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Language » Writing Books
The best books on creative writing, recommended by andrew cowan.
The professor of creative writing at UEA says Joseph Conrad got it right when he said that the sitting down is all. He chooses five books to help aspiring writers.
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett
1 Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
2 on becoming a novelist by john gardner, 3 on writing: a memoir of the craft by stephen king, 4 the forest for the trees by betsy lerner, 5 worstward ho by samuel beckett.
How would you describe creative writing?
Creative writing is an academic discipline. I draw a distinction between writing , which is what writers do, and creative writing. I think most people in the UK who teach creative writing have come to it via writing – they are bona fide writers who publish poems and novels and play scripts and the like, and they have found some way of supporting that vocation through having a career in academia. So in teaching aspirant writers how to write they are drawing upon their own experience of working in that medium. They are drawing upon their knowledge of what the problems are and how those problems might be tackled. It’s a practice-based form of learning and teaching.
But because it is in academia there is all this paraphernalia that has to go with it. So you get credits for attending classes. You have to do supporting modules; you have to be assessed. If you are doing an undergraduate degree you have to follow a particular curriculum and only about a quarter of that will be creative writing and the rest will be in the canon of English literature . If you are doing a PhD you have to support whatever the creative element is with a critical element. So there are these ways in which academia disciplines writing and I think of that as Creative Writing with a capital C and a capital W. All of us who teach creative writing are doing it, in a sense, to support our writing, but it is also often at the expense of our writing. We give up quite a lot of time and mental energy and also, I think, imaginative and creative energy to teach.
It is hugely rewarding, engaging with the students, but it is hugely frustrating as well, because the larger part of it is engaging with an institution. I’m sure I’m not alone in being very ambivalent about what I do!
Your first choice is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer , which for someone writing in 1934 sounds pretty forward thinking.
Because creative writing has now taken off and has become this very widespread academic discipline it is beginning to acquire its own canon of key works and key texts. This is one of the oldest of them. It’s a book that almost anyone who teaches creative writing will have read. They will probably have read it because some fundamentals are explained and I think the most important one is Brande’s sense of the creative writer being comprised of two people. One of them is the artist and the other is the critic.
Actually, Malcolm Bradbury who taught me at UEA, wrote the foreword to my edition of Becoming a Writer , and he talks about how Dorothea Brande was writing this book ‘in Freudian times’ – the 1930s in the States. And she does have this very Freudian idea of the writer as comprised of a child artist on the one hand, who is associated with spontaneity, unconscious processes, while on the other side there is the adult critic making very careful discriminations.
And did she think the adult critic hindered the child artist?
No. Her point is that the two have to work in harmony and in some way the writer has to achieve an effective balance between the two, which is often taken to mean that you allow the artist child free rein in the morning. So you just pour stuff on to the page in the morning when you are closest to the condition of sleep. The dream state for the writer is the one that is closest to the unconscious. And then in the afternoon you come back to your morning’s work with your critical head on and you consciously and objectively edit it. Lots of how-to-write books encourage writers to do it that way. It is also possible that you can just pour stuff on to the page for days on end as long as you come back to it eventually with a critical eye.
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There are two ways in which you can start to get that wrong and produce bad work. One is where you don’t allow the critic in at all. And so it is just a constant outpouring of unmediated automatic writing, which can become a kind of verbal diarrhoea. And the other side of that is where you allow the critic too much authority and the critic becomes like a bad dad who finds fault with everything and doesn’t allow the child to produce anything. And that results in a sort of self-sabotaging perfectionism, which I have suffered from. I got very blocked, and I read this book and it unblocked me.
Good! Your next book, John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist , is described as comfort food for the aspiring novelist.
This is another one of the classics. He was quite a successful novelist in the States, but possibly an even more successful teacher of creative writing. The short story writer and poet Raymond Carver, for instance, was one of his students. And he died young in a motorcycle accident when he was 49. There are two classic works by him. One is this book, On Becoming a Novelist , and the other is The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers . They were both put together from his teaching notes after he died.
On Becoming a Novelist is the more succinct and, I think, is the better of the two. He talks about automatic writing and the idea, just like Dorothea Brande, of the artist being comprised of two people. But his key idea is the notion of the vivid and continuous dream. He suggests that when we read a novel we submit to the logic of that novel in the same way as we might submit to the logic of a dream – we sink into it, and clearly the events that occur could not exist outside the imagination.
What makes student writing in particular go wrong is when it draws attention to itself, either through bad writing or over-elaborate writing. He suggests that these faults in the aspirant writer alert the reader to the fact that they are reading a fiction and it is a bit like giving someone who is dreaming a nudge. It jolts them out of the dream. So he proposes that the student writer should try to create a dream state in the reader that is vivid and appeals to all the senses and is continuous. What you mustn’t do is alert the reader to the fact that they are reading a fiction.
It is a very good piece of advice for writers starting out but it is ultimately very limiting. It rules out all the great works of modernism and post-modernism, anything which is linguistically experimental. It rules out anything which draws attention to the words as words on a page. It’s a piece of advice which really applies to the writing of realist fiction, but is a very good place from which to begin.
And then people can move on.
I never would have expected the master of terror Stephen King to write a book about writing. But your next choice, On Writing , is more of an autobiography .
Yes. It is a surprise to a lot of people that this book is so widely read on university campuses and so widely recommended by teachers of writing. Students love it. It’s bracing: there’s no nonsense. He says somewhere in the foreword or preface that it is a short book because most books are filled with bullshit and he is determined not to offer bullshit but to tell it like it is.
It is autobiographical. It describes his struggle to emerge from his addictions – to alcohol and drugs – and he talks about how he managed to pull himself and his family out of poverty and the dead end into which he had taken them. He comes from a very disadvantaged background and through sheer hard work and determination he becomes this worldwide bestselling author. This is partly because of his idea of the creative muse. Most people think of this as some sprite or fairy that is usually feminine and flutters about your head offering inspiration. His idea of the muse is ‘a basement guy’, as he calls him, who is grumpy and turns up smoking a cigar. You have to be down in the basement every day clocking in to do your shift if you want to meet the basement guy.
