The Writing Reference Books You’ll Really Use

Kate Flora: In the early days of my efforts at writing, I joined the Writer’s Digest book club, and got regular infusions of writing books. Some of them I read. Some piled up on my desk and on the bookshelf. Along the way, I learned that not every book that purports to teach us how to write, how to edit, and how to be inspired works for every writer. Sometimes the books don’t speak to us. They don’t make sense for our style or our process. Sometimes, a book that is incomprehensible or off-putting at one phase of the writing life may speak to us later.

Books giving us advice about writing fall into many different categories. There are the books for inspiration or insight into what it means to be a writer. Among those is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamotte. It is very reassuring to a beginning writer to be reminded that before you can craft your work into something worth reading, you need to begin with “a shitty first draft” and that crappy writing is okay. Dream of writing all you want, but the actuality is something different. Writers write, whether the words are inspiration or gravel, and we don’t wait until the fluttery muse lands on our shoulder and whispers the words in our ears.

As Lamotte puts it:

You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you teach your unconscious to kick in for you creatively…You put a piece of paper in the typewriter or turn on your computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind—a scene, a locale, a character, whatever—and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt.

A book recently suggested by a friend that I’ve just added to my toolkit is Jane Yolen’s Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft. It’s a comforting small book for when you’re feeling discouraged.

Looking for general books to help you with craft? Among my favorite go-tos are Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. My copy bristles with post-it notes like a yellow porcupine.

As Stein puts it:

Nonfiction conveys information

Fiction evokes emotion.

In fiction, when information obtrudes, the experience of the story pauses. Raw information comes across as an interruption, the author filling in. The fiction writer must avoid anything that distracts from the experience even momentarily.

Want beautifully written advice? On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner.

For ideas and prompts to get you going? What If by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

Sustaining inspiration and budgeting your time? A Writer’s Time by Kenneth Atchity and Motivate Your Writing by Stephen Kelner.

For mystery writing in particular? The Mystery Writers of America How to Write a Mystery edited by Lee Child and the earlier version edited by Sue Grafton. Hallie Ephron’s Writing and Selling the Mystery Novel. If you can find it, The Elements of Mystery Fiction by the late (and wonderful) William Tapply.

Books to help you when you are ready to edit that manuscript? I like Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. The wonderful Chris Roerden has two versions of her editing book, Don’t Murder Your Mystery and Don’t Sabotage Your Submission. Valuable books since these days, you have to go into the market with a nearly perfect book. Editors are usually too busy to fix your flawed by promising book.

How about books about the writing biz? Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall or The Career Novelist by Donald Maass. A reminder, though—you’ll never really find the answers to how to write that best seller in someone else’s book. You have to sweat and die and bleed on the page and then rewrite five or six times and maybe one of those books will be a hit. But it has to come from your imagination telling your story, and no writing teacher can teach you that. We can coach but in the end it’s up to you.

When I asked my friends what writing books they turn to, I got quite an interesting list of books I don’t know but plan to check into. These include:

On Writing by George V. Higgins

How to Write a Damned Good Novel James N. Frey

The Art of Dramatic Writing Lajos Egi

Scene and Structure Jack Bickham

Story Trumps Structure Steven James

The Lies that Tell the Truth John Dufresne

GMC: Coal, Motivation and Conflict Debra Dixon

The Anatomy of Story John Truby

When I first started writing, I read The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. What he said about writing made me think that I wasn’t a writer. Five years later, it had more to say to me, and I’ve returned to it again and again over the years. Thirty years later, I still return to what he said about psychic distance, or the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story.

It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway

Henry J. Warburton had never cared much for snowstorms

Henry hated snowstorms.

God how he hated these damned snowstorms

Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul

Reiterating what I said above, not every book is for you, and that’s okay. Don’t rush out to buy a book just because someone suggests it. One inexpensive way to determine whether a book belongs on your shelf is to check it out of the library first.

And here, because I love these rules, is a link to Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writers:

You will never forget “easy on the hooptedoodle.”



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4 Responses to The Writing Reference Books You’ll Really Use

  1. John Clark says:

    I like What If by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter as a textbook when teaching new aspiring writers.

  2. susanvaughan says:

    Great post. You have some of my favorites there, especially the Jack Bickham book. Love the Elmore list. I copied ir.

  3. Alice says:

    Kate, this was fascinating. When I taught a senior college memoir class we started a writer’s corner with some of these books at the Thomaston Library.

  4. Sandra Neily says:

    This was a great post: wheat from chaff I think. I printed it out! Thank YOU.

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