The Books that REALLY Helped

Today, we’re doing a group post in which we share books that have helped us, inspired us, coached us, or whatever else it has taken to get us to the published writers stage or beyond. Perhaps some of them will help you, as well.

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson: I’m not sure how much help this will be to others, since my pick is long out of print (I’m OLD!!!) but I since I’ve never been much of a one for how-to books (yes, even though I wrote one), there’s only one that springs quickly to mind. Back around 1983, before I was published, I was working as a library assistant at UM Farmington when a Young Authors Conference was held on campus with Jane Yolen as guest of honor. I took a longish lunch break and zipped across the street to the student center to hear her speak and ended up buying a copy of her how-to book, Writing Books for Children. The book itself was very helpful (and I did end up having four books published for middle-grade readers during the early years of my career) but the greatest inspiration was Jane herself. Two things have stuck with me. First, that she signed the book “one writer to another,” a line I’ve used myself with many autographs since. Second was the encouragement I found in something she said during her keynote (and doubtless repeated in her book, although I haven’t tried to find the quote there): “You don’t have to have children to write for them. You don’t even have to like children. You just have to remember what it was like to be a child.” Words to live by.

Matt Cost: I’m not a big believer on writer manuals. I think that writing is an extremely individual and personal subject. What works for one writer does not necessarily work for another writer sort of thing. I have perused Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, but thought, sheesh, what does this yahoo know about writing. Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird has had only one thing that made a whole lot of sense to me. The title. When her brother confesses at the dinner table that he has a huge project due the next day labeling over 2,000 birds, and is lamenting how he will ever accomplish that, and their father tells him, ‘son, bird by bird. Bird by bird’. That is writing in a nutshell. Step by step. Brick by brick. Bird by bird. So, not being a fan of writing books, Im going to share an author who has helped, inspired, and coached me to become the writer that I am.

Louis L’Amour. The great western writer who wrote over a hundred novels, almost all exclusively based on a very simple premise. A flawed protagonist gains an appreciation of life while falling in love with a strong woman who is also being pursued by the greedy and dastardly villain. Rising tension, a bare-knuckled fight scene, and a big shootout at the end. The baddie is vanquished. Sometimes the hero ended up with the lady. Sometimes he rode off into the sunset. Thats it.

Maggie Robinson: As into writing books as we all are, it’s interesting some of us are still very resistant to “writing books.” People (and I include writers in this category) don’t like to be told what to do. I took a persuasive writing class in college, and must have had a textbook. But it’s long been consigned to the dustbin of my history, and I’m not sure I ever persuaded anyone about anything.

As an adult, I have studiously avoided most craft classes, probably to the dire detriment of my work, but oh well. I did read King’s On Writing, which was really pretty good. However, he failed to persuade me to ditch all those adverbs. My bad.

But I need to follow the theme. One of my treasured possessions is the leather-bound Roget’s Thesaurus that belonged to my second cousin Marion Miller, who wrote for the New Yorker. I like to think of it sitting on her desk as all those literary greats tramped up and down the hallways. Nowadays I usually use the Internet to look up synonyms, but Marion’s book tells me that persuasive can mean convincing, convictive, suasive, cogent, conclusive, stringent, unctuous, seductive, subornative, propagandistic, and missionary. That’s plenty of adjectives to add an ‘ly’ so I can remain persuasively rebellious.

Dick Cass: Not strictly speaking a writing book, but an encouragement to think about how and why we create. Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland explores how all types of art get made, what gets in the way of it being made, and how to work through the difficulties that impede us. I know many of us shy from the words art and artist to describe what we do, but if we define it as creating, making something from nothing out of our selves and our lives, the words fit. This book gave me a great appreciation of all the ways we make it harder on ourselves to do our work than it needs to be.


