A lot of published authors I know dreamt of becoming authors since they were little kids. I, on the other hand, didn’t even think it was a possibility until my senior year of high school, when my English teacher, in her send-off words to me, told me I was a good writer. Even then, it was at least twelve years before I made the decision to try and make a career out of it.
These have been my go-to books on the craft. I’ve listed them somewhat in the order I started using them over the years.
Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. This one is a classic. I love it for the idea of “compost writing,” where you write as freely as you possibly can—no punctuation, terrible handwriting, no crossing out, etc. You’re basically dumping everything from your brain onto the page, and you do this for twenty minutes everyday. You do this to basically clear out all the junk and she says that this ends up being a compost pile where one day a flower will spring up from it and surprise you. This was how I got my idea for the book I now have on submission. She also has a funny story about brownies in there.
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, is so beloved, I may not even need to mention it, but for those who haven’t heard of it, it’s almost a self-help book for writers. She teaches you to write crap, and keep writing crap so that you learn to shut off your internal editor. It’s a little different from Writing Down the Bones, because this is writing where you’re actually trying to write something, not just trash.
Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly, by Gail Carson Levine. She’s the same author who brought us Ella Enchanted. Though Writing Magic is aimed primarily at children who are starting out, I found it amazingly straightforward and encouraging. It takes you from writing your very first pages to advice on getting published at the end. It’s a wonderful overview. A lot of books on writing are part memoir, which is great, but sometimes you just want to cut out the fluff and get to how to write and build a story. Grown-ups like to overcomplicate things, which is why this book is so lovely. It answers a lot of questions that you might feel awkward asking.
Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. First of all, this one was originally published in 1934, so the writing style is a little more formal than my other recommendations, but I loved it because it helped me turn writing into a habit. The first two books tried to do that, but this one really made the difference for me. She has you wake up early and write while you’re half asleep and then while you’re writing, you make an appointment to write later in the day. She teaches you to be non-negotiable to yourself.
On Writing, by Stephen King: A Memoir of the Craft. When I first read this, I had checked it out of the library and took pages and pages of notes. My biggest takeaway was how to start with an idea, or even just the beginning of an idea, and turn it into an actual story.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. This one is absolutely invaluable. It is the BIBLE of the nitty gritty. So many writers (me included), after taking the advice of Anne Lamott, Stephen King, and Natalie Goldberg (see above), come away with something that might look like a story, but does not have the finesse of a published work. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers can take you there. It shows you all the ins and outs of line editing, and can show you how to really polish your work. You may pick up a lot of its advice from chatting with other writers or from reading extensively, but this book puts it all in one place, with great explanations.
Story Genius, by Lisa Cron. Lisa Cron also wrote a book called Wired for Story. Her premise is that humans all want Story (with a capital S) as part of our toolkit for survival. Because we are social beings, we use other people’s stories to help prepare our futures and make sense of our pasts. She blasts both the “plotting” and “pantsing” methods of writing, and instead provides a kind of blueprint where you can take your story from an idea and shape the events in it to create a story with meaning. I LOVE the concept in this, but I wish she had more practical examples with how her method plugs into other successful stories out there. Instead she uses her friend’s manuscript as an example, which I find too bizarre of a concept to actually compare it to my own books. That being said, I do find the way she looks at story as a refreshing change to other rigid story structure models.
Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert (the woman who wrote Eat, Pray, Love). I love this one. I have it on audio as well. Though it’s not a book on How to Write, per say, it takes you through the more intuitive realm of Being Creative. It touches on everything from how to get inspiration to how to give yourself permission to be creative to how to overcome fear.
The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, was one of the earlier books I used to help me become a writer, but it was bigger than the other books in my list, and therefore toward the bottom of my stack in the picture. It’s similar to Big Magic in that it attempts to crack the code of what inspiration is and where it comes from, but gives a lot of practical ideas and exercises to help you cultivate it.
Wonderbook, The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, by Jeff Vandermeer (He wrote Annihilation.) Oh my gosh. This. It’s almost indescribably complex and delicious. I haven’t even read it all yet. It’s almost more a reference book than something you would read straight through. It’s lavishly illustrated to spark the imagination, and has contributions from people like Neil Gaiman, Karen Lord, Ursula K. LeGuin, etc. The book covers plot, voice, tone, style, mucky middles, character, setting. You know what it is? It’s like going to a writers conference with all the best writers and attending all the different break-out sessions. It’s unlike any other book on the craft I have ever seen.
Honorable Mention (because I forgot about it and didn’t put it in my picture): The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. I love this because it is short, sweet, and a forceful kick in the pants. It is also very funny.
Alright, so these are my favorites. What are yours?