On my shelf: books on writing


Today I cleaned my office. Don’t be shocked — I know I’ve warned everybody that housework is dangerous and should be avoided whenever possible. But eventually you have to put yourself on the line, screw up your courage, and throw yourself into battle, screaming like a Celt wearing blue face paint and swinging a broadsword. Or maybe you clean with a dust rag and vacuum cleaner, or a weedwacker. Whatever. They’re all valid methods. My point is: while straightening my bookshelf, I took stock of the books on writing I’ve collected over the last twenty years.

There’s a wide range here — from the lighthearted to the scholarly. Some focus on commercial fiction, others on grammar. Others, like Stephen King’s On Writing, are as much memoir as instructional book. I’ve hung onto all of these because first, I love writing and love learning as much as possible about the way storytelling functions, and second, because each of these books taught me something worthwhile about my craft.

In alphabetical order:

Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Lawrence Block
The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker
Bestseller, Celia Brayfield
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction, Barnaby Conrad and the staff of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference
The Elements of Legal Style, Bryan Garner
Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, Edited by Sue Grafton
On Writing, Stephen King
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
Story, Robert McKee
How Not to Write a Novel, Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark
Save the Cat, Blake Snyder
On Teaching and Writing Fiction, Wallace Stegner
Stein on Writing, Sol Stein
Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern
The Elements of Style, Strunk & White
Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss
Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Albert Zuckerman

I value all these books on their own. But their real worth can never be realized until you read fiction and study how their lessons play out on the page.

And no — when I picked up On Writing, I never imagined that one day Stephen King would update it with a list of recommended books that includes two of my novels. That’s beyond anything I could have dreamed up.

14 responses to “On my shelf: books on writing

  1. Amazing. I think I would die of happiness if Stephen King were to ever compliment my books, much less IN one of my favorite books.

  2. I once made a copy of that list and kept it in my wallet so I could look for the books at the library. I’ll have to check out the updated list

  3. I’ve got a few of those, and there are a few more that I’ve been meaning to buy for some time (particularly Bird on Bird and Story). And I love that Edgar is nonchalantly looking over your office.

  4. Edgar peers over my shoulder, reminding me that I can always improve what I’m working on.

  5. Wow! You could write a book on books on writing. 😉 On Writing was definitely my favorite of those I’ve read. I keep forgetting to order the Campbell book. Off to do that now!

  6. Jeff: Glad to hear it! I should clarify that the Campbell book isn’t about writing per se. It’s about comparative mythology — which of course helps us understand how and why humans have told stories for the last 20,000 years.

  7. I’m headed to the library to look for ‘Story’ simply because the title, in its simplicity, fascinates me. Which of these books of yours would we find the most highlighted, underlined, starred, post-it tagged and well–thumbed pages? In my collection it would be ‘Between the Lines’ by Jessica Page Morrell. What an honor to have Stephen King comment on your writing. By the way, I notice your cleaning didn’t involve getting rid of any books…

    • The subtitle of STORY is “Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.” It’s aimed at people writing for film, but I found plenty of insights for novelists.

      The book that’s falling apart from use is STEIN ON WRITING.

      And who would get rid of books? 🙂

      • When we moved recently my son said we packed nothing but books and rocks. Not quite, but close. Screenwriting fascinates me like poetry does – both can say so much with so few words. In screenwriting it seems that the writer must trust the actor to convey with body language. In poetry, a poet can express a whole story in a single poem vs. in 100,000 words. Songs are the same way. Both are lessons, I think, on how to strip sentences to words of value. As I ramble here…

  8. Terrific resources, Meg, to pass on to my aspiring authors. I use parts of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, The Elements of.Style, and Campbell’s hero’s journey ideas with students. Classic stuff!

  9. Pingback: Questions from writers: What’s genre? Can you embellish an autobiography? | lying for a living

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