Shelley Burbank: Though I have purchased many books (possibly too many) about the craft of writing, when I’m in need of inspiration, I often turn to WRITING 21st CENTURY FICTION by Donald Maas. I like his take on the blurred lines between genre and literary fiction, the idea that we can write books that adhere to genre conventions while using beautiful language. Plot written artfully. Art with a plot. (Peanut butter in my chocolate or vice versa?) Maas writes, “The death of genre will come for you on the day that you cut yourself loose from your fears. When you stop writing like you think you are supposed to and start writing in the way that only you can, then you will discover the impact you can have.”

Shelley Burbank, author of FINAL DRAFT: An Olivia Lively Mystery (Encircle Publications, 2023)

Sandra Neily here: (ditto on Donald Maas and most likely disagreeing with Matt Cost) I often write down a dirt road in the north woods and have found, as an author, it can get lonely for company who are inspirational as well as practical about writing stuff. Here is my fav dirt road companion: Anne Lamott. (Don’t miss the “Shitty First Drafts” chapter.)

“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life 

Kate Flora: Usually, when this topic comes up, I refer to some of the writing books I’ve consulted over the years, including The Art of Fiction and the very wonderful Stein on Writing by Sol Stein, which is very practical and down-to-earth. Then there are the books specifically on mystery writing, some of which I’ve gone back to many times over the years and still consult when I’m teaching or writing about a specific area of mystery writing or when I get stuck. These include Barbara Norville’s Writing the Modern Mystery (modern in 1986), the late, wonderful William Tapply’s books, The Elements of Mystery Fiction, and my friend Hallie Ephron’s book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel. In confess that How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America edited by Lee Child has been on my shelf for two years, waiting for me to have time for.

But moving beyond books on craft and editing (though I commend Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover  and to your attention), writers are always also readers, and reading deeply in one’s chosen genre or genres is always valuable. Good books can spark ideas and revision, bad ones can illuminate our bad habits and steer us away from careless writing. If a writer does so much POV head jumping it makes a reader dizzy, this is something to be avoided.

This is not a book you read but a book you create: the notebook of great quotes you’ve read and want to remember because they speak to you with truths about writing or reading or character or something about a scene. I used to do this and let the habit fall away, but writing this reminds me. There are so many brilliant lines, and ways he uses objects to create persons and story, in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. One sentence which had stayed with me for decades, and which seems to true both for writing true crime and for writing fiction that reflects the real world comes from Philip Gourevitch’s book about the Rwandan massacre, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We will be Killed with our Families. In it, Gourevitch writes: This is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.

In order to get more deeply into my characters and into the mood of my books, I often divert from how-to to poetry and find poems that resonate with the work I’m trying to do. I will sometimes have several college textbooks, along with Yeats and Mary Oliver, as well as my college Shakespeare, spread out on the floor around my desk as I work to deepen the mood.

Maureen Milliken: The absolute number one best book I can recommend for writers is Don’t Murder Your Mystery, by Chris Roerden. I wish that every writer whose books I read would read it. Roerden, a former book editor, offers 24 tips of what NOT to do when you’re writing. You don’t have to be a mystery writer to benefit. The tips apply to any genre. As anyone who writes knows, it’s easy to fall into bad habits and not catch them, because there’s so much to juggle. I always re-read this book when I’m done with my first draft so I can remind myself what issues to keep an eye out for and tweak.

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3 Responses to The Books that REALLY Helped

  1. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    I may have to break down and get some of these.

  2. kaitlynkathy says:

    One additional thought, for anyone deciding to write genre fiction: read extensively in that genre, not just your favorites, but an assortment. Sometimes you can learn more about what should go into your own writing by figuring out what you DON’T like in other people’s books. And there’s always the bonus of reading a really bad book and thinking “I can do better than that.” Then, of course, you have to prove that you can.

  3. kaitcarson says:

    I see lots of familiar books here many of which reside on the groaning bookshelves behind me. Thank you for the reminder of Chris Roerden’s book. It is excellent and I had forgotten it. Hallie Ephron’s book, another old favorite, so much so that my copy of the first release was held together by rubber bands. I was grateful she released a revised version! Stephen King’s On Writing is my all time favorite. Not for the content, but for the energy it gives me. (Stephen would be proud – I removed an adverb from his sentence.)

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