I’ll admit it: reading books about writing always makes me feel a *little* like I’m cheating, because when I’m reading them, I *feel* productive, but am not actually getting words on the page, and also because although I’m reading, I’m not taking a chunk out of the massive To-Read list (and by list, I mean stack) I’ve accumulated over the years. It’s so easy to feel like “A Writer” when I read books like these–the same way I feel like “A Writer” when I chat writing with other aspiring authors, sit on convention panels, and/or read blog posts about writing (like this one! OOO! Self-reflective!). None of them get words down on the page, despite all the warm-productivity-fuzzies I get from them.
I’m also extremely picky. There are a million and one books on How To Write out there, and in this realm, all are most decidedly NOT created equal. I typically gravitate toward the ones written by authors whose work I enjoy, because if I hate their stuff, why would I want to listen to their writing advice? (There’s a caveat here, of course: sometimes a writer I might consider terrible might in some strange way be an excellent teacher–they do say you learn as much or more from failure than you do from success, so there you go. Their advice might also be very insightful, even if they can’t put their own advice into practice.)
And it’s also true that just because you like an author’s work doesn’t mean they have any particular skill at *communicating* what they do or how they do it. Take Edith Wharton. Someday, I will force myself to slog through her tiny writing book. I swear I will. I love her books, adore her short fiction, but that writing book is killing me slowly with boredom. I want so badly to understand her approach to her own work, but every time I sit down to try to get through a few more pages, I find myself zoning out or getting sleepy. It may be that the book gets much better as it goes along, but I haven’t gotten to those parts yet. So case in point: Not all great writers are good teachers.
But there have been a handful of books that have really rocked my socks when it comes to putting me on the right track, re-energizing me, and giving me some tools to use when I approach my next story. These are the books I keep close at hand, on the few cherished bookshelf spaces in my roll-top desk, because just having them within eye-shot somehow makes me less shaky when approaching that blank page. Below is my list–and that’s not to say that there aren’t others that are amazing (I may just not have heard of them yet), or that these will impact everyone the same way they impacted me. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got one you can’t live without that I didn’t mention. I’m always glad to find new wells of inspiration! :)
#5: The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
This is a book I picked up JUST YESTERDAY and I’m already finished with it. (Granted, it’s short, so I can’t really be all that smug.) I learned about it while reading an interview featuring Esperanza Spalding, and she mentioned she was reading it. It’s a book that is more than applicable to other artistic pursuits beyond writing, but the author himself is very well-established, so it does focus mostly on the authorial pursuit in its concrete examples. That said–I’ll admit, I’m breaking my rule from above–I’ve never actually read any of his books. They’re now on my list (re: stack) of To-Read, because DAMN. If he can be this gripping in non-fiction, I can’t help but want to see what he’s capable of in fiction.
I love the first 2/3 rds (the last third gets a bit overly metaphysical for my taste, but it *is* interesting, just had less impact on me personally). Pressfield is all about the grindstone and putting in your time and your words. Just do it. Fight your own Resistance. Stop whining and sit your butt down. That is the only way a book, a short story, a painting, or a symphony is going to be created. Period. No other way works, because no other way gets anything done. Kafka sat his butt down and wrote. Asimov sat his butt down and wrote. Wharton sat her butt down and wrote. Period. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Do it, or it’ll never be done. It may seem totally self-evident, but there are just so many ways to procrastinate, to *talk* about doing it, to *read* about doing it, or *blog* about doing it. But at the end of the day, you just gotta do what you’ve gotta do.
#4: Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg
I love this book. I LOVE this book. While it may be a bit too Zen for some folks (it’s all about writing from the heart, writing loads and loads and loads without any end-goal in mind, just capture that FEEL, that VERB, that SOUND), it sparks the creativity in me like crazy. One of the things she does is fill a spiral-bound notebook a month with writing. Any kind of writing. She calls it practice writing, just getting used to vomiting your whole soul on the page. Well, for those of you familiar with me, you know Staples is my dealer, and notebooks are my crack. I have dozens of notebooks, some filled, some not. Now that I’m getting back into writing by hand, these notebooks are actually starting to get some wear and tear. The idea of filling one a month with just WHATEVER gets my fingers itching for some college ruled paper, let me tell you!
But what’s more than just that she’s unwittingly supporting my notebook addiction, the chapters in Goldberg’s book are short, thoughtful, and engaging. They make you WANT to write, to just creatively overflow and see what happens. Write and get used to letting things go. As a self-admitted perfectionist, learning to let go is a big one for me. And she’s got some fascinating little exercises in there that just get the mind-grapes going wild with ideas.
