Often I get questions like:
- If you didn’t go to school for writing, how did you learn?
- How do I improve as an editor?
- Are there any good books out there for writers?
- What’s wrong with this story?
A long while back I shared twenty-three books. I’ve since expanded that list to a nice, round fifty. If you’ve read these, you’ve read almost every important book I’ve read on the craft.
DON’T FREAK OUT, though!
You need not read every book on this list.
Just pick one that applies to the current stage of your journey and find inspiration there. I believe in dabbling, in skipping chapters, in dropping a book or even a list if it hinders the overall trajectory you’ve laid out for your overall goals.
We’re all at different places on this journey. So take stock of your current scenery:
- Where are you?
- Mindful of your situation, what kind of help do you need?
Once you’ve assessed your situation, pick one of these books (or articles or poems or stories), and read that.
I linked most of these titles to the open source or public domain documents. If those don’t exist, I resorted to Amazon links since most of you will go there anyways.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (story construction) first clued me in to the basic arc within all stories – the voyage and return. The hero journeys out from the norm into the unknown, suffers trials and returns to society with some gift–enlightenment or a magic item–that will somehow help society. Campbell can be best described either as a panentheistic transcendentalist or as a neo-western Hindu.
Tree and Leaf by J.R.R. Tolkien (writing & life) taught me that I wasn’t crazy spending so much time in another world, that escapism in this sense is one of the healthiest things we writers do. This book applies first to fantasy writers, but beyond that to every writer of fiction. I would probably couple this with Mythopoeia, if the version you buy doesn’t include the poem.
The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker (story construction) takes a similar stance to Campbell, but from a general survey from the perspective of plot. Cooper’s magnum opus filtered as many stories as he could find (not just the myths) until they coagulated to one another in seven clumps: tragedy, comedy, quest, romance, slay the giant, mystery and
Poetics by Aristotle (story construction) critiques the Greek plays of the time, uncovering the good and the bad in each. This is the first time the deus ex machine was truly scathed and the independent struggle of the protagonist was critically applauded.
Story by Robert McKee (story construction) sums up the previous three, but applies them first to screenwriting and then to writing in general through a series of helpful strategies and maxims. An avid Agnostic, Mckee takes a humanistic approach to virtue, inconsistent as it seems in places. He believes in talent where as Pressfield believes in inspiration. I happen to believe in both, but regardless McKee’s case for Story takes on all challengers.
Platitudes Undone by G.K. Chesterton (literary criticism). I really should put some other Chesterton book on here, but this facsimile of Chesterton’s personal copy of Jackson’s “Platitudes in the Making” shows how old Gilbert thought moment-to-moment. If you read this, you’ll see the kind of objections people like Chesterton will be making when they try to follow your train of thought.
How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster (literary symbolism) explains literary interpretation so that any unacquainted with it can start to pick it out in the most basic of literature. You’d be surprised at the homosexual symbolism in the He-man Christmas special or the communion theme in Downton Abbey or how often deals with the devil show up in Grey’s Anatomy. You’ll also find ways to imbibe your own work with the poetry of symbols so that your themes stand out stronger.
How to Read a Film by James Monaco (literary symbolism) does the same as the lit book above but focuses on cinema… much like I did in explaining the previous book, actually. How did I get by without a single literary example? Oh well…
Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke (poetry) first taught me the following maxim:
You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you two write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.” In short, write because you must.
That’s where we get the maxim.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Dave King (editing) taught me dialog mechanics, point of view, and proportioning better than anything else. You can find all of Dave’s work on adverbs, reading aloud, beats, the rules of once and thirds, sophistication, and show and tell elsewhere in books listed here. Outside of a brief mention in Story and the barrage of he said/she said in On Writing, I’ve found no other work so helpful on how dialog feels, what dialog does and most importantly how to write dialect effectively. The same goes for proportioning and point of view (save for the collection of short stories below). In my estimation, Dave’s work on dialect and narrative distance was worth the price of the book. I’ve yet to find this information in other books.
Articles on Editing by Dave King (editing) elaborate on issues like how to write a believable historical novel, narrative distance, the benefits of critique groups, query letters, purple prose, and healthy plot twists.
Elements of Style by Strunk and White (editing) “has little BS in it” according to Stephen King, which he thinks is the main problem with most books on writing. This book works like the Levitical code for writers, empowering weak language for decades.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss (editing) takes a sarcastic, humorous approach to basic punctuation mistakes and works like a bit of therapy for you anal editor-types.
War of Art by Stephen Pressfield (writing & life) will kick you down, beat you up, tell you to change your shorts and get back to work. For any artist, really, this book explains the basic resistance artists, saints, and visionaries meet any time they veer onto the road to greatness. Pressfield’s a pagan in the traditional sense – he believes in the gods and the muses and so believes in the old Greek style of divine inspiration. It’s the kind of book that gives agnostics and true theists some talking points, as indicated by McKee’s introduction.
Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson (writing & life) discusses vocational holiness. This one (like the one after) was written from a Christian perspective, though not evangelical. Peterson talks about dual vocations – the writer and the pastor. Anyone who shares their heart for writing with a heart for some other craft would benefit from this discussion.
Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis (writing & life) tracks along with the autobiographical journey of one writer as he moved from Norse mythology through British schools and onto old books until he arrived a modern sort of faith and reason that subsequently informed his future writing.
On Stories and Of Other Worlds by C.S. Lewis (writing & fantastic literature) works through Lewis’ thinking on the formation of fantastic worlds, the basic process of writing good literature (as quoted in my little piece on the fear of Christian art), and about the formation of good sentences.
You may think listing two books in one is cheating, but there’s massive overlap in many of the compilations of Lewis’ smaller pieces – several stories and lines of thinking are repeated between the two. These two tiny books work like one big book.
On Writing by Stephen King (writing & life) blends one part memoir, one part toolkit, one part devotional. This book alone turned me from a hobbiest to a professional writer and I’ve read it more than any other– as in at least once a year.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamotte (writing & life) tends to get more traction with women than men, in my experience. I found that this book’s section on overcoming the anxieties of writing was better than any other part of it, namely because I’ve developed ulcers in the past from worrying over this craft. Yay for holes in the old tummy. Which brings us to…
Danse Macabre by Stephen King (fear in writing) explores two types of fear in horror and thriller literature: that which we cannot see and that which we see until it goes and changes on us.
Aeropagitica by John Milton (philosophy) argues for the right of free press. You can read it in an afternoon if you work diligently, but the arguments stay the same – how censorship hinders, rather than helps, the noble and true ideas of humanity.
Aids to Reflection by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (philosophy) shows how symbols work in life and literature, encouraging reflection above anything else. This is philosophy so it takes ten times as long as Strunk and White.
2014 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market (publishing) if you’re an artist don’t have AT LEAST ONE of these on your shelf, stop everything else and buy one.
You need a thesaurus for the right word, a phone book for the right number and a copy of the market for selling to the right industry. Buy one. Now. They make them for screenwriters and playwrights, poetry, songwriters, and fine art. Get one for your market and start collecting rejection like the rest of us.
How to be Your Own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis (literary agency) explains contract mechanics so you’re not working as an indentured servant.
The man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.
– Abraham Lincoln
Though this is true, and though you probably need an agent, you should still learn to read like a good lawyer, a good agent. Your agent will miss something. And if you’re unagented, then you have your work cut out for you.
How to be a Literary Agent by Richard Mariotti (literary agency) shows how your agent works and will work as a great starting place for those of you considering entering the marketplace as an agent.
Query Shark by Janet Reid (literary agency) takes innocent little query letters and CRUSHES THEM for your viewing pleasure. Read the friggin’ archive and learn.
Your First 1,000 Copies by Tim Grahl (marketing) takes you through the ways media and the new marketing has shifted the publishing industry in favor of the writer – we’re quickly approaching a seller’s market and this book will show you how to navigate those waters.
After you read Tim’s book ^, We Are Not Alone by Kristen Lamb (marketing) seems to be a helpful complimentary work that focuses on this changing marketplace of ideas (less on the ideas side of things, more on the marketplace). Kristen reveals simple tweaks that can improve your web and social media presence a hundred fold.
The Art of Fiction Archive at The Paris Review (craft of writing) covers interviews from over two-hundred of the biggest names in fiction since 1950. The interviews with Hemingway, Faulkner, King, Vonnegut, and Fransen are must-reads among the many other great voices.
Comedy Writing Secrets by Mel Helitzer (craft of writing) is the book that everyone enrolled in comedy school has purchased for years. Comedy is like stage magic – there is a secret to every trick. It’s not some mystical power people are born with. Greatness, however, is born and can’t be nurtured.
Flannery O’Conner wrote A Prayer Journal (writing life) during her tenure as a student enrolled in University of Iowa’s workshop. I think we’ve all prayed these prayers before and I find it encouraging that one of the American greats was in the exact same spot before she hit it big.
Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky (writing life) uses some of the worst examples of artists (James Patterson and Thomas Kinkaide) to illustrate some of the best principles for professional artists. Ignore the bad examples, substitute your own, and learn how to order your life so those precious ideas or that mind so full of new ideas will actually happen.
Oxford English Dictionary and The Thinker’s Thesaurus (craft of writing) are possibly the two most under-used resources by all readers and all writers. I’m amazed at how many people (1) refuse to take the time to look up unfamiliar words they encounter while reading and (2) act all shocked when I ask them to define a word for me.