Stephen King has this attitude that if you are going to be a writer you need to keep going and accept that quite a lot of what you produce is going to be rubbish and then you are going to revise it and keep working at it.
Do you agree with him?
Yes, I do. I think he talks an awful lot of sense. There is this question which continues to be asked of people who teach creative writing, even though it has been taught in the States for over 100 years and in the UK for over 40 years. We keep being asked, ‘Can writing be taught?’ And King says it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, but what is possible, with lots of hard work and dedication and timely help, is to make a good writer out of a merely competent one. And his book is partly intended to address that, to help competent writers to become good ones. It is inspirational because he had no sense of entitlement. He is not a bookish person and yet he becomes this figurehead.
He sounds inspirational. Your next book, Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees , looks at things from the editor’s point of view.
Yes, she was an editor at several major American publishing houses, such as Simon & Schuster. She went on to become an agent, and also did an MFA in poetry before that, so she came through the US creative writing process and understands where many writers are coming from.
The book is divided into two halves. In the second half she describes the process that goes from the completion of the author’s manuscript to submitting it to agents and editors. She explains what goes on at the agent’s offices and the publisher’s offices. She talks about the drawing up of contracts, negotiating advances and royalties. So she takes the manuscript from the author’s hands, all the way through the publishing process to its appearance in bookshops. She describes that from an insider’s point of view, which is hugely interesting.
But the reason I like this book is for the first half of it, which is very different. Here she offers six chapters, each of which is a character sketch of a different type of author. She has met each of them and so although she doesn’t mention names you feel she is revealing something to you about authors whose books you may have read. She describes six classic personality types. She has the ambivalent writer, the natural, the wicked child, the self-promoter, the neurotic and a chapter called ‘Touching Fire’, which is about the addictive and the mentally unstable.
It is very entertaining and informative and it is also hugely affirming. I identified myself with each one of the six types. There is a bit in each of them that sounded just like me. And I thought, well if they can get published so can I. You do often worry that you are an impostor, that you are only pretending to be a writer and that real writers are a completely different breed, but actually this book shows they can be just like you.
Your final choice is Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett .
This is a tiny book – it is only about 40 pages and it has got these massive white margins and really large type. I haven’t counted, but I would guess it is only about two to three thousand words and it is dressed up as a novella when it is really only a short story. On the first page there is this riff: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
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When I read this I thought I had discovered a slogan for the classroom that I could share with my students. I want to encourage them to make mistakes and not to be perfectionists, not to feel that everything they do has to be of publishable standard. The whole point of doing a course, especially a creative writing MA and attending workshops, is that you can treat the course as a sandpit. You go in there, you try things out which otherwise you wouldn’t try, and then you submit it to the scrutiny of your classmates and you get feedback. Inevitably there will be things that don’t work and your classmates will help you to identify those so that you can take it away and redraft it – you can try again. And inevitably you are going to fail again because any artistic endeavour is doomed to failure because the achievement can never match the ambition. That’s why artists keep producing their art and writers keep writing, because the thing you did last just didn’t quite satisfy you, just wasn’t quite right. And you keep going and trying to improve on that.
But why, when so much of it is about failing – failing to get published, failing to be satisfied, failing to be inspired – do writers carry on?
I have a really good quote from Joseph Conrad in which he says the sitting down is all. He spends eight hours at his desk, trying to write, failing to write, foaming at the mouth, and in the end wanting to hit his head on the wall but refraining from that for fear of alarming his wife!
It’s a familiar situation; lots of writers will have been there. For me it is a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is something I have to keep returning to. I have to keep going back to the sentences, trying to get them right. Trying to line them up correctly. I can’t let them go. It is endlessly frustrating because they are never quite right.
You have published four books. Are you happy with them?
Reasonably happy. Once they are done and gone I can relax and feel a little bit proud of them. But at the time I just experience agonies. It takes me ages. It takes me four or five years to finish a novel partly because I always find distractions – like working in academia – something that will keep me away from the writing, which is equally as unrewarding as it is rewarding!
September 27, 2012
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]
Andrew Cowan is Professor of Creative Writing and Director of the Creative Writing programme at UEA. His first novel, Pig , won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, the Betty Trask Award, the Ruth Hadden Memorial Prize, the Author’s Club First Novel Award and a Scottish Council Book Award. He is also the author of the novels Common Ground , Crustaceans , What I Know and Worthless Men . His own creative writing guidebook is The Art of Writing Fiction .
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10 Best Creative Writing Books to Read in 2023
The world of creative writing possesses an extraordinary ability to unleash imagination, craft narratives, and evoke emotions that resonate with readers. Whether you're an aspiring writer or simply someone who appreciates the art of storytelling, consider Oxford Summer Courses. Embark on a transformative journey through our Creative Writing summer school, where you will have the opportunity to explore the art of crafting compelling narratives, experimenting with various writing styles, and honing your literary skills.
Please note that the following list of books is recommended reading to broaden your knowledge and deepen your appreciation of creative writing and literature. While some of these books may be included in the Oxford Summer Courses curriculum, the specific content of the summer school can vary. If you wish to study these subjects with us, you can apply to our Creative Writing summer school.
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1. On Writing, by Stephen King
- "Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work."
- Published in 2000, "On Writing" by Stephen King is a masterclass in the craft of storytelling. It combines King's personal journey as a writer with practical advice on honing your writing skills during your time at Oxford Summer Courses.
- Discussion: How can Stephen King's advice on discipline and the writing process benefit aspiring writers at Oxford Summer Courses today?
2. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
- "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere."
- Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird" is an encouraging guide for writers facing the daunting task of putting words on the page. Through humor and personal anecdotes, she offers valuable insights into the writing process during your Creative Writing summer school at Oxford Summer Courses.
- Discussion: How does Lamott's emphasis on "shitty first drafts" resonate with your own experiences as a writer at Oxford Summer Courses?
3. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
- "Omit needless words."
- A timeless classic, "The Elements of Style" is a concise guide to writing well. It provides essential rules of grammar and composition that every writer should know, especially during their time at Oxford Summer Courses.
