7 Books Every Writer Should Read about the Craft
7 Books Every Writer Should Read about the Craft
By Warren Nast
The great samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, author of the Book of Five Rings, wrote, “You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain.” As writers, we are making our own paths to the writing summit. The good news is that many diverse writers have reached the summit and have shared their experiences. Here are seven books every writer should read to inspire them on their writing journey. Writing is a marathon that can only be won by reading, writing, editing, and submitting. Sounds easy, but many writers get discouraged, disillusioned, and disappointed, leaving half-written stories in a drawer. As Musashi wrote many years ago in a cave, “Step by step, we walk the thousand-mile road.”
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EDUCATION OF A WANDERING MAN: A MEMOIR
by Louis L’Amour, Daniel J. Boorstin
L’Amour believed that writers can better themselves through self-education. Louis L’Amour never finished high school and spent decades working freighters, boxing, and prospecting. A common theme amongst authors is their love of books. L’Amour shares his lifetime of reading education from the South Dakota library to his joy of finding books in Singapore, ranches he worked at, and old mining camps. I have learned that some of the best books are those unexpected finds.
L’Amour’s quest to be a writer is inspirational. When he decides to stop tramping around the world and seriously start writing, he has some early successes, and then World War 2 happens, and he spends years fighting when he comes back to the states, his old network is gone, and he has to start over. “One is not, by decision, just a writer. One becomes a writer by writing, by shaping thoughts into the proper or improper words, depending on the subject, and by doing it constantly.” L’Amour went on to write over one hundred and twenty books, articles, and movies. “If one is any good as a writer at all, he must constantly be improving, learning, and finding better ways of saying what needs to be said. He must also be constantly aware of what is happening in his world and in what direction it seems to be going.”
L’Amour’s first published book was a book of poetry. His novels and short stories often had good vs. evil, overcoming setbacks, believing in yourself, finding love but first taking care of business, attention to setting, and putting some history in there. And maybe he was telling the same story, but you can tell of his love of words and the care he took to craft sentences that every job and every book he read was for the purpose of him accomplishing his goal to be a writer. Just like one of the characters from his books.
ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT (A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT)
by Stephen King
Every time I read this book, it feels like I am with a friend who is sharing their life with me. Part memoir, part craft knowledge, Stephen King takes us from his childhood to adulthood. He shares with us the events that shaped his life and shares passionately about his love of writing. King says,
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Some of this book—perhaps too much—has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it—and perhaps the best of it—is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free.” King also says, “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” It is important to keep writing in perspective. Writing should make you happy, if you are miserable, maybe you should take up pottery.
This is one of the best to inspire you on your writing journey.
BIG MAGIC: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR
by Elizabeth Gilbert
From the writer of Eat, Pray, and Love comes a positive motivation book that will make you feel good about those long hours being by yourself.
Gilbert is that positive person who believes that the universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels—that’s creative living. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place—that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one. The often surprising results of that hunt—that’s what I call Big Magic. And indeed, it does feel that way.
Only other creative types will know that a creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself. Because creative living is where Big Magic will always abide.
Gibert says you can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures. You are a writer if you are dedicated to the craft. Maybe you will never publish, but it is the dedication to the craft that matters.
BECOMING A WRITER, STAYING A WRITER: THE ARTISTRY, JOY, AND CAREER OF STORYTELLING
by J. Michael Straczynski
Mr. Straczynski is the Swiss army knife of writers. A Hollywood sci-fi writer with over 100 episodes of Babylon 5, writer of Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man comic book, writer of the Thor movie, and countless other works. He believes if you can write well, you can write well in any genre or format. I find that encouraging as a writer that you don’t have to be just a horror writer or a western writer, or a thriller writer. Most writers have numerous stories that they want to write. He gives you the permission to follow your heart.
Straczynski says, “Writing isn’t just what we do, it’s who we are; it’s who we have always been and will always be, on an almost cellular level. We spend our days observing and cataloging and listening and logging and making connections between ideas and images and random words until suddenly a story appears and the outer world disappears because, at that moment, nothing else matters. This has led me to the altogether subjective conclusion that writers are born, not made. Yes, technique can be taught; anyone can be made a better writer, maybe even a skilled writer, but learning how to structure a sentence for maximum impact is very different from the storytelling impulse that drives writers from cradle to grave, overriding everything else in our lives until it becomes more necessary and more profoundly consequential.”
I like his approach that everything a writer sees or does is not wasted and can find itself in a story. “Everyone you meet is a story; every place you go is a setting for a tale as yet unwritten; every sentence spoken, however casual, can trigger a revelation or a revolution that will shake the world to its foundation. And everywhere there is beauty. Yes, there is darkness and violence and much worse, but there are gemstones amid the gravel, charity and kindness and honor and decency, and the world needs you to see it and tell us about it.”
