I used to collect books about writing. How to write, what to write, when to write, how to seduce the muse and beat the system. A fair amount of them supposedly contained the Secret, Key, and One True Way to fame, fortune, and a literary life.
I bought a lot of these from the remainder and discount tables at the local bookstores. This doesn’t reflect their quality—necessarily—so much as the vast quantity of advice arriving every other day to shove the older items off the shelf. Regardless of price, some contained solid advice.
Some, in retrospect . . . didn’t.
Over the years and through many moves—and my discovery that writing professionals often blog—I’ve weeded my core collection down to four that were written by authors who don’t believe that Getting Published was the sole goal of telling a story and that effort, care, and a fair amount of reading and research, were crucial.
Other books come and go, and even stick around,* but I would not gladly part with these:
On Writing by Stephen King. Say what you want about his chosen genre—I say, more, please—but the man writes stories that non-readers read, and this book explains at least part of how he does it. The chapter about the writer’s toolbox alone is worth the price of this book—but the rest of it is, in my opinion, is just as good. Mr. King believes in good storytelling, the kind that sends shivers up your spine and tears down your cheeks—and he knows how to break it down into understandable components just as well as he writes it down into compulsively readable fiction.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Ms. Lamott is so open and honest about how difficult she sometimes finds this whole writing business that I can’t help but be reassured. She is a well-known author who still struggles—in one chapter, she describes the time her agent (editor?) told her that the book she’d wanted to write wasn’t the one she’d actually written. So, she took it home and spread the pages and sections on the floor and walked through it, literally, cutting and pasting, adding and subtracting, until it was as fixed as she could make it . . . that, to me, is one of the bravest acts of writing I can imagine.
Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block. Full disclosure—I hold Mr. Block at least partially responsible for my lifelong love of characters with alternative moral compasses: Bernie Rhodenbarr, Matthew Scudder, Keller—hit man, philatelist, philsopher—and Martin Ehrengraf, bless his twisty soul** . . . What’s an impressionable girl to do? Some of the wry advice in Telling Lies might seem a little outdated—Mr. Block started out in the heyday of magazine fiction—but his principles of storytelling remain sound, and the stories about storytelling make for great reading. If you have the opportunity to hear him speak—the man tours like whoa and visits a lot of libraries—go. You won’t regret it.
Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner. I bought this book when it was first released and read it and consulted it until it fell apart. A second edition is out now, updated for the electronic world, but it still explores the expectations, assumptions, and methods of everyone involved in this writing, agenting, and publishing business. Forest made me think about how I operate as a writer and why, and how to work with that. In my opinion—-and believe me, I’m not just saying this because my current copy is autographed and I spend a lot of time over at Ms. Lerner’s blog-based community—this is one of the best writing books out there.
Arguments? Agreements? Suggestions?
*Someone recommended Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own (MacDougal Street Baby?) and after checking it out of the library I bought it. It’s a keeper, but it’s not precisely a how-to.
**Even Chip Harrison, though he’s not exactly bent, just randy.