- Discussion: How do the principles outlined in "The Elements of Style" apply to various forms of creative writing, from fiction to poetry, at Oxford Summer Courses?
4. The story, by Robert McKee
- "Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact."
- Robert McKee's "Story" is a comprehensive exploration of the principles behind effective storytelling. It's a must-read for anyone looking to understand the structure and elements of compelling narratives during their time at Oxford Summer Courses.
- Discussion: How can the insights from "Story" enhance your ability to construct engaging and impactful stories during your Creative Writing summer school at Oxford Summer Courses?
5. Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert
- "Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart."
- In "Big Magic," Elizabeth Gilbert delves into the creative process and encourages writers to embrace their creativity with courage and curiosity, a valuable lesson during your time at Oxford Summer Courses.
- Discussion: How can Gilbert's philosophy on creativity inspire you to approach your writing with a sense of wonder and daring at Oxford Summer Courses?
6. The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
- "Fiction seeks out truth. The writer has to go into the dark, quiet spaces of himself and feel around for the truth."
- John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction" offers profound insights into the art and craft of writing fiction. It explores the intricacies of character development, plot, and the writer's role in conveying truth through storytelling during your Creative Writing summer school at Oxford Summer Courses.
- Discussion: How can Gardner's exploration of truth in fiction inform your own creative writing endeavors at Oxford Summer Courses?
7. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
- "Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open."
- Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones" is a meditative guide to writing practice. It encourages writers to tap into their innermost thoughts and emotions during their Creative Writing summer school at Oxford Summer Courses.
- Discussion: How can Goldberg's approach to writing as a form of meditation help you access deeper layers of creativity in your work at Oxford Summer Courses?
8. The Elements of Eloquence, by Mark Forsyth
- "Rhetoric is the art of dressing up some unimportant matter to fool the audience for the moment."
- "The Elements of Eloquence" explores the art of rhetoric and language play. Mark Forsyth's witty and informative book will inspire you to experiment with language in your writing during your time at Oxford Summer Courses.
- Discussion: How can a deeper understanding of rhetorical devices enhance your ability to craft persuasive and evocative prose at Oxford Summer Courses?
9. Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
- "Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spent the rest of the day putting the pieces together."
- Ray Bradbury's "Zen in the Art of Writing" is a collection of essays that celebrate the joy and passion of writing. Bradbury shares his insights on creativity and the writing life during your Creative Writing summer school at Oxford Summer Courses.
- Discussion: How can Bradbury's enthusiasm for writing infuse your own creative process with energy and purpose at Oxford Summer Courses?
10. The Nighttime Novelist, by Joseph Bates
- "Writing is an exploration of the heart."
- "The Nighttime Novelist" by Joseph Bates is a practical guide for writers who balance their craft with busy lives. It offers strategies for maximizing your writing time and making progress on your projects during your time at Oxford Summer Courses.
- Discussion: How can the techniques outlined in "The Nighttime Novelist" help you maintain a consistent and productive writing practice at Oxford Summer Courses?
Oxford Summer Courses invites you to immerse yourself in the enchanting world of creative writing during your time at our summer school. In this blog post, we present a meticulously curated list of 10 classic books that will ignite your imagination and deepen your understanding of the art of storytelling. From Stephen King's practical wisdom in "On Writing" to Ray Bradbury's celebration of the writing life in "Zen in the Art of Writing," these books will serve as your companions on your creative writing journey at Oxford Summer Courses. Through our Creative Writing program, you will have the opportunity to explore these influential texts, share your insights with fellow writers, and refine your craft. Join us on this literary adventure and embark on a transformative experience that will shape your writing skills and inspire your creative spirit during your time at Oxford Summer Courses. Who knows, you might just discover a newfound passion for the art of storytelling and create narratives that resonate with readers for generations to come.
Apply now to join the Oxford Summer Courses Creative Writing summer school and embark on a journey of self-expression and creativity during your time at Oxford Summer Courses. Join a community of passionate writers from around the world and unlock your potential as a storyteller. Apply here.
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Ignite your passion for creative writing at Oxford Summer Courses. Immerse yourself in a carefully curated list of books that will spark your creativity, refine your storytelling abilities, and help you embark on a transformative journey as a writer.
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The Creative Life
Coaching for creatives
Ten of the Best Books for Writers
Writers love to read – and write –about writing. Here are my favourites.
1. Stephen King: On Writing
Now I happen to think that Stephen King is one of the best storytellers alive. No matter how absurd his initial premise – A car is alive! A clown in the drains! Phones turn you into zombies! – he does it with such conviction and imagination that you suspend all disbelief.
But no matter what you think of his work, this memoir/instruction manual is simply the best book on writing, full of inspiration, practical advice from one of the world’s most successful and prolific masters of the art.
If you ask any writer for their top ten, this will usually be in there somewhere. My much-loved and much-used copy is full of highlights, notes, underlining, bookmarks and folded-down corners. Start here!
2. Elizabeth Gilbert: Big Magic
Beautifully written, this is a magical mix of practical advice and mystical belief about the power of art, and how stories find us when we open ourselves to them. The chapter headings give you some idea: Courage; Enchantment; Permission; Persistence; Trust; Divinity.
This is one all creatives can learn from, not just writers. Especially if you’ve lost touch with your muse, you can’t get into flow, and you’ve lost faith that inspiration will come. We all have those dark moments. This book is a light, guiding the way back to your path.
If you find it too wu-wu and weird, stick with it. You’re probably the one who needs it most, right now.
3. Julia Cameron: The Artist’s Way
I re-read this every couple of years, and I’ve given it as a gift more than any other book. Clients of mine have written novels, screenplays, got through those difficult second albums and created new artworks by using its central tools: a weekly artist’s date , and daily morning pages . I’ve done both for years now.
They’re like a compass, gradually showing me the direction I need to take, and in the rare times I now abandon them, I quickly see the difference in terms of focus and inspiration.