I like how Straczynski encourages writers to “Chase your dreams. Pursue love. Tell your stories. Open your heart. Be vulnerable. Be engaged. Be true. That is the secret. There is no other. Good luck.”
CONSIDER THIS: MOMENTS IN MY WRITING LIFE AFTER WHICH EVERYTHING WAS DIFFERENT
by Chuck Palahniuk
Here’s the grizzled drill instructor coming out to tell you how it is to be an actual writer. And what else would you expect from the guy who gave us Fight Club? He’s been in the trenches, he has earned his scars, and he wants to help you be a better writer. Many chapters begin with, “If you were my student, I’d tell you I understand.” He has all the stories, and whether you have just started writing or have been doing it for years, you will find comfort in these war stories and the practical advice he shares.
“In addition, don’t screen the world through your narrator’s senses. Instead of writing, “I heard the bells ring,” write just, “The bells rang,” or, “The bells began to ring.” Avoid, “I saw Ellen,” in favor of, “Ellen stepped from the crowd. She squared her shoulders and began to walk, each step bringing her closer.” So were I your teacher, I’d tell you to write in the first person, but to weed out almost all of your pesky “I”s.”
Making it as a writer is hard. Most writers have 2nd jobs, but Palahniuk says, “If you’re dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you. But if you’re not, nothing I can say will make you one. So do not write to be liked. Write to be remembered.”
Great book. He pulls no punches about the realities of being a writer.
WRITING TOOLS: 55 ESSENTIAL STRATEGIES FOR EVERY WRITER
by Roy Peter Clark
There was a time when gripping writing was on the front page of every newspaper in America. A newspaper reporter had to paint a picture, convey the facts, make the reader care and sum it all up in 1000 words or less. Here Clark gives the writer the 55 essential tools needed to write a good story.
Begin sentences with a subject, activate your verbs, watch those adverbs, pay attention to names, seek original images, foreshadow dramatic events, and learn to read for both form and content these are some of the chapter headings. Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, the basic tools are still the same.
The only negative about this book was that it was written during the time of newspapers, so many of the workshop questions ask that you turn to your local paper. I find this to be a great book to have on your kindle, so when you have a twenty-minute break, it makes the perfect read to brush up on the basics of writing.
SUPER STRUCTURE: THE KEY TO UNLEASHING THE POWER OF STORY (BELL ON WRITING)
by James Scott Bell
I first became aware of James Scott Bell through my Writer’s Digest subscription, where he wrote monthly articles about the craft. One of Bell’s biggest beliefs is that through study, hard work, and perseverance, anyone can be a better writer. Bell is a winner of the International Thriller Writers Award and the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, Conflict & Suspense, and The Art of War for Writers (all from Writer’s Digest Books). He’s also published How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, Write Your Novel From the Middle, Super Structure, and How to Make a Living as a Writer. All his books on writing are terrific, but Super Structure is a recipe for creating a story. Every story written is like macaroni and cheese, you know there is cheese, noodles, and a rue, but a talented chef can switch up and add ingredients to create a lobster and mac, or beef and mac, etc. You will be surprised how every story has a structure. Some writers think it takes the magic out of writing, but if you are stuck in your story, review Bell’s Super Structure and see if you are missing one of the ingredients. I think we often see this in today’s movies and shows where they edit out something because they feel it slows the movie down, but when you leave, you think to yourself there was something missing in the story, and I can guarantee it was one of the building blocks of structure.
Bell says, “Each scene must have a scene objective. That is, from whatever POV you’re in, there must be a moving force in the scene, trying to make something happen. “Feeling tells you what you want to say. Technique gives you tools with which to say it.” Bell continues, “Creating magic takes work, not just play. To connect with readers is a matter of both sides of your brain working in concert. You want to move readers, weave a dream, and leave people glad they found your books. Super Structure is going to help you do that.”
If you are having trouble finishing stories, this is the book I would recommend. Your stories may just be mac & cheese, but the more you understand story structure, the better your chance are you will finish them and have a cohesive story.
These are my favorite books on the craft. I do know that writing is something with practice and studying, you will get better at. So I leave you with this quote from writer and playwright Mike Kosarowich “Keep writing as long as the muse is with you. It is a gift, first to ourselves, and then, to those we choose to share what comes from our hearts, our minds and our souls.”
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Warren Nast is a freelance writer with articles in Harrisburg Magazine. Nast can be reached at his website: Penshido.com or followed on twitter @penshido. Nast lives in Camp Hill, PA.