Writing can be a solitary gig, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m not talking about joining a writers group or taking a writing class. I’m talking about seeking help from people who’ve done what you’re trying to do. AND lived to tell the tale. (In written form, of course.)
There are hundreds (thousands?) of books available on some aspect of writing. We have a bookcase containing at least fifty of them sitting three feet from where I write this. Some are strictly craft, some are rules of the road, some are reference, some are about publishing, and some are about the sometimes-elusive writing mindset. And I suppose all of them have been useful to someone, somewhere, at some time. But—for my money—the ones that are the most useful are the ones that inspire you, that make you feel you’re not alone, that give you a creative flashlight to shine in the darkness.
In other words, the ones that make you want to write. Because in the end, you’re not going to succeed at something you don’t want to do. The following are suggestions for resources that raise the odds you’ll put in the work necessary to get where you want to go. (And yes, a strictly nuts-and-bolts craft book can be as inspiring as a writerly memoir if it’s done in a way that helps you focus and makes you want to sit down and tackle those tough revision issues…)
“Bird by Bird,” by Anne Lamott. This is a wonderful little book, almost magical in the way it gives writers permission to write without worrying about perfection. The admonishment to “Give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft” is enough of a take-away in itself to make it worth the cover price. (I’ve given away three or four copies of this book to aspiring writers.) She covers important topics about writing (and the writing life) in such a kind, wise, generous, and humorous manner that it’s more like a heartfelt discussion with a good friend than a text on writing.
“Self-Editing for Fiction Writers,” by Renni Brown and Dave King (with occasional—and hilarious—illustrations by Goerge Booth, of The New Yorker fame). In some ways—even though ostensibly a craft book—this goes hand-in-hand with the two more memoir-ish books in the group. One of the most important things for an aspiring writer to grasp is that they’ll never even get their book in front of an editor until they learn to edit their own work. Which is very different than writing. Assuming traditional publication, you won’t be the only editor on your book, but you’ll almost certainly be the first. (And in a sense, the most important, because once you get a “yes” from a publisher, the rest is simply hard work. But getting that initial yes depends quite a bit on your revision abilities.)
“On Writing,” by Stephen King (subtitled “A Memoir of the Craft,” which is a great description as it’s as much memoir as writing how-to). I love this book because it gives you a peek into the “writer mindset” better than perhaps any other volume. His advice on writing (specifically self-editing) is spot on, and he speaks directly to the issue without a lot of theoretical pontificating. I’m not a huge fan of the “Here’s the formula to writing your novel!”-type books, and King’s book is the antithesis of this. He’s an instinctive writer, and his idea of plotting is basically to just start writing and let the story out. Even if you’re more of a plotter than a pantser, it can be freeing to know that some of the most beloved (and successful) novels of the 20th/21st Century were written with no outline whatsoever, let alone following a detailed formula involving prescriptions like “have the inciting incident occur within the first 15% of the manuscript.” And beyond all that, it’s simply a great read (as you might expect from Mr. King).
“The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes” (Jack Bickham) and “The 28 Biggest Writing Blunders” (William Noble). These two concise volumes make nice bookends (together they’re less than 250 pages). We’re treating them singly because they’re like two books you might read for the same writing class… one at the beginning of the semester and the other near the end. Both were published by Writer’s Digest Books and both follow the same layout and overall style, down to the (And How to Avoid Them) subtitle after their proper titles. “38 Common Mistakes” is great for beginning fiction writers. I don’t necessarily agree with everything the author says, but overall it’s very solid advice for aspiring writers, under the “you have to know the rules before breaking them” adage. (Ex: “Don’t be constantly bouncing around between POVs.” Sure, this can—and is—broken frequently, and sometimes successfully, but it’s helpful advice for someone seeking clarity in writing their first novel.) “28 Biggest Blunders,” on the other hand, is a better fit for someone with a half-million words under their belt, focusing on more esoteric topics like voice and style instead of primarily nuts-and-bolts like grammar and technique. One thing I really like about both is if you have questions about a specific writing topic, just glancing down the (very descriptive) table of contents in either volume will likely lead you directly to an answer… or at least point you in the right direction.
There are obviously many more helpful books on writing (to say nothing of some of the great writing-related sites online, which we should discuss later), but if you ever feel the need for a shot of writing inspiration—or maybe some well-thought-out ideas about the craft of putting a story together—you could do worse than to start with these.
The bottom line is that you don’t have to do it alone. There’s plenty of advice, inspiration, and technical know-how available, as close as your nearest bookstore, library, or web browser.
Are there any favorite writing books that inspire you to sit down and pound the keys? If so, tell us in the comments!
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.