Experienced writers sometimes struggle with the idea of freewriting, because they hold themselves to higher standards. My tip? Do it without any grammar at all – I use dashes and little else – and don’t go back to edit, correct spellings or anything else. It works like a spring-clean for your mind, stopping thoughts playing on endlessly repeating loops by getting them down, however incoherently, onto the page.
There are plenty of other exercises and writing prompts too, with each chapter addressing a different obstacle in the creative’s path. This is another book that works for all kinds of creatives. But it’s especially brilliant for blocked, burned out or stalled writers.
4. Steven Pressfield: The War Of Art
Subtitled Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, this is one of the best books I know about what he calls Resistance: the forces stopping you just getting on and doing your creative work.
Like The Artist’s Way, it’s effective and inspirational whatever your creative field. But writing is Pressfield’s craft, and many of the examples he uses involve fellow writers.
Some of Pressfield’s attitudes are a little dated, but his methods are sound. See him as a wise old uncle, pushing you to just begin doing the work you dream of doing, no matter what you think is in your way.
5. Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Diary
She’s like Marmite: you either love Woolf’s novels, or you hate them. I’m in the love camp ( To The Lighthouse is a book I’ve read many times over), but you don’t have to agree to enjoy these extracts from her diary.
We often feel that the great writers, those whose work has endured and inspired, somehow sat down and effortlessly wrote finished drafts of their novels, stories or essays, and we measure our own clumsy first drafts and half-formed ideas against them. This is the antidote: Woolf’s diary exposes the sheer hard graft, the revisions, the self-doubt and the soul-searching that goes into producing a solid body of work.
If you are afraid of the Woolf, search out your own favourite writers’ thoughts on the craft. Ian Rankin’s introductions to the newer editions of his Rebus novels give lots of insight into his creative process, for instance, and Philip Pullman’s essays on reading and writing are as brilliant as his fiction.
6. Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art
This is actually a 2012 commencement address Gaiman gave in Philadelphia, and you can see him delivering it below. But graphic artist Chip Kidd had the lovely idea of making it into a beautifully illustrated book. I often open a page at random, and find just what I needed to read that day.
At its heart, all of Gaiman’s fiction is about the creation of story and of the myths that subconsciously inform us, even if we think we’ve forgotten them. I love the introductions he writes to his short story collections, and most of his collected journalism and speeches are also about the power of reading, writing and story.
7. Anne Lamott: Bird By Bird
Amongst many gems in this book, Lamott introduces the idea of Shitty First Drafts. These three words have pulled me out of the swamp more times than I care to remember, and the gist of them is this: on days when you can’t write well, just write badly. Get it down, then improve it later.
“All good writers write them,” she reassures. “This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”
There are gems in here about character, plot, dialogue, setting – and knowing when you’re done. And great exercises to try, along with brilliant paragraphs of her own writing. Leafing through it to write this, I’ve realised it’s been too long since I’ve reread this book, and it’s just moved from the shelf to my bedside table.
8. Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down The Bones
Three days after his 71st birthday, my dad complained of feeling sick, lay down on the bed for a moment, and died. He was rarely ill and hadn’t visited a doctor in 20 years, so this was beyond sudden and unexpected.
This was the book I was reading when that happened, 15 years ago. While I did all of the things I needed to do as the eldest child supporting a mum who – like most women of her generation – had never lived alone, this was also the book that kept me whole. I filled journal after journal in the following weeks and months, dipping back into these short essays whenever I needed kind, compassionate but firm guidance.
Sub-titled Freeing The Writer Within , it’s a good place to start if you have always wanted to write, or have been away from the page for a while. If you’re not sure where or how to begin, the writing prompts here are brilliant.
9. Natasha Khullar Relph: Shut Up And Write
As the title suggests, this is no-nonsense advice on getting the work done from a talented writer who managed to launch a successful international freelance career from India, then branch out into courses, content marketing, fiction – plus a really helpful and detailed series of books on making money from journalism and content marketing.
These final two writers both produce practical guides to getting paid for your work. I’ve included them here because I think it’s important to understand that artists and writers no longer need to starve. It’s perfectly possible to make real money from your writing – if that’s you want to do.
10. Joanna Penn: Successful Self-Publishing
This book is free on Kindle, inexpensive in paperback, and hugely practical if you want to publish your own writing and start earning money from it. Penn has a whole series of clear, informative books on writing and a long-running podcast about self-publishing, as well as her own successful and ever-growing series of independetly-published fantasy thrillers.
Like many older writers, I always looked down on self-publishing. I was wrong . It’s a great way of by-passing gatekeepers such as publishers and agents, getting topical work out quickly – and getting paid for your work within weeks, rather than years.
11. Antony Johnston: The Organised Writer
I’ve added this to the list as a bonus book, because I’ve just read it and it’s too useful not to share. This isn’t about how to write. It’s more about how to function, as a writer. How to be efficient in juggling multiple projects and organise everything from the folders on your computer to your notes.
My only criticism is that he advocates a somewhat dated system of storing old projects in A4 envelopes and file boxes. Why clutter up your workspace when you can just scan it all into an app such as Evernote and find it again far more quickly? But that’s a minor niggle about a book packed with sage advice.
I’ve been a professional writer for four decades now, and I still learned a lot from it!
There are many, many more brilliant books about writing.
Scarlett Thomas’s Monkeys With Typewriters is a great practical guide to writing and especially plotting fiction; James Wood’s How Fiction Works and Walter Mosley’s The Year You Write Your Novel are pretty self-explanatory and brilliant. Ray Bradbury’s writing advice is always pure gold, and I’ve never read any of Zadie Smith or Margaret Atwood’s thoughts on the craft without feeling smarter for it.
Really, I could go on, and on, and on. But I’m sure you have favourites of your own. Leave your recommendations below. And perhaps I’ll revisit this later, and do ten more.
If so you’ll enjoy The Creative Companion , a bi-weekly newsletter in which I share books, podcasts, videos and other useful resources to help professional creators get the success and the pay they deserve, making work they truly love. Sign up below if you’d like to get the next issue.
