Everyone has a story to tell. And pretty much everyone (at least everyone of a certain variety) has dreamed about writing that story down and sharing it with the world. But, er, how?
Whether you’re a fledgling scribbler or a seasoned one, there are a ton of books out there that will inspire you, guide you, and offer you sage advice that might just pop into your mind one cold November afternoon when you’re writing your novel and wondering why you can’t get this character to actually walk down the stairs. To help you sift through the masses, here are some of the best writers’ guide books, from collections of craft essays to nuts-and-bolts how-tos to collage/memoir/odes to creativity — all guaranteed to make you a better writer of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or whatever hybrid form you may choose. Check them out, and get inspired.
The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr
Mary Karr: Queen of Memoir. This book is half love letter to some of Karr’s favorite memoirists (Nabokov, rightly, occupying prime position), half craft manual, half memoir-of-sorts itself. Yes, that’s three halves, but, well, that’s just how good this book is. Karr’s discussion of truth, beauty, and the vagaries of memory are inspiring and instructive even for those who don’t write memoir — and those who don’t write anything at all, but just live in the world as best they can.
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
This book manages to be both warm and useful, both craft book and extended personal essay about writing, both funny and tough. One of the best pieces of advice Lamott gives in here (other than the chapter on “Shitty First Drafts,” which is, if you’re a writer, guaranteed to make you feel better) is that when you’re overwhelmed by everything there is to say, you can think about giving yourself short assignments — of getting started by writing “down as much as [you] can see through a one-inch picture frame.” Try it: like so much else in this book, it works.
The Art of Recklessness, Dean Young
The advice Dean Young gives in this book about poetry could be applied to almost every creative field (and life in general): be reckless. “No one knows how to write a poem,” he tells us at the beginning of this book, “Congratulations! Prescription and intention are traps. They promise a certainty of outcome, of identifiability based on acquired skills that can only be parroted back at best… If the poet does not have the chutzpah to jeopardize habituated assumptions and practices, what will be produced will be sleep without dream, a copy of a copy of a copy.” Channel your inner third grader, he tells us, and make your wildest/weirdest/darkest/brightest/you-est dreams come true.
The Art of Fiction, John Gardner
In the classic handbook for any young writer, Gardner dissects the nature of fiction (my favorite chapter in this section, for obvious reasons, is “Metafiction, Deconstruction, and Jazzing Around”) and then teaches technique, plot structure, word choice, etc. and gives sound practical advice. There are even exercises in the back! It’s like an MFA in book form, except without all the drinking.
What It Is, Lynda Barry
You’ll never find a writing manual (or any book by anyone else) quite like Lynda Barry’s What It Is. Reading Barry is an ecstatic experience, and her unique blend of extravagant cartoon and collage serves this memoir-cum-creativity-manual perfectly. This isn’t a craft handbook, but rather an inspirational text: each page will stir something in you, ask you questions about the nature of art and memory and imagination, and you’ll be running to your own work in no time.
How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Stanley Fish
Not every writer is a sentence nerd (some are better categorized as plot nerds or drama nerds or description nerds — you’re not escaping that nerd label), but if you are, and even more importantly, if you aren’t, you need this book. In his highly engaging way, Fish picks apart great sentences and marvels at their workings, and not only gives you the tools to do the same, but sets you up to create some great sentences of your own.
On Writing, Stephen King
This book is probably the number one, most beloved craft book for fiction writers, and with good reason: it’s both “a memoir of the craft,” as its subtitle tells us, and an engaging class on storytelling by one of America’s most successful spinners. Some of the advice you’ve heard before — “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings” — but still, King is full of reminders that we all need to hear once in a while. One of my favorites: “Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it.”
The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
If you have the nuts-and-bolts stuff down and just want to hear some excellent writers talk about the things that you can do to make your fiction sing, look no further than this collection of craft essays (and its sequel) from Flavorwire-favorite literary magazine Tin House. Start with Dorothy Allison’s essay on place, which is likely to stick with you as vividly as the spot where you had your first kiss.
The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
If you’re one of those writers for whom writing can be a torture (but a necessary torture), Dillard is your patron saint. One of the best pieces of advice in this book of essays is this one, of which I must constantly remind myself: ”One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. . . . Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris
OK, have you seen Mary Norris’ amazing grammar videos? The venerated New Yorker copy editor is smart, irreverent, and able to teach you a thing or two in ways you’re bound to remember. All you have to do to understand the charm (and helpfulness) of this memoir-cum-book-of-secrets-of-the-universe is to take a look at its table of contents, which features chapters like “Spelling Is for Weirdos,” “That Witch!” and “Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon.” Yes. I know. Grammar nerds, this one’s for you.
Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury
Nine incredible essays on craft and creativity from one of the greatest writers of all time. Not so much a how-to as a why-to, perhaps, but if nothing else, these essays will get you into your writing chair, and possibly teach you “how to climb the tree of life, throw rocks at yourself, and get down without breaking your bones or your spirit” along the way.
