At Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I got my master’s degree in writing, we were required to read broadly and deeply in a variety of genres. (Not a bad assignment for a writer.) So I would come home from the library with stacks of books, and I would read. Sometimes all day. Which previously I would have considered a decadent thing to do. Now I could say, “It’s required. I’m doing my homework.”
Some of those books were about the art and craft of writing. Now there are probably hundreds of such books out there. Maybe thousands. But I found a few gems that I keep coming back to. Below is a list of the Top Ten that I’ve found most helpful and inspiring.
P.S. Even if you’re not a writer, I think you’ll still enjoy the quotes I’ve included.
P.P.S. I would be hard-pressed to put these in order of preference, because I feel the need of one or another at different times, depending on where I am in my writing process. So I’ve placed them here in alphabetical order by author.
1. Bayles and Orland, Art and Fear. Straight talk that always brings me back to center. “The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.”
2. Browne and King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Two editors give specifics. “…writing and editing are two different processes requiring two different mind sets. Don’t try to do both at once.”
3. Robert Olen Butler, From Where You Dream. A deep guide into the process of creating. “The primary point of contact for the reader is going to be an emotional one.” “Rewriting is redreaming till it all thrums.”
4. Elizabeth George, Write Away. Takes you through her process, which is rigorous, relevant, and inspiring. “There are no rules; there are only informed choices. But you can’t make an informed choice if you remain uninformed.”
5. Ann Lamott, Bird by Bird. A classic. “You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft . . . Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.”
6. Holly Lisle, How to Think Sideways: Career Survival School for Writers. Each lesson of Think Sideways is an ebook download. But I recommend all of Holly’s books on writing. She’s a straight talker and gives effective, workable how-to specifics. “Problem and Opportunity are the same thing. To find Opportunity, you reframe Problem.”
7. Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel. Both the book and workbook will challenge you to think long and deep about what your story really needs. “These [breakout] novels change us because their authors are willing to draw upon their deepest selves without flinching. They hold nothing back, making their novels the deepest possible expression of their own experience and beliefs.”
8. Robert McKee, Story. Another classic and an eye-opener. “Rather than agonizing over the odds, put your energies into achieving excellence.”
9. Jordan E. Rosenfeld. Make a Scene. I had trouble with scene, and this book taught me a lot of what I needed to know. “To write well, you must take the readers in hand and teach them how to move to your beat.”
10. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey. Guidance into expert storytelling through mythic structure; useful to all writers of fiction. “Sometimes the best way to measure a story’s effect and diagnose its problems is to ask ‘How did it make me feel – in the organs of my body? Did I feel anything physical at all, or was I just having mental processes that didn’t much involve anything but the brain?’”
I’m sure I’ll find other inspiring books in the coming years, but they’ll have to top these if they want to stay on my shelf.
© 2012 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com