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The best tools for writers in 2023
All you really need to write is a pen and paper. But this list of tools and resources will help you do more – and earn more from your work
13th January 2022 at 4:59 pm
Google? You can research pretty much anything you like online. But.. are you putting off writing by researching? I’d say just jump in and begin, then fact-check and adjust later..
13th January 2022 at 7:26 am
Where are the best places for research resources for writers? For instance I’m trying to write a fantasy story that opens with child soldiers and their beginning powers but it’s been difficult to put my hands on the right things. Is there a one stop shop?
22nd March 2021 at 9:33 pm
Find these recommendations very interesting I have the magnificent Stephen King on writing and will attempt to read your list. Currently I’m reading Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. Worth an entry on any list
5th February 2021 at 5:50 pm
A good collection of titles.
17th January 2021 at 5:35 pm
Thanks Darlene! I’ve added that to my reading list..
14th January 2021 at 9:42 pm
I think another great collection of essays on writing, is Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners.
5th January 2021 at 4:39 pm
The long answer to what I’m doing is here . The short one: two new books, a couple of collaborations, and lots of coaching creatives! Both The Artists Way and A Beautiful Anarchy are brilliant. Enjoy your journey, and if I can help, you know where I am now!
5th January 2021 at 1:50 am
Hi Sheryl. Thank you for your response. I’m unsure if I should reply here in the comments section, but here goes. Well, I’ve been ruminating and procrastinating for too long and my NY was a disaster that has become a great motivator and something has switched in my thinking. So, at the moment I’m writing lists, trying to work out what ‘it’ is.
I have a creative background.I have been feeling very empty and at the moment feel unfulfilled.I do not want to start another year feeling like a cork bobbing in the ocean. So I have started to map out time each day for writing, and painting. I started The Artists Way on Sunday and I’m listening to A Beautiful Anarchy on my morning walks.
I found your fabulous site whilst searching time planning for creatives. Thank you so much. What about you? What are you planning for 2021?
3rd January 2021 at 6:04 am
Glad it was useful, Katy. What are you working on/planning to make in 2021?
3rd January 2021 at 4:42 am
Hello Sheryl. I came across your site and blog today. It’s exactly what I need right now. Notebook in hand I am devouring your posts. Neil Gaiman’s speech has particularly stirred me up. Thank you for this list and all the other great advice and articles. I feel an on line book order in the ether this evening! Oh and I see you are a fellow ‘old’ raver! All the best, Katy.
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10 Books to Make You a Better Writer
In The Way of the Fearless Writer , Beth Kempton outlines a creative practice inspired by Buddhist philosophy. In a departure from advice that centers on “painful effort,” Kempton contends that becoming a “fearless writer” requires embracing three principles: “desirelessness” teaches writers to “serve the writing, not the ego”; formlessness encourages them to freely “spill” their words onto the page before fashioning them into a shape; and “emptiness” urges writers to see “through [their] fixed ideas about separate selves” so as to write without fear of critique. Kempton weaves abstract musings with practical suggestions and mixes Buddhist principles with writing advice in seamless, down-to-earth prose.
For some reason, most writers I know seem to think the best way to get better at writing is to ask someone else for their opinion of what they have written, which usually leads to a sometimes excruciating and occasionally devastating critique session. Six books in—and having been on the receiving end of such destructive criticism—I can tell you there is a much healthier way to get better at writing, which is to hone your own evaluation skills and learn to trust your own opinion of your work. The best way to do that is to read and write a lot. I sometimes wonder if the money spent on creative writing degrees might be better spent on a big stack of books, a pile of good pens, and a few days in an Airbnb now and then to give you the headspace to write.
Here are 10 books (plus a word of caution, see below) which have made me a better writer because of the advice they offer, the masterful way they are written, or because their words drifted off the page and implanted themselves in my being, nudging my own words awake.
1. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee
This book taught me how to notice the world and write about it. John McPhee has spent more than 50 years writing profiles for the likes of the New Yorker and Time magazine and offers rare insight into every stage of the process, from interviewing, drafting, and revising to working with editors. He is self-deprecating yet luminously wise, and his authority as a writing teacher is evident in the masterful prose laid down on every page..
2. Drinking from the River of Light: The Life of Expression by Mark Nepo
Mark Nepo’s words have been a friend by my side for as long as I can remember. He uses language to weave readers into the web of life, so we feel held, seen, and a part of something beautiful. Drinking from the River of Light reminds us that to be human is to be creative, and it contains a host of gentle practices to guide us back to the source of creativity within ourselves.
3. Fingerpainting on the Moon: Writing and Creativity as a Path to Freedom by Peter Levitt
I first knew Peter Levitt as a translator of the Tang Dynasty poet Hanshan. Like many talented translators, Levitt is a poet himself, and I find his approach to writing in Fingerpainting on the Moon both unexpected and delightful. His writing prompts are fresh and original, and they helped guide me beyond the obvious to the hidden places where the best work is born.
4. Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life by Natalie Goldberg
I just love this lesser-known cousin of Goldberg’s classic Writing Down the Bones . It celebrates the messiness of writing, encouraging you to move toward, not away from, the truths that rumble inside you. Goldberg is the ultimate permission giver, not just handing out permission to write, but to be every part of the wild human that you are and put that on the page.
5. Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science To Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (*Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron
I haven’t written a novel (yet), but I found this book surprisingly helpful for shaping my non-fiction self-help books. It’s not prescriptive like some other novel writing books, but it does offer strategies that really work to make your overall piece into something compelling. Cron demonstrates the process of working one-on-one with a writer in the early stages of her novel, allowing readers to see the story take shape on the page. I found this unusual approach very helpful for applying the strategies to my own work.
6. Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer by Peter Turchi
This fascinating book, which explores how writers and cartographers use some of the same devices to map out a place, space, or idea, brought a whole new dimension to my writing. “Each of us stands at one unique spot in the universe, at one moment in the expanse of time, holding a blank sheet of paper,” writes Turchi. This single line sparked an entire book for me. I wonder what Turchi’s observations and insights might spark for you
7. You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith
When I grow up, I want to write like Maggie Smith. The pieces of this memoir fit together like a three-dimensional jigsaw, each connected to the others but also a sculptural beauty of its own. There is so much poetry in Smith’s prose that I had to read some pages three times, out loud, to take it all in. Whether you choose Smith or another writer, it is excellent practice to identify someone whose work you admire and read everything they have written. In doing so you can observe their evolution as a writer and take note of all the ways they offer up their life on the page.