#3: The Clockwork Muse – Eviatar Zerubavel
A tiny book with a big punch. If you’ve ever been overwhelmed by a too-large project without any idea of how to not only wrestle it under control, but finish it in a reasonable time-frame, this is the book for you. I was assigned this book back in college, and subsequently skimmed it and tossed it aside without really paying attention to what it was saying. It’s very non-fiction oriented, but it could work (and has for me) just as well for fictional projects. It’s all about organization, planning, and scoping a project. It shows you how to set up a reasonable (and honest) time-line for how long something will take you to complete, so that ultimately, you’ll be able to determine whether or not you can get X project done and drafted by any given deadline.
It’s a practical guide to getting work done, and I love it. It appeals so much to the little bureaucrat in me that wants create files and labels and track my progress in my day planner. The process Zerubavel outlines in this book may be too rigid for some who like a bit more spontaneity, but for those of us paralyzed by the enormity of a project (like…hmm…a novel?), it’s the greatest comfort. Baby-steps, folks, it’s all about baby-steps. And for people like me who tend to bite off a lot more than they can chew in one go, it’s a good grounding tool, too.
#2: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – Renni Brown & Dave King
If there’s one book that I’ve given to writer friends more than ANY other, it’s this one. Until I read this book, I could not for the life of me fully grasp the “Show Don’t Tell” shtick because so many would-be helpful advice-givers used terrible examples for “telling” verses “showing” and usually overemphasized the “NEVER EVER EVER TELL ANYTHING EVER” bit. Which, of course, is bullshit. You need to tell some things, or your readers are going to get bored to death. I know. I tend toward showing too much. “Lizzy thought she might have to go to the bathroom before they left for their road trip, so she opened her bedroom door, strolled down the hall, turned the bathroom door handle, and [...]” You get the picture. Definitely show the important scenes, but don’t over-bloat your story so much that you kill the pacing and lose the reader’s interest. This book taught me–with GOOD examples–how to differentiate those two things, and more importantly, how to look at stories I’d already gotten to rough draft with a critical eye for what needed to be shown verses what would be better skimmed over with a carefully applied “telling” moment.
I cannot praise this book enough. In fact, I think I’m going to start assigning this book to myself as required reading every six-months until I can recite the whole of the text backwards, because I think it’s THAT useful. It has helped me train my eye for evaluating my own work on an objective, editorial level like nothing–short of slush-editing–has ever been able to do for me. It’s big-picture stuff, not grammar or punctuation. Sure, you need to check for those things too, but as far as Brown and King are concerned, those are minor details to be checked before submitting. The big problems are the ones people so often don’t even see, which gets their work canned over and over again. I know. I’ve seen them in the slush pile. Repeatedly. They’re common problems–the kind you have a hard time putting your finger on, and can only really say, “Hmm, I’m not sure what it is, but this story just didn’t work for me.” This helped me vocalize what that mysterious IT is.
#1: About Writing – Samuel R. Delany
You want to learn about this mythical beast called the creative process? Read Dahlgren. Then read About Writing. Delany is one of the few authors whose book on writing I’ve picked up and immediately shouted (to the horror of my shocked husband), “YES! THIS IS IT! THIS IS HOW I FEEL!” Delany is a freaking genius.
This book scares the crap out of me. I’m not going to lie: some of what he says about talent and writing ability scares me to death because I’m so afraid I don’t have it. But if you can work through that and say–like I did–”Well, too bad! I’m doing it anyway! (and hope I’m not wasting my life–weee!)” then read this book.
This book. I love it. I keep it close at hand. I re-read chapters. The poor thing is getting rather beaten up. His philosophy on art and the creative process is brilliant and has inspired me so much to become a better writer. He’s got high demands for what it takes to do the “author” thing well, but you know what? It’s worth it. So worth it. In this book, he gives me heights to reach for that previously I hadn’t even realized existed up there in the mountain clouds. If you want to read more about my insane OMG LOVE ravings about this book, check out this blog post on the Inner Critic and the Inner Editor, which was originally up on the Apex Magazine blog, or read this post, originally posted here, about what not to do while doing NANOWRIMO.
So there you have it! My Top 5 writing-related books that rock my socks. Do you have some books you adore to pieces? What are they? What did you like about them?