Look, people, words are living organisms – they’re all connected to the root tree of language and their definitions grow and become stale and eventually need pruned off as humanity grows. Like, you know, branches on a tree. This is the study called “etymology” and you can get a great head start at Etymonline. This also means that the definitions in your dictionary are not set. If you’re a writer, if you can speak, you’re participating in our collective effort to create the future of the language. Are you helping or hindering the language?
As for thesaurus, this is the only way to get at the plurality of any word’s given meaning. My grandma gave me The Thinker’s Thesaurus for Christmas one year and I’ve found it to be the best way to discover unconventional words and to let your mind go in different directions.
You don’t have to read them cover-to-cover, but if you’re a writer – what on earth are you doing letting your dictionary and thesaurus collect dust?
Points of View (inspiration; craft of writing) is one of those golden gems I found in a Salvation Army bin for like fifty cents. It’s out-of-print, so you’ll have to Amazon the sucker, but this 1956 book collects forty-one short stories and arranges them based on point-of-view. If you’d like the cliffnotes on the table of contents, the sections look like this:
- Interior Monologue
- Dramatic Monologue
- Letter Narration
- Diary Narration
- Subjective Narration
- Detached Autobiography
- Memoir, or Observer Narration
- Biography, or Anonymous Narration – Single Character P.O.V.
- Anonymous Narration – Dual Character P.O.V.
- Anonymous Narration – Multiple Character
- Anonymous Narration – No Character
In a future post, I might try and find the stories on open source since… well… 1956 was 58 years ago and that means most of the stories are now public domain. Until then, grab a copy of Points of View .
Make Good Art (writing life) by Neil Gaiman does have a print version, but the video’s easier:
The Verse of Paradise Lost (289 words on craft of writing) by John Milton was an intro to Paradise Lost written in 1667. In it, Milton makes fun of poems that rhyme.
- This was pre-Victorian England.
- This was pre-Beatles.
- This was pre-free verse.
And Milton’s making fun of “the jingling sound of like endings” – awesome.
Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his speech on The American Scholar (writing life) to Cambridge in 1837, before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, a college fraternity composed of the first twenty-five men in each graduating class. The society has annual meetings, which have been the occasion for addresses from the most distinguished scholars and thinkers of the day.
This included theologians and writers, of course, and he says some brilliant things about how to achieve greatness in this pursuit of crafting the perfect sentence.
The Apology by Socrates (philosophy) will reframe your entire thinking about… well… thinking. This is important because:
- To write for original works, you must first speak for yourself.
- To speak for yourself, you must first think for yourself.
The flow of Trivium is logic > rhetoric > grammar, not the other way around. So learning to think well, learning to embrace autodidactism as soon as possible, will pay off infinite dividends. That starts with knowing that you know nothing, admitting your ignorance is always greater than the things you think you know.
Socrates was killed for thinking this way. This the apology he delivered while on trial.
Thoughts on Mind and Style by Blaise Pascal (philosophy; craft of writing) starts with the difference between the mathematical and intuitive minds and then builds up from that base towards literary style. It has gems in it like:
Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way—(1) that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain and with pleasure; (2) that they feel themselves interested, so that self-love leads them more willingly to reflection upon it.
And it’s public domain.
Often the best way forward is knowing where you came from. Recently the New York Public Library has exhibited a work on children’s literature, honoring it in its rightful place as a genre among the classics. Lewis’ book Of Other Worlds (above) also holds children’s literature in high esteem.
Which is why I recommend any children’s writers reading this to get ahold of A Critical History of Children’s Literature (story construction). It’s big, it’s intimidating, and it’s exactly the way to discover what tomorrow’s children’s literature may look like.
The Writer’s Journey (story construction; the writing life) takes The Hero With A Thousand Faces (above) and applies it to (1) the career of the writer, (2) the journey of writing any given work, and (3) the plot of your current work. It’s as close to devotional as any work based on Joseph Campbell can get and, in part, it helped my family through our transition to New York.
The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery by Leeland Ryken (literary symbolism) is a wonderful reference to have on your shelf alongside Dictionary of Symbols and A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery.
However, I chose Ryken’s book as the keystone because I know of no work with more literary imagery than the anthology of sixty-six books we call “The Bible.” It’s a great way to explore the development of imagery over a larger work – and with this on your shelf (or any of the others listed above), you can easily flip and dip to get some inspiration to bolster the themes of your book. Assuming, of course, you’ve read something like How To Read Literature Like a Professor (above).
Lewis Carroll, the Alice in Wonderland guy, wrote Eight or Nine Words About Letter Writing (the craft of writing). Aside from the nostalgia and humor, this work will help anyone writing historical novels or using the point-of-view called “Letter Narration.”
However, normal writers will dig up some gold like this inside:
A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly.
Mark Twain grew weary of English as She Is Taught (writing life) and hoped to revive the poor lady, so he wrote an essay about it. This short essay will help heal any student burnt out by bad teachers and will give teachers a good laugh at themselves… or their colleagues.