8. Rhythms and Roads by Victoria Erickson
Victoria Erickson’s poetry is raw and beautiful. She speaks through the page unfiltered, and her words burn through each layer of my skin to reach in deep. Reading this book, and her debut, Edge of Wonder , made me realize that sometimes what arrives first is best, and that editing should only serve to enhance what is there, not silence or strangle it. The wildness in these poems gives you permission to be wilder in your own writing.
9. Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte
If you ever get stuck for something to write about, pick a word and dive in deep. Explore its etymology, feel the word roll off your tongue, consider all the ways it fits into the human experience. And then write about that. If you want some inspiration, read Consolations , a gorgeous collection of essays exploring 52 ordinary words, in a way which elevates them to poetry.
10. Big Magic: Creative living beyond fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
This book is worth reading for the single insight that ideas visit us, and if we are not ready to bring them to life, they move on to someone else. It is an inspiring, urgent call to crack on and write, or otherwise create, and not let fear stop you for one more day.
*A word of caution: books are magic. Sometimes they give us the confidence to begin, or motivation to continue. Sometimes they sweep us away with their beauty and inspire us to be better. This is all good. By all means, read such books, but don’t read so much that you have no time left to write. Because the single best way to become a better writer is to write. A lot. Write so much that you no longer care about any particular word or sentence and can let go of anything you have written to make space for something better. And then keep writing until “better” comes, because it will, and you will know it when it has arrived.
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Books About Creative Writing
A while ago, I put a call out on the Writers & Artists Twitter account for recommendations on the best creative writing guides out there. I received a huge amount of suggestions and decided to turn them into an official post.
I'll keeping adding to this list and be sure to share your recommendations in the comments below!
On Writers and Writing – Margaret Atwood The Creative Writing Coursebook Forty-Four Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry - Julia Bell and Paul Magrs
Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury
Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande
Save the Cat - Jessica Brody
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers - Renni Browne and Dave King
How to Write like Tolstoy - Richard Cohen
Storygrid – Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl
Aspects of the Novel – EM Forster
Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert
Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg
Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose – Constance Hale
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction - Patricia Highsmith
On Writing – Stephen King
The Modern Library Writers’ Workshop – Stephen Koch
Bird by Bird – Ann Lamott
Steering the Craft – Ursula Le Guin The Practice of Writing - David Lodge
The Emotional Craft of Fiction – Donald Maass How NOT to Write a Novel - Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
Write to Be Published – Nicola Morgan
Mouth Full of Blood - Toni Morrison
Get Started in Writing YA Fiction – Juliet Mushens
Tips from a Publisher: A Guide to Writing, Editing, Submitting and Publishing Your Book - Scott Pack
The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist - Orhan Pamuk
The Rights of the Reader – Daniel Pennac
Making a Scene – Jordan E Rosenfeld
Craft in the Real World - Matthew Salesses
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain - George Saunders
Your Story Matters - Nikesh Shukla
Save the Cat - Blake Snyder
Science of Storytelling – Will Storr
Find Your Voice - Angie Thomas
The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler
Into the Woods – John Yorke
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13 Novels Every Writer Absolutely Must Read — The Writing Coach 060
February 14, 2018
Welcome to The Writing Coach . On this podcast, I speak with the instructors, editors, coaches, and mentors who help writers and authors create their art, build their audience, and sell their work.
A client of mine recently asked me what novels I would recommend for the purpose of demonstrating different aspects of writer’s craft.
This episode answers that question by revealing 13 novels every writer should read!
Listen to the podcast now now or read the full transcript below.
Hello beloved listeners and welcome back to The Writing Coach podcast. I am your host Kevin T. Johns.
If this is your first time listening to the podcast, welcome. We love new listeners. This is episode … oh boy, I always forget to check before we start recording. It’s probably episode 59 or 60 or something, which means if you enjoy this episode there’s another 58, 59 episodes out there that you can go check out where I chat with all sorts of amazing people. Shawn Coyne, Jenny Blake, Chandler Bolt. Everyone in the world of helping authors. Tons of great interviews in there with people like Jeff Goins. Everyone you want to hear me chat with, I chat with. Go back. Dig into those archives and check out some of those older episodes.
Normally, I interview someone else, but every once in a while, like actually the last few episodes, it’s just me. This is going to be another one of them because of one of my one-on-one coaching clients … I’m a writing coach guys. It’s not just a title of a podcast. It’s something I do professionally. One of my clients asked me a really great question. I gave it a lot of thought. I decided I was going to answer him in podcast format. Reza, you are probably listening to this. Thank you so much for asking such a great question. We are going to get to it in a minute.
Reza is one of my one-on-one clients. I have a couple other one-on-one clients who have come on board as of late. Peter if you are listening to this, and Attila — welcome aboard guys. I can’t wait to work with you to get your books written.
This episode is going to address a very specific question that Reza asked. Reza grew up in Iran and came to Canada, where I live ten, years ago. He’s really been focusing on his English writing for the last ten years. He’s always been very interested in non-fiction. That’s the type of writing he does. He’s writing a nonfiction self-help book. He said, “Kevin, if I did want to start exploring English fiction, what would be some great books I could read that could help me understand writing better?”
I thought that was such a great question!
That’s what we are going to get into in today’s podcast. We are going to talk about 13 different books that I think every writer should read. Each of these books is going to demonstrate a different aspect of a writer’s craft that I think is really important.
Before we get into that, I do want to say this is not a conversation about overturning the cannon of traditional English literature. This is a podcast episode about writer’s craft. Alright? From the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve read in my life, these were the books that came to mind as great examples, the best examples in different aspects of the craft of novel writing.
