Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Essentials: Books on Writing I Can't Live Without

Over on DIY MFA, Gabriela has posted a list of her favorite books on writing. I thought I would create a list of my own and share it with you.  My list only includes those books on writing which I own.  Library books I've read or have given away after reading are not included.  These are either the unread or part of my permanent library.

To be honest, some of these books overlap thematically so if you see a book you would move from one list to another, imagine my standing right behind you going, “I agree.”  But for the sake of oversimplifying, here is my list of lists.  I plan on updating this list as I go along because I’ll obviously continue to read books on writing and want to add or even replace recommendations as I go along.

Last Updated:  21 September 2011

For the non-poet in all of us
Poemcrazy by Susan G. Wooldridge
This quirky and inviting book on poetry is like an open invitation to writing poetry.  Anyone and everyone is welcome because the author doesn’t intellectualize the writing process.  Just have fun with words and see what happens.
Poetic Medicine by John Fox
Although Fox does suggest some technique in this book, the focus is on writing as a means of healing.  Filled with many examples from published and unpublished (until they appeared in this book, obviously) poets. 
For the poet in all of us
A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver
In only a few pages, Oliver manages to cover so much of the technique and craft of how to write poetry that one wonders where other poetry books are so long.  She hits all of the essential points and offers enough examples to drive each point home perfectly.
The Art and Craft of Poetry by Michael Bugeja
This book is designed to walk the reader from coming up with original ideas through the process of writing, revising, and finally putting together a collection of poems.   The exercises also have beginner and advanced levels so this is a book that can be used time and time again.
One more recommendation regarding poetry.  I always tell anyone and everyone interested in writing poetry to read poetry.  But don’t go grabbing Shakespeare, Browning, Keats, Eliot, Whitman, or Dickinson.  While I encourage any serious poet to read any and all of the above (and many more), I urge anyone interested in writing poetry to read contemporary poets.  If you don’t know where or how to begin, try reading some contemporary poetry anthologies, find a few poets you especially admire, and buy the poetry books by those favorites. 
Fiction (short story/novel/etc.)
Writing Fiction Gotham Writers’ Workshop
This a collection of essays by different writers, each explaining a different aspect of writing story.  Using a single short story as an example, the reader learns to read critically and analytically for effect with the intention of carrying this knowledge over into future writing projects.
Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White
This is a classic with good reason.  A short but thorough list of basic grammar rules.  Everyone should read this if only because even the best grammar check is horribly unreliable.
There are so many options that I don’t think there’s one that’s better than the rest.  The one I use is the same one I’ve been using since my son won a copy in a spelling bee.  Of course, there are online dictionaries now so one doesn’t even have to flip a page but there’s still nothing quite like looking up a word and discovering three or other surprising ones alongside it.
When you know you haven’t found the mot juste, a thesaurus is your best friend.  It can also become a crutch, making your voice sound false or, worse, pretentious.  A useful tool but not one to be over-utilized.

Unstuck by Jane Anne Staw, Ph. D.
We all get creatively blocked at times and this book has well-grounded advice along with uncomplicated writing exercises that should help work through the block without adding to it.  A book I’ve recommended to quite a few blocked writers.
The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict
Throughout the book, Benedict uses examples from literature that highlight the potential of turning the passionate into the profound.  If every scene should communicate something about your characters, this book will show you how your characters can express themselves sexually without being gratuitous.

Writers on Writing
On Writing by Stephen King
I am not even a fan of King’s work but I enjoyed reading his thoughts on writing.  No, it didn’t give solid practical advice but it is interesting to get some insight into how even a prolific, published author can struggle over a story and how self-sabotaging behaviors can manifest even after success.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
I recently reread this and I enjoyed Lamott’s blunt take on the writing life.  She pulls no punches but, because they are cloaked in self-deprecating humor and self-doubt, the reader takes the truth for what it is.  

Inspiration for the Writer
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
This book is perhaps the book to which I give credit for most of my recent writing (and my divorce, but that’s another story).  The numerous exercises and the daily and weekly practices Cameron recommends are easy to do and infinitely beneficial.
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Every now and again, I simply have to re-read this book because I always find something new in what Goldberg says.  I’ve even been so inspired by this book that more than once I’ve written something I think is really good because something she said sparked my muse.

The New Diary by Tristine Rainer
This is another of those books I’ve read and reread with delight.  There are journaling exercises and suggestions that can’t help but inspire anyone to find a blank book and begin a practice of writing.  And I don’t know any successfully published writer who doesn’t keep a notebook/journal of some sort. 
Journal to the Self by Kathleen Adams
Another practical guide for journaling.  I typically recommend this book for anyone who is bored with their own journaling because the journaling exercises in this book are so easy to use and inevitably kick-start me into a renewed commitment to my own practice of writing daily.
Leaving a Trace by Alexandra Johnson
I found this book on a bargain table and, after reading it, went back and bought every copy I could find which I then gave to my friends and my mother.  This book is one of my favorites because it is approachable without being overwhelming. 
A blank book
Whether lined or unlined, a blank book of some sort is a must have.  Or you can go electronic and keep your journal on a computer.  However, I still think there’s nothing quite like carrying a book with you so that whenever you have a flash of inspiration, it’s there, ready to receive your ideas. 
Reading published journals can also be an inspiration.  I recommend this with trepidation because reading some writer’s journals can feel intimidating.  Frankly, my journal entries rarely sound as insightful as Anne Frank’s, as intellectual as Sylvia Plath’s, or as interesting as Anaïs Nin’s.  Nevertheless, I plod on with my own journaling and am inspired by these other journals.  So if you think you can set your journaling ego aside long enough to appreciate someone else’s journals then I’d suggest seeking out published journals as well.  
Writing Your Life by Lou Willett Stanek, Ph.D.
This is a great book to help the writer move from a private format (journaling) to a published one.  Whether writing a short story based on your life or a personal essay or even an entire memoir, Stanek’s approach is approachable and applicable.

As if the above were not enough (because I’m not including the many books on writing I’ve read that I didn’t like and/or do not own), here is a list of books I own but have not read.

The Art of the Book Proposal by Eric Maisel, Ph.D.
Author 101: Bestselling Book Proposals by Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman
Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents by Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman
Creating Fiction edited by Julie Checkoway
Escaping Into the Open by Elizabeth Berg
How to Write a Poem by Lawrence Jay Dessner (this book is out of print)
Memoirs of the Soul by Nan Phifer
The Practice of Poetry edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell
The Right to Write by Julia Cameron
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
What If? By Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron
Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway
Writing in Flow by Susan K Perry, Ph.D.
Writing Metrical Poetry by William Baer
Writing Personal Essays by Sheila Bender
Writing the Wave by Elizabeth Ayres


  1. Having met King, I can say that he is much like his books (take that however you like) and I completely forgot where I was going with this...oh well it's 6 am I am allowed to ramble...I will come back when my train of thought does.

  2. I can count on one hand the number of King books I've genuinely liked. Unfortunately, I think I've read more than what I can count on both hands because people keep urging me to read "this" book as it is his "best" book. I did like a short story I read of his. But really, I only liked The Stand, Hearts of Atlantis, and . . . ummmm . . . I sorta like Carrie which I read before the movie came out but that was so long ago I was too young to really like anything. I didn't even bother finishing The Dark Tower books because by the end of the third I said, "Wait. I totally know how this is going to end."

    I do love his self-deprecating humor. Diarrhea of the keyboard. Priceless.