Poets and non-poets alike will find A Defense of Poesie and Poems by Sir Phillip Sidney (writing life; philosophy) provocative and insightful. His argument builds on the idea that anyone who says “I hate poetry” is indebted to the poets who invented the words (and meanings) of “poetry” and “hate” and even “I” ::
They go very near to ungratefulness to seek to deface that which, in the noblest nations and languages that are known, hath been the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges. And will you play the hedgehog, that being received into the den, drove out his host?
Or rather the vipers, that with their birth kill their parents?
So, so good.
The writer of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote some Essays in the Art of Writing (craft of writing) that offer helpful tips and insights such as this one:
What an intricate affair is any perfect passage; how many faculties, whether of taste or pure reason, must be held upon the stretch to make it; and why, when it is made, it should afford us so complete a pleasure. From the arrangement of according letters, which is altogether arabesque and sensual, up to the architecture of the elegant and pregnant sentence, which is a vigorous act of the pure intellect, there is scarce a faculty in man but has been exercised. We need not wonder, then, if perfect sentences are rare, and perfect pages rarer.
Any audacious list like this would feel incomplete without some genre-specific collections. So find your genre-specific collection below (inspiration):
- The Best American Essays of the Century. Twain. Eliot. Nabokov. Angelou. Yes, if you’re writing essays, you need this book.
- The Best American Non-required Reading. If you’re writing on the internet, for a comic strip, or in some weird medium – this is the series you need to check out.
- The Best American Sports Writing of the Century. I have to admit: I didn’t want to include this one. I also have to admit that during the 2010 NCAA championship between Butler and Duke, I finally recognized that you can craft significant narratives around sporting events. I’ve since modified my position to this: athletics without aesthetics is mere brutality. Without sports writers and commentators and people in giant bird costumes, we’d have no reason to keep watching the same plays, the same points, the same game play out over and over again. Here’s your resource, sports fans.
- The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. This is probably the best base any current modern reader can establish for themselves. If this blog post exists in thirty six years, a better anthology will probably arise.
- Prize Stories 1996: The O’Henry Award. I picked this one over The Best American Short Stories of the Century because it includes a wonderful story by Stephen King and we need to broaden our ideas about what counts as “literature” – as indicated by King’s acceptance speech for the 2003 National Book Foundation award (also worth your time). There’s good genre work out there right in the middle of the crappy pointy-eared elves, laser battles, and sulking sleuths. Case in point:
- The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century. When your book includes the likes of O’Henry, Faulkner, and Steinbeck – you really can’t go wrong.
- The Best American Noir of the Century. Is kind of a “second verse, same as the first,” suggestion, but it’s helpful for those who make a distinction between Noir and Mystery.
- The Year’s Best Science Fiction Stories: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection. I couldn’t find a best-ever collection of Sci-Fi (were I an editor with rights management responsibilities, I’d jump at that opportunity right now). Instead, I shared the volume that contained my favorite SciFi story of all time: Stephen Baxter’s “Turing’s Apples.”
- The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: Sixteenth Annual Edition. Again, couldn’t find a best-of collection (someone please jump at that opportunity!) so I chose a volume that contained two solid pieces. Neil Gaiman fans will appreciate the “Pages from a Journal Found in a Shoebox Left on a Greyhound Bus Somewhere between Tulsa, Oklahoma and Louisville, Kentucky.” The other story is Eric Shaller’s “The Assistant to Dr. Jacob,” which may be the finest piece of horror I’ve ever read. Stephen King in Danse Macabre (above) talks about the urban legend “The Claw” and how it’s the best thriller ever written. Shaller’s story achieves that kind of mythic greatness – it’s pure fear.
I WILL NOT WRITE UNLESS I AM SWADDLED IN FURS by John Babbott (writing life) is a hilarious little piece that McSweeney’s recently published. Babbott pokes fun at any and all artist who thinks they need optimum conditions in order to create.
Just because you write doesn’t mean you have to dress like a piss-stained hobo. Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette (writing life) will help you understand why most writers in bygone eras wore tweed.
It’ll also help you understand that social graces emphasize “grace” rather than “social” – it’s all about taking care of the other person.
I stumbled across a copy of The Reflection of Theology in Literature by William Mallard (philosophy) while staying at this Anglican retreat center and the nice people there let me have it for free.
Look, no matter what you think about God – believe, disbelief, ambivalence, plurality – you still think about God, you have an opinion. You’ve probably even discussed it with someone other than yourself. That’s theology.
And literature reflects what we think about God.
Which is why, if you’re in for some heavy lifting, you should also get a copy of this book.
Whelp, that’s it. Like I said, just pick one that seems applicable to the current stage of your journey and dive in.
Then come back here and tell me how it went in the comments.
As always, more to come.