I’ve been on this writing journey since 2016. When I began, I jumped on and hungrily devoured several “classic” books written for writers by writers. Some were riveting and inspirational – worth the hype. Some left me wondering how and why these people even continued a literary life. They made it sound so painful and stressful. And some were just dull – being essentially a list of what the author had learned, what their favorite practices were, and any advice they had for other writers.
Since then, I’ve read many craft books – more than 20. Perhaps experts will laugh at that number, but when you’re trying to read widely in your genres, read nonfiction for research, and study craft you can’t devour craft books that quickly if you’re going to get anything out of them. And – there are some I’ve started that I didn’t finish. I hope you have too. You don’t have to finish reading everything you start. Some of the books I haven’t mentioned are excellent. They just didn’t speak to me personally or enhance my writing appreciably. But others swear by them.
The books that have stuck with me share some common traits. They interweave the author’s personal story of their writing journey with tidbits and nuggets of best practices and attitudes that may work for other writers at any level. These books are written in an easy-going, conversational manner that make it feel as if you’re reading fiction or “reading for pleasure”. They use many real-world examples (i.e., other books that we may be familiar with) to connect their ideas to reality. They all have at least one take-away (and usually several more) that I can immediately put to work in my own writing. The works aren’t long rambling treatises on the value of literature or the instability of the market or the subjectivity of the industry. They offer boots-on-the-ground writing direction in bite-sized chunks. I’ve listed my top five below in chronological order of publication date.
The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler (1998, Michael Wiese Productions)
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler is a beautifully written tome that uses the Hero’s Journey (Joseph Campbell) as its template. Vogler, a former Hollywood writer, carefully explains the 12 stages of the hero’s/writer’s journey using well-known books and movies as examples. It’s big, it’s thick. You won’t read it in a weekend. It took me months. But it was worth it, and it was easy to read, introducing this novice to the world of the fully rounded character, with mentors, antagonists, critical decisions, and the full circle of the road back.
On Writing – Steven King (2000, Simon & Schuster)
King’s classic On Writing is part memoir, part craft book, part novel. I couldn’t put it down. Not being a huge horror fan, although I’d read some King fiction in the past, I wasn’t sure what I’d get out of it. But it was so highly recommended that I bought it. And I never regretted it. Other than spelling out in black and white what it takes to be a dedicated, dyed in the wool Writer (King gets the capital W), I learned the human side of a true icon, both loved and hated for his work. The downside of this work? It ended too soon. Seriously, there was no downside.
Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert (2015, Penguin/Random House)
Big Magic is the only thing I’ve read by Elizabeth Gilbert. No, I didn’t read Eat, Pray, Love (gasp). Perhaps someday. My favorite thing about Big Magic is Gilbert’s sensibleness (really). She makes a point of telling us that she always kept her day job (until Eat, Pray, Love) because she didn’t want to rely on the fickle literary world for her daily bread. That allowed her to write what she wanted to write – without pressure, external deadlines, and the stress of trying to earn enough to live. On the other hand, the part of the book I hold onto is her encouragement, her belief that everyone is creative, and we only need to show up and let our creativity flow through to the page. She believes that ideas find us, and we do with them what we will. If we don’t use them, they go to someone else who will use them. It’s freeing. A beautiful love letter to creatives that warrants rereading.
DIY MFA – Gabriela Perreira (2016, Writer’s Digest Books)
DIY MFA was one of the first craft books I read, am I’m so glad it was. I stumbled upon it in a bookstore (remember those days?). I don’t have an MFA, and I don’t currently have plans to get one so this seemed like a great help. It was. Perreira (who does have an MFA) advises writers to divide their writing life into three categories (writing, reading, and community). She claims that’s what one gets from an MFA program. I’ve used these organizational building blocks for years and it’s helped me balance the three main parts of my writing practice. Now I’m adding Business to my Community because once you’re being published and have a public persona, business is part of writing. Perreira breaks down well-known novels and short stories to demonstrate story-telling techniques, pinch points, etc. And she offers a whole online community to support writers as well.
Save the Cat! Writes a Novel – Jessica Brody (2018, Penguin/Random House)
I discovered Save the Cat this year. It is based on the screenplay-writing book by Blake Snyder. Brody does a great job of breaking down some of the most popular genre fiction out there to demonstrate the common traits of bestsellers and how good stories work. You can take any novel idea you have and write out the “beats” to see if the plot will hold water before you wade in 5,000 words and don’t know where to go next. I’ve heard people call it a “formula”, but I disagree. You still must write the story and make it work. These guidelines show the writer where in the page count the pinch points should be, how to ramp up tension, and how to write characters that readers care about.
What is obviously lacking in this list is a book specifically on the craft of writing for children. I’ve read a few, and began to read a few, and as far as I can tell, the best way to learn the craft of writing children’s books is to read A LOT of them in your chosen genre and to take courses given by successful authors or editors in the field. So far, these lessons have not gotten translated into any book about writing for children I’ve read. Please let me know if you’ve found the golden egg!
What are your thoughts on the titles I’ve listed? Do you have a writing craft book you think every writer should read? I appreciate learning about wonderful craft books. I’d love to hear your favorites and how they helped your writing practice.