Kevin’s Picks: Books on Writing

I’m glad this month’s topic was not “the best book on writing” because there is no such beast. No one can ever write about how to write because there’s no one way to write. All a writer can do is share the way they write. (Or “ways” – some of us approach different projects differently.) If naming one best book on writing is impossible, naming one favorite book on writing is next to impossible. No one else is me, therefore no one else is going to write a book about writing that contains everything I like and nothing I don’t. But there are many books that have things I like and have given me tools I use every day.

That use of “tools” is important. I view what I do as a craft, not as an art. Art is interesting, art can add grace notes to one’s life, but craft always has a greater impact. Which is more likely to be an integral part of your life, a Dali painting* or the absolutely perfect armchair for reading? I try to make every story that perfect chair. (*The question presupposes you cannot sell the Dali painting for millions of dollars.)

This blue collar craftsman’s attitude towards storytelling means there is a slew of writing books I decidedly do not like. Books that treat writing as though it were some mystical journey of self discovery, for example. I’ve been a crisis intervention counselor and mental health case manager for years; if your looking for a mystical journey I recommend Jung. (Actually, I don’t. Jung’s certainly mystical, but that’s about it. If you want your journey of self discovery to get anywhere I recommend cognitive behavioral therapy.) Nor do I have much patience with the notion writing is solely about following your heart. Unless you want to end up in a hot, dark, wet place getting shoved by your lungs every time you take a breath. That being said, you can exorcise (and exercise) a lot of demons through writing, but again that has more to do with therapy than writing. [And yes, before someone points it out, the energy of those internal demons can inform your writing; but as narrative impetus, not narrative element.]

Rather than produce a 3,000 word column analyzing what worked and what didn’t work for me from the myriad books on the market, I’m going to list the books I keep. Actually, I keep all my books. These are the books on writing I take down and reread occasionally – none is perfect, there are parts I don’t agree with in all of them, but on the whole worth your attention.

The ones that are in reach of my writing table, in the order my eye falls on them:

Lawrence Block. Telling Lies for Fun and Profit; Writing the Novel (1985 version, I know it’s been rewritten); Spider, Spin Me a Web. (There are more, I recommend everything he’s written on writing.) Gerald Weinberg. The Fieldstone Method. Cheryl Klein. Second Sight. (Writing children & YA fiction by an editor of the American editions of Harry Potter.)

Francine Prose. Reading Like a Writer (More about understanding storytelling than a nuts & bolts how to.)

Albert Zuckerman. Writing the Blockbuster Novel (The useful parts are reading the various iterations of Ken Follett’s narrative outline of The Man from St. Petersberg as he refines and focuses the story.) David Maas. Writing the Breakout Novel On the fence with this one. The intent is writing a novel that will sell because it stands out from the crowd while fitting into the market. Useful parts are about finding your own, original take on popular story tropes.) Ron Carlson. Ron Carlson Writes a Story All about the process and craft of writing a story. I don’t do everything the way he does, but I like his attitude and reading about how he writes is enlightening. I cannot write or speak about my own journey of becoming a writer without mentioning Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

These two physically beat sense into me (okay, metaphorically physically) and turned me from a dreamer into a working, published writer. Their sites are full of useful information on writing and supporting yourself as a writer. Go spend time studying their sites.

Kristine Kathryn Rush, Dean Wesley Smith

This post originally appeared in Novel Spaces.

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