I will warn you, most of the authors I have chosen are white, heterosexual, American men. I’m not going to apologize for my bias. I like what I like, but I will acknowledge my biases. I’m a left-leaning, white, heterosexual, Canadian, male with a masters degree in English literature. All of my book choices are going to be biased by that position of privilege that I’m coming from. I do want to acknowledge that.
If you are listening to this and you are an Aboriginal person or you are a gay man or you are a woman for whom English is not your first language, by all means, create your own list of your favorite examples of different aspects of the writer’s craft. These just happen to be the people who I resonate with, who I’ve read in my life, and who jump out at me as great examples of different aspects of writing.
With that politically correct public service announcement out of the way, let’s dive into some great books that every single writer should read.
The Great Gatsby / Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Lightning in a bottle.
Right off the bat, we are going to kick it off with maybe the biggest of them all. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Why should you read this book? It’s the great American novel. It is beautifully written. Brilliantly plotted. The characterization is crystal clear. There are surprising plot twists, but on top of all of that, it’s one of those rare things in art. It’s one of those things that every artist strives after: that magical piece of art where everything just works. Everything gels for where Fitzgerald was in his life. For the story that he chose to tell. Everything comes together in The Great Gatsby to work perfectly.
I’m going to throw a twist on this for you. I don’t want you just to read The Great Gatsby. I also want you to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s follow up to The Great Gatsby , which is Tender is the Night. There’s a reason for that.
In the exact same way that everything works in The Great Gatsby, j ust every aspect of it is sublime, nothing works in Tender is the Night. Tender is the Night is a disaster of a book. It’s the follow-up to what I would probably argue is the greatest American English language novel of all time.
A lot of writers that I know, they do this thing where they compare themselves not just to the greatest writers of all time, but they look at the one masterpiece from the greatest writer of all time. If you are going to sit at home and say, “Oh my God, my novel is a piece of crap compared to The Great Gatsby .” You know what? It probably is, but F. Scott Fitzgerald’s follow-up was also a piece of crap in comparison to The Great Gatsby.
I really think it’s important that as a writer you understand there is craft. There is technique. There’s hard work. There’s going pro. There is all of that, but there also is a magical element. Fitzgerald couldn’t recreate it. None of us can. If we could all recreate it, we’d all have hit books year after year after year, but there is something magical that comes together in The Great Gatsby that is just the complete opposite in Tender is the Night.
Read both those books so that you can understand not just the genius of The Great Gatsby, but also was a fluke it was, arguably, compared to Fitzgerald’s follow-up book.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Point of view.
The next book that I want to recommend is The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.
I picked this book because one of the biggest challenges I see aspiring novelists struggling with is point of view.
Point of view is such a tricky element of writing. A lot of first time novelists go into writing a book not even really understanding what it is or how it functions. They do a lot of head-hopping or they jump back and forth between third person or omniscient. They are not conscious of the role the point of view plays in narrative fiction.
The Catcher in the Rye is an absolutely wonderful example of an author capturing a character’s point of view. Holden Caulfield is our main character in The Catcher in the Rye and everything we experience as readers in that book is filtered through Holden’s point of view. There is not an omniscient narrator. Salinger didn’t choose to have God up in the sky looking down on New York and narrating Holden’s adventures. We are there inside Holden’s head, experiencing the journey with him and the language that Salinger uses, it isn’t Salinger’s language. It’s Holden’s language. The way New York is described is the language Holden would use to describe New York, not J. D. Salinger.
That very important element of point of view is captured perfectly in The Catcher in the Rye .
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
Attitude and voice.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson is one of my favorite books. It’s what I would point people to when they are talking about “voice” or “authorial voice.”
People are often a little too obsessed with voice and what is their writerly voice. So you can look to the writing of Hunter S. Thompson for an example of writer whose voice is different from every other writer’s. I can read a piece of writing from Hunter S. Thompson and know that it’s Hunter S. Thompson without anyone telling me. There’s very few writers that you could say that about.
I was conscious of following up The Catcher in the Rye with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas because J.D. Salinger was a writer for The New Yorker magazine. The New Yorker, to a certain extent, defined a certain style of writing and liberal intellectual approach to literature in New York City for a lot of the 20th century. I like to compare that to Hunter S. Thompson, who is this other voice.
Thompson is the outsider voice. He wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for Rolling Stone magazine. This was a Rock n’ Roll journalist writing for a counter culture magazine. I think for all of the beauty and intelligence and wit that you are going to find in the work of Salinger, you are going to find energy and rage and just in your face energy and attitude coming out of Hunter S. Thompson’s writing. I highly recommend checking it out.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
It’s so hard to answer the question, “What’s your favorite book of all time?” But when I have to settle on a single book, it’s Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
If you found out you had three days to live and you only had one book to read in those last three days of your life, I’d want you to read Mrs. Dalloway.
It captures everything. It takes all of existence and, in a narrative that takes place over a single day with just a handful of characters, somehow captures the psychological complexity of human existence within a book that is just absolutely beautifully written.
You are never going to find a book with more gorgeous sentences than Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. That’s the example that I would look to if you want to see poetic writing at its best. And if you want to see psychological complexity at its best.
If you want to see just amazing literature, Mrs. Dalloway is where I would send you. Go check that one out.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marques
Manipulation of time.
Here’s another one where my next recommendation plays off of the last one. Mrs. Dalloway takes place over a single day. It’s an example of how storytellers can really slow down time and really appreciate every little corn horn beeping on the street or every little interaction of buying flowers. That’s what Mrs. Dalloway is about. It’s about taking the small things in life and turning them into magic. Now I want to contrast that with One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
O ne Hundred Hundred Years of Solitude, as the title suggests, takes place over decades and decades. It covers seven generations in a family. While Virginia Woolf chose to focus an entire novel on a single day, and largely two or three main characters, Marquez covers a hundred years and seven generations of this single family.
Then on top of that there’s a lot of really fascinating non-linear story telling going on. The style of One Hundred Hundred Years of Solitude is called “magical realism.” There’s some really fascinating moments where Marquez will be with one character and say, “Fifty years later such and such happened to that character.” Then 300 pages later that thing happens.