PLOTTO, William Wallace Cook
Everyone knows the theory that there are only 36 plots from which all stories derive. But it’s time to get a little more specific. This book is essentially a magic machine, the one you’ve been waiting for: a full-service plot generator which lets you choose your own adventure via the connected plot elements of protagonist, conflict, and resolution. But it’s not that simple. With thousands of possibilities, each specific enough to inspire and direct but open-ended enough to let your own story run the show, things get weird. And awesome.
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
This classic of craft and self-expression could just as easily be called Zen and the Art of Writing Well — Goldberg draws on her meditation practice and the ways it encourages her to work with her mind, but also her years of writing and teaching, to deliver a helpful, informal manual of literary creation.
Ron Carlson Writers a Story, Ron Carlson
In one of the most helpful short fiction manuals out there, Ron Carlson takes you through exactly how he creates his moving, often funny, short stories. He lays his process bare, step by step. Now, Carlson’s process may not work for you, but even if it doesn’t, you’ll learn a lot from what he does and (perhaps!) discover a little bit more about what you do along the way.
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, Jeff VanderMeer and Jeremy Zerfoss
For all you fabulous fabulists out there, a gorgeous book that gives practical advice on technique and form and worldbuilding (including the whole range, from point of view to how to craft an ending to revision) that pretty much inspires the creative mind on every page. Looking at this book, it seems like it’s going to be a fluffy follow-your-heart kind of thing, but instead it’s full of practical information and makes you want to follow your heart to its dream palace. So: best of both worlds.
Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose
Writing workshops and how-to books are great, but the real way to become a better writer of literature? Read more literature. Or even better: read this book, which will help you see just how literature evokes so much meaning, what it is that moves us, and then read more literature.
Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern
This excellent how-to book focuses, as you might be able to intuit, on the shapes that fiction can take and make, explaining how tension and revelations and action and beginnings and endings work, and how you can make them work for you. The middle section is made up of one big Do (do write what you know) and a helpful list of Don’ts (don’t end your story with, “And then I woke up.”). The last section is a charmingly organized “Alphabet for Writers,” covering just about everything else — from Accuracy to Style to Workshops and Zigzag. An essential tool.
About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews, Samuel Delany
This compendium of information from the teaching and writing life of legendary sci-fi writer Samuel Delany is fragmented by its nature, but the different forms work wonders here. They allow the book to be both a lesson in specifics and the mechanics of what it takes to write great fiction at all levels and also a series of musings on the bigger questions of making art and being an artist. Whichever you fancy, Delany is super brilliant, so you really can’t go wrong.
Good Prose, Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd
This book structures itself around the partnership between writer Tracy Kidder and his editor, Richard Todd — which not only leads to some good stories alongside all the guidance on how to create great nonfiction, but also means that there’s some solid discussion of the editorial process, which is often missing from books like these. Also, the prose? Pretty darn good (imagine that).
Naming the World, Bret Anthony Johnston
In this book, Johnston breaks down the writing of fiction into seven elements — Getting Started, Characters, Point of View and Tone, Plot and Narrative, Dialogue and Voice, Descriptive Language and Setting, and Revision — with wisdom and writing exercises for each one as contributed by a host of writers, editors, and teachers. There are also a ton of great writing prompts at the back.
The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction, Brian Kiteley
Speaking of great prompts, here’s a book chock-full of them. Even better: the prompts in here transcend what you’re used to (describe someone who wants something badly, but don’t tell us what it is, etc.) and get kind of weird, as in “Sentenced to Death,” in which you’re asked to take a single sentence by a writer you admire and, using only the words contained therein, write 15 of your own sentences about a particular character. When you open your mind to strangeness (and learn to love wacky constraints), who knows what will come up?
Steering the Craft, Ursula K. LeGuin
LeGuin is one of the best storytellers alive, so it’s safe to say she knows what she’s talking about in this book. Though she does cover many usual craft-book issues like point of view and narration, what I love about this book is that LeGuin starts by stressing the importance of the way language sounds, something we take joy in as children but often lose. It’s only then, when you can make sentences that sound right (or scary or beautiful), that you can start to look at the larger things.
A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver
Poetry more your thing? You need this guide from the Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet Mary Oliver, which addresses technical and structural concerns from specificities of line to form, sound, voice, and everything else you need, its lessons punctuated with beautiful examples by other great poets. As Oliver tells us in the introduction, the book was “written in an effort to give the student a variety of technical skills – that is, options. It is written to empower the beginning writer who stands between two marvelous and complex things – an experience (or an idea or a feeling), and the urge to tell about it in the best possible conjunction of words.”
On Writing Well, William Zinsser
The classic of nonfiction how-tos, meant as a complementary volume to Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, which as Zinsser writes in his introduction, “was a book of pointers and admonitions: do this, don’t do that. What it didn’t address was how to apply those principles to the various forms that nonfiction writing and journalism can take… how to write about people and places, science and technology, history and medicine, business and education, sports and the arts and everything else under the sun that’s waiting to be written about.”
The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White
And speaking of the ultimate writing reference text — here it is. I just couldn’t leave this one off. A craftsman needs to know his tools, after all.