What’s On Your Writer’s Shelf? A Beginner’s Guide to Books About Writing

In the last few days, I’ve been privy to a few conversations on Twitter about writing craft books, and it’s got me thinking about my own collection.  I started buying books on writing craft when I was 12 or 13 years old (well, okay, my mother was still buying them for me at that point).  I already knew I wanted to be a writer, and as a birthday present my mother got a year’s subscription to Writer’s Digest magazine – the magazine, of course, came with all sorts of ads about the books that Writer’s Digest publishes, and it became my mission to buy as many as possible.

Sadly, I lost quite a few of my books due to flooding during Hurricane Ike in 2008, and I can’t remember all the craft books I used to have, but I still have a decent number.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Bob Mayer’s The Novel Writer’s Toolkit is an absolute GEM.  For some reason, I remembered buying it when I was like 14 years old, but I can’t have, because I just checked and it didn’t come out until 2003, so I must be a remembering one of the books I lost in the flooding (I don’t know, my memory is screwy these days…).  In any case, I’ve read it 3 or 4 times by now, and it is still one of the best books for dissecting the many different aspects that go into planning, starting, and completing a novel.  (Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is another good all-purpose writing advice books, that I would recommend, though its not as good as Bob Mayer’s.)

My second-favorite craft book is How to write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card.  This was actually the very first book I ever got from Writer’s Digest Books.  I knew from the beginning that I really wanted to write sci-fi/fantasy so this book was an obvious first choice.  And a god-send.  With a fantastic section on World-Building that includes such sub-headings as: “developing the rules of your world… and then abiding by them…” and “working out history, language, geography, and customs of your invented world,” and a Story Construction section that includes: “the MICE quotient: milieu, idea, character, event – knowing which is most important in your story will help you decide its proper shape”; this book is a MUST-HAVE for anyone interested in writing speculative fiction.

I also recommend a series of books called Elements of Fiction Writing.  Of this series, I have Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham and Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress.  Both are fantastic resources for learning about and keeping track of the vital bare-bones structural elements of plotting, pacing, and writing.  One of these days I’ll get around to buying the rest of the series…

I also own some wonderful writer’s reference books that come in very handy.  A Writer’s Guide to Places is a great reference book with all kinds of information on various countries, cities, and other locales that you might use in a story.  Obviously, this kind of reference is nothing compared to actually GOING to the places you plan to use, but it’s a good place to start.  Similarly, Careers for Your Characters: A Writer’s Guide to 101 Professions from Architect to Zoo Keeper is precisely what it sounds like – a guide to help you with basic info about various jobs your characters could have.  Again, it doesn’t replace more in-depth research, but its great to flip-through when you’re not even sure yet what your character’s job should be.  Both of these books I got from, you guessed it, Writer’s Digest Books (I love that publisher!).

I also own a reference guide called What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, which is, obviously, a guide to daily life in 19th Century England.  I bought this when I was ridiculously obsessed with Jane Austen in middle school and high school.  I really wanted to write an Austen-esque story with fantasy elements added in.  Then I discovered that Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer had already done that in their YA historical fantasy novel Sorcery and Cecilia (later followed by The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician).  Maybe someday I’ll still try my hand at such a story, but its not as original an idea as I thought it would be when I was 15 yrs old.

Then there are those books written by authors that are about the writing life.  Not necessarily advice or how-to books about writing, but more about how writing affects your life overall.  Of those kinds of books, I really only own 1: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury.  Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors, which is why I bought the book.  And it is a beautifully written (of course, it’s Bradbury), insightful, and inspiring look into life as a writer.

I would add that Kristen Lamb’s book We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, while not strictly-speaking about fiction writing, is VITALLY important for all writers who want to build a platform, find readers, and be taken seriously.  (I’d also add her newest book, Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer, but I haven’t read it yet.  It’s on the to-do list.)

(I also own a couple books on writing musicals and lyrics because… you know… I have broad interests and more ambition than I really know what to do with…)

There are SO MANY books I haven’t read yet.  I know everyone tells me I need to read Stephen King’s On Writing, and I’m sure I’ll get around to it someday (though I’ll admit I’ve never been a huge fan of his…).  But no doubt, I am probably missing some very important books, and I definitely need to expand my collection.

So which writing books are on your shelves?  Which ones do you live by?  Which ones would you recommend to others (or to me)?  Thoughts, suggestions, and criticisms are welcome and desired!


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4 thoughts on “What’s On Your Writer’s Shelf? A Beginner’s Guide to Books About Writing

  1. I think the only book I’ve read about writing books was David Gerrold’s book about writing the Star Trek ep. Trouble with Tribbles, which I read as a kid. In writing my own book, the biggest writing resource I relied on was my mom… who happens to have a MS in English & experience as an editor, so not an unreasonable resource! I played around with my ideas & methods & found what works best for me. I’d advise you to do the same – don’t rely too heavily on how other people tell you how to write. Unless of course they’re fixing your grammar & spelling! Just go with what reads well to you. And then edit the hell out of it. Repeatedly. Besides, writing’s the easy part. Publishing & selling it – now those are the books you should be getting!
    http://www.katenevermore.com

    • Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love breaking rules and doing my own thing. In fact, I wrote a blog about that a few weeks ago, I think… But I am a firm believer that in order to do your own thing, you need to know what all your options are. How I can know for sure I’m doing the best/most effective/most interesting thing for my book unless I’ve seen how others have done? I try to learn things from every possible angle. And, of course, I definitely learn the most from the novels I read, from studying what my favorite authors do on the page, but its also beneficial, I think, to explore the craft books. Some of them are too general, or too specific, or too obvious, or just not me. But some of them are VASTLY useful, insightful, and inspiring. (And most of them discuss publishing to some extent or another.)

  2. Wow, with two exceptions that is a huge portion of my craft shelf! And I’ll be getting those two on it soon.

    I’d like to add a couple as well: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Put these two with Bickham’s Scene & Structure and you have writing structure from macro to micro.

    Another is Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. This is an excellent story design and plotting aid.

    Thanks for a great post Amanda 🙂

    • Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is one that I’ve heard/seen several people mention now. Looks like its definitely one I need to get my hands on. (Thank god for B&N coupons!) Thanks for the suggestions! And I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I hope you’ll stick around.

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