What’s in the drink special? The five best books on writing I’ve discovered to help you level up your craft as a serious writer. A must for any reference library. I keep these books handy in my reference section and dip into them when I’m stumped, looking to break that writers block, or to justify a long procrastinating lunch. I also utilize these books when teaching.
A few of these books may surprise you, and you won’t find them in a how-to section of your library. I find many books are written by authors without any practical experience or credits. Nothing wrong with that–ish. But I always prefer to seek out advice or knowledge from folks with actual street experience and credit as opposed to an academic approach. (Re screenwriting, you know which book I’m talking about: the big fat one everyone owns and no one has read…)
Do you want to be a professional and taken seriously?
So, if you’re stumped, looking to maybe get over the hump artistically and are willing to put in the time–because news flash– you’re competing with writers who have devoted their lives to honing their craft. You’re not competing only with fellow students or your mom’s friend.
And that’s not you, right? You’re an author that wants to improve their craft. You’re willing to study, right? You’re willing to try new things, right? You’re not the writer or novelist that’s going to devote the next ten, twenty years of your life trying to the be the exception to the rule, right?
Warning: For the most part these are not books you can skim easily. You must read them, marinate, and implement. Know the rules, know why you’re breaking them and read with intention.
For more beginner friendly books click HERE.
Take a look at these books on Amazon. Read a sample and if the material resonates or looks intriguing order from your local bookstore. I am NOT an Amazon Affiliate so I get no green no matter what you do.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (2008 reissue)
“As relevant today as when it was first published, The Hero with a Thousand Faces continues to find new audiences in fields ranging from religion and anthropology to literature and film studies.
The book has also profoundly influenced creative artists—including authors, songwriters, game designers, and filmmakers—and continues to inspire all those interested in the inherent human need to tell stories.”
Any screenwriting student knows the hero’s journey. You should too. It’s a great framework to hang certain types of stories.
Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk
My style for prose has been evolving and I find with these chapters I can form my own checklist for that post rough draft rush. It was the book I needed, when I found it as I was finishing [NSFW]. Plus, CP is a great storyteller and his industry/book signing/author life stories are hugely entertaining.
“In this spellbinding blend of memoir and insight, bestselling author Chuck Palahniuk shares stories and generous advice on what makes writing powerful and what makes for powerful writing.
With advice grounded in years of careful study and a keenly observed life, Palahniuk combines practical advice and concrete examples from beloved classics, his own books, and a kitchen table, culled from an evolving circle of beloved authors and artists, with anecdotes, postcards from the road, and much more.” – from the Publisher.
Think Stephen King’s On Writing — that one is also on my FAVE FIVE for Beginners.
From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler
If you read nothing else but Ch. 3 it will put you ahead of other beginners.
When a gentleman with a Pulitzer Prize tells you the number one failing of student manuscripts, it might be worth it to check out. Butler also emphasizes how to write emotionally rather than intellectually.
This is a nice counter balance to the first two books I’ve listed that focus on nuts and bolts. Now you can start to see how your imagination and personality and style can start to emerge. Some readers knock him for being bit full of himself.
But I check my own ego at the door when I look for additional weapons to add to my arsenal.
The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje
I’ve been a huge film buff for decades, but this book shocked me at how many times I dog eared a page, underlined a phrase or concept.
I feel I gleaned more advice about storytelling and the creative process from this book than just about any other book I’ve read in the last 10 years. This book was a delight filled with amazing insights you won’t find elsewhere. I embraced “spark points” as I wrote and edited The Fountain and found it made the process more enjoyable and personal.
Ondaatje, no slouch himself at writing, asks great questions of Murch over the course of 5 very different films, diving into their challenges and his approach.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders
This book comes highly recommended and I can’t wait to get my copy from my wife. She agrees that it’s a great deconstruction of a handful of classic Russian stories. Saunders examines their writing process on a micro line by line level. Structure, emotional resonance.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the Booker Prize–winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December comes a literary master class on what makes great stories work and what they can tell us about ourselves—and our world today.
“One of the most accurate and beautiful depictions of what it is like to be inside the mind of a writer that I’ve ever read.”—Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
For the last twenty years, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he shares a version of that class with us, offering some of what he and his students have discovered together over the years. Paired with iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, the seven essays in this book are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times.
Your friend of the text,
Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer
Yeah, you saw this one on my earlier list.
Please just obtain the book. Read it.
Use Ch. 1 to make yourself a better writer.
Clean up your prose.
Hell, you can just do a word search he gives you to eliminate those junk words that makes your prose wobbly and juvenile.
Considering Grad School for Writing? Check out Mamet’s Advice HERE and then when I decided against it HERE.
DSH is the author of the critically acclaimed THE FOUNTAIN – order it HERE.
Read the Kirkus Starred Review HERE.