If there’s anything better than writing, it’s reading about writing. Learning the basics, honing our craft, searching for inspiration, we fill our shelves with the wisdom of those who have gone before.
The first book on writing that I ever bought was Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, by Lawrence Block. It contains great advice for bare beginners, starting with a chapter on deciding what to write (at the time I was certain I would be a horror writer. I have written exactly one terrible horror story since making that decision.) Block serves up sound advice with humor, which is probably what I responded to best at the time. Another book that I am less crazy about but that is certainly a good book for beginners is On Writing, by Stephen King. You would think that the budding horror writer in me would have loved that book, but at some point in there he offers his opinion that a good writer will never become a great writer, at which point I threw the book across the room and became more determined than ever to some day be a great writer. I have yet to prove the man wrong, unfortunately, but I am still trying. Despite my quibble with that one particular line, it is still the book I would recommend to someone just starting out.
Once that ill-conceived Horror phase was over I passed through a comics-writing phase and filled my shelf with everything I could find on the subject at the time. My favorites are Scott McCloud’s classic Understanding Comics, and Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, edited by Mark Salisbury. There are follow-up volumes to both of these books, neither of which I have (but if you do, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!)
Eventually I figured out that I’m a fantasy writer and that I wanted to write short stories (please ignore the eleven novels in varying states of completion sitting in that virtual drawer there) and my education could finally begin. And begin it did, with what I consider to this day absolutely essential reading for speculative fiction writers: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. OSC has been teaching the craft for a dog’s age, and he does it well. He covers things in this book specific to genre fiction that I have not seen covered elsewhere. The chapter on submissions, agents, and pay rates is very out of date in my copy, but fortunately we have other resources (coming up in a moment) to help us in that area. That book is part of the Elements of Fiction Writing Series.
The business of writing is a whole other ball of wax, and it wasn’t one I really needed to know much about beyond the basics of submission/rejection/submission until this year. Fortunately for me two books came out in a very timely fashion: Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife, and a bonus surprise book of awesomeness from SFWA that arrived last week, the SFWA Handbook. Unfortunately that one can’t be had in stores, but hey, there’s an incentive to get that SFWA membership!
For sheer inspiration I have Writing Down the Bones, and Bird by Bird. And when the most recent rejection leaves me feeling like I’ve been kicked in the teeth, I reread Ray Brabury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, which is like a hug in paperback form.
Recently I shifted from short fiction to writing novels (FOR REAL this time, I swear.) Looking for some guidance in that area I consulted my shelf, where I have Writing a Novel, by John Braine–which appears to have been replaced by the more recent How to Write a Novel–and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. They were a little dense and academic for me (dudes, I’m writing about magic and stuff. This is spec fic. We just don’t take ourselves that seriously here.) I remembered a book mentioned by an acclaimed novelist and found it on Amazon: The Weekend Novelist, by Robert J. Ray (though on the advice of a friend I bought an older edition.) This is what I’m now using as I plunge into development for this For-Real Novel I’m about to write. (Yeah, check back with me on that in a couple of months. Is there a book on discipline I should have on my shelf? Oh, wait, I guess Bird by Bird covers that.)
My Desert Island book on writing would probably be The Mind of Your Story, by Lisa Lenard-Cook. Lenard-Cook covers time, pacing, and tension in a way that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. As a bonus, this thing is not only useful, it’s also gorgeous.
(Hm. Or maybe Zen. I might need a hug on a desert island. I AM TORN.)
Of course the danger inherent in collecting and reading Books About Writing is that they can easily overtake the Act of Writing, which is, most of these books are quick to point out, THE IMPORTANT PART. Because you know what isn’t on my shelf yet? MY OWN BOOK, written by ME, employing all of the wisdom imparted by the books that ARE on the shelf.
So, what’s on your shelf? What’s helped you the most? Are any of these–or others–on your holiday wish list?