A few years back, when I began to get serious about the craft of writing, I poured over instruction books. Some were good, some were a waste of time, but a few contained exactly the right piece of information I needed to understand whatever thorny craft problem I struggled with. None of them substituted for writing often and long – the best tool I have found to learn how to write. But when I get stuck, I still go back to a few of these helpful guides:
- The War of Art – Every writer struggles with resistance. Resistance to sitting down in front of the computer, to writing the next line, to revising that difficult chapter, to sending out that first (or fiftieth) query letter. Steven Pressfield’s book taught me how to identify and conquer resistance by acknowledging it, refusing to fight it, moving past it, and doing the task at hand no matter how much the forces of resistance want me to give up. His method is like aikido for your inner demons. Nothing makes resistance go away for good, but Pressfield’s book gives you a weapon to use against it.
- Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott’s gently humorous guide to the writing life is both a practical handbook of how to overcome common writing problems like perfectionism and a warm voice of companionship on lonely nights of writing and re-writing. Lamott makes it okay to write “shitty first drafts”, to feel jealous of other writers’ successes, to fail over and over until you succeed. Her tips on how to silence the critical voices in your head long enough to get a first draft done made this book one of my favorites.
- Immediate Fiction – A few years back I struggled with the old “show, don’t tell” thing. Sure, I understood the theory, but I had trouble applying it in my own work, or so a few plain-speaking critiquers told me. Then writer/editor Michelle Scott recommended Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver, and I “got” it. Cleaver explained “show, don’t tell” in a way that I could apply to my own work. He also does a bang-up job of showing how to describe emotion. Immediate Fiction is the best book I’ve found for these two elements of writing.
- The Fire in Fiction – Donald Maass’ classic book on adding depth and passion to your novel has much to add to any writer’s repertoire of techniques, but my favorite takeaway is the concept of a scene’s turning points. A turning point is the exact point in the scene where change takes place, either for the reader (an outer turning point), or the POV character (an inner turning point). Using Maass’ techniques, I began to re-craft troublesome scenes around turning points and voila! those troublesome scenes became magical.
What are your favorite books on writing, and why? Leave me a comment below and share a few.