaning towards your future of a writer.

First draft fear is a lot like stage fright. It keeps you from even starting because you are afraid it won’t make sense, that it will be stupid, that somehow it will reveal that you were never meant to be a writer, and you are crappy at it. All of that is ridiculous. Just go write it.

Steering the Craft: Exercises and Short Story Suggestions for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew
A good, solid book that covers the fundamentals of writing, with Guin’s usual flair and insight.

The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life by Noah Lukeman
Lukeman is a long-time editor of fiction books. In this guide he boils down the most essential ingredients of what makes good writing. It’s a good book, though a bit exhausting, since he barrages you with questions to make you think about your characters and plot. Thin on writing exercises, but reading the whole thing will have you quiet for days, thinking and chewing.

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
This book was perhaps one of the most life changing books I’ve read and it remains one of my favorites. It’s not just another book on writing technique. Rather, Brande delves into that often overlooked part of writing – lifestyle and attitude. In this book, she teaches you how to train yourself and transform yourself into a Writer. She approaches the task with the supposition that we all have what it takes inside of us; we need only unlock our subconsciousness. The first part of the book is devoted to doing just that. She asserts that if you demand it of yourself, you will rise up to the challenge. Her book includes a series of demanding and well sequenced writing exercises – writing in the morning, writing on demand, and developing writing stamina. Towards the end she talks about fostering the writing lifestyle, including sequestering yourself for the most part (come on, you knew this was coming. Almost all writers do this).

The Writing Life Annie Dillard.
Not a writing guide but more musings on what it means to be a writer. There’s no practical advice here, but days after I read it, I found myself thinking about it. I think it’s worth a read for inspiration. Besides, Dillard writes with a grace and ease that’s astounding. The end blew me away–she managed to pull everything together so artfully I was humbled.

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
Measure, stir, bake. Done!
This firmly structured book aims to guide many people to writing a good book, whether “commercial” or “literary”. It’s a bit too formulaic for my taste, as if I could emerge with a perfect book if I just follow his steps. Uh… hmmm, somehow I don’t think it’s that easy. Besides that, I tend to think less linearly, and I think this book is better suited to someone who has an equally structured, organized mind. Someone who likes to outline and have everything blocked out before hand.

His analysis of plot structure and form is great, however. He covers topics from generating plots, tweaking them to make them original, and finishing with a bang.

Characters, Emotion, & Viewpoint, Nancy Kress

Another book in the Write Great Fiction series. Again, lots of good solid advice here, especially if you don’t know where to start, Kress will walk you through the steps of creating characters and bringing them to life so they start talking back at you. Each chapter has a series of exercises, none of which I found particularly helpful, but I think that’s mostly because I have my characters and so forth. She writes out plainly what other books suggest more nebulously.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr., E.B. White, and Roger Angell (Forward)
I don’t know of a single writer who doesn’t have a copy of this on their shelf. Since it’s considered the standard in many circles, I suggest you have one, too. Read it, and read it again.

Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life by Anne Lamott.
Lamott speaks so honestly about how hard writing is for her. I guess that should be depressing–when will it ever get easy?–but I found it inspiring. I’m not the only one who struggles. Even successful authors have terrible, gut-churning moments of feeling they are incapable, untalented, wasting their time, worthless, and yet they keep writing, they get published, and maybe I can, too.

How to Write a Damn Good Mystery Novel: A Practical Step-by-step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript by James N. Frey. (This James Frey, not this one, though I have no doubt the other can write fiction, too!)
Another recipe book, but I appreciate his straightforward approach and his focus on characters. A lot of helpful techniques, too, like plotting your novel, deciding on which scenes to play out, while still moving your story along with behind-the-scenes actions, and keeping track of it all. Covers the basics of good fiction. And really makes you want to write a mystery. He also wrote a general writing fiction book, titled, “How to Write a Damn Good Novel.”

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