It’s hard to convey quickly like this, but there’s some amazing work going on with the bending and folding of time in One Hundred Years of Solitude . It’s such a great example of how using language, we can skip ahead a hundred years and then come back and later on the same second for ten pages.
Time is very flexible in fiction. Whether it’s Mrs. Dalloway or whether it’s One Hundred Years of Solitude , those are two great examples of how you can play with time as a writer.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Next up, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. I think of A Farewell to Arms as almost … it’s like Mrs. Dalloway and A Farewell to Arms are somehow opposite ends of the same spectrum. Both somehow capture love, death, war, humanity and bring all these things together into a single book.
While Woolf captures those things by playing with language and creating these turns of phrase in these long flowing sentences, Hemingway captures it all the exact opposite: by being super minimal.
If you as a writer are trying to make that decision about your style, those are two books you could look to. Ask yourself, do I want to be a writer more like Virginia Woolf and have these poetic long flowing sentences or do I want to be a writer like Hemingway and tell things really dry and really straightforward?
I would argue both of those books, Mrs. Dalloway and A Farewell to Arms , are devastating. They are both hugely powerful works that just took my heart, grabbed a hold it, and then broke it in half. They achieved that impact on me in totally different ways.
You, as a writer, will have to do some thinking about what is going to be your style. What’s going to be your approach to tearing out my heart and breaking it in half?
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Bridging literary and commercial fiction.
Next up is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. This is actually a book I didn’t read in University or as a teenager. Due to its subject matter, I was always turned off to the idea of it for obvious reasons.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the protagonist is a pedophile. Not exactly something you would think would be fun, light reading and yet Nabokov with Lolita has somehow created this perfect bridge between literary fiction — all this beauty and intelligence that we are talking about in something like Mrs. Dalloway or even A Farewell to Arms — and commercial fiction, which I really also love. The fast pace. The edge of your seat story telling. Almost over the top or even appalling subject matter and moments of funniness contrasted with moments of violence and despair and, well, everything. Everything.
Some of these books, what I love about them so much is they capture so many aspects of life all in one single narrative. I would say, if you were a writer, if you said “I really love great literature or really strong language, great writing, but I also want to have a book that they are going to make a movie of someday and that I can give to my mom to read or something…” Well, I mean, no, Lolita is not an example of that, but it is a good example of a book that bridges that gap between literary great writing, but also all of the things you would look for in a mainstream thriller novel, which is great story telling. Great twists. Edge of your seat stuff.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Stream of consciousness.
Next up, On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
This is just a great example of the stream of consciousness approach to literature and to writing. This is the idea of getting it out of your body and onto the page. I think there’s probably a lot more revision and editing that actually went on than we like to pretend with Kerouac, but, all the same, a lot of the writers I work with deal with blocks. They deal with second-guessing. They deal with trying to get everything right first try. So it can be really great to look at something like On the Road, which arguably was written stream of consciousness, which means Kerouac just sat down and wrote the hell out of that thing, as opposed to really structuring it out or thinking about each scene in a really specific manner beforehand.
It’s a beautiful novel. It’s a great novel. It’s a great example for a writer that sometimes it’s not about planning everything out meticulously and getting everything right. Sometimes it’s just about capturing that thing that is inside you. Getting it outside of you and getting it onto the page.
On the Road is also based on Kerouac’s own experiences in life. He changed the names and turned into a novel, but it is largely based on his own experiences. It’s fairly realistic, which is our next topic.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
If you are interested in realism, read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
Again, it’s just one of those utterly heartbreaking, heart wrenching, incredibly engrossing novel.
I love superheroes. I love fantasy and sci-fi and all that stuff, but sometimes realism can be even more powerful than a planet blowing up. Sometimes watching a single family starve to death is more moving. It grips you as a reader in a much more powerful way than the distancing that fantasy can sometimes create.
If you want to write realism, if you want to base stuff on real life but still have it be hugely powerful, take a look at The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. This is a really simple one. You want to see how funny literature can get? You want to read a hilariously funny book? Read Catch 22 .
The interesting thing is this book is political satire as well. This is an anti war book. This is a book pointing out the hypocrisy of war.
That’s what the best comedy does. The best comedy pokes holes in the status quo. It points out the ridiculousness of things we might otherwise take for granted.
You want to write funny, check out Catch 22 . Even if you don’t want to read the whole book, it’s actually a pretty long book, just read the first chapter. I would say the first chapter is probably the funniest piece of literature I’ve ever read. It’s hilarious book. Get it. Read it. Laugh your ass off.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Literature as political weapon.
We talked about how Catch 22 has this political bent to it. If you are interested in looking at literature as a political weapon, you should read 1984 by George Orwell. That would be the next book that you would want to look at.
I read this book when I was 13, I think. I started reading it at 7:30 one night. It was the first book ever that I read through the night. I just could not put it down. It was so engrossing.
On top of it just being an incredible novel, it’s become part of our cultural fabric. It has put authoritarians on notice. I think some of the stuff that Trump has been doing over the last couple years has been walking that fine line of pushing up against “newspeak” and “Big Brother” and all these concepts that we get from 1984. Thanks to Orwell having written that book, we can look to political hypocrisy, we can look to “ alternative facts .” We can look at the way language can be used by those in power to manipulate the masses and to just bald-faced lie to get away with their agenda.
If you are interested in the politics of literature, if you’re interested in writing a book that’s not just a piece of entertainment, but that’s a weapon against status quo and against creeping authoritarianism. Read 1984.
Ulysses by James Joyce
Form informing story (i.e. the medium is the message).
That brings us to our last book. My last recommendation. You might hate me for this, but it’s Ulysses by James Joyce.
It’s like 200,000 words long. It’s pretty difficult stuff. It’s not light reading, but you are going to thank me for it. It’s such a brilliant masterpiece of a novel.
What you can look to in Ulysses as a writer, is how form informs the story and reflects the theme.
Way earlier on here we were talking about this idea of voice and how all these authors think they need to find their authentic voice. Well, what you will see in Ulysses is that James Joyce completely alters the style of his writing from chapter to chapter to reflect the theme and content of that chapter.
For example, there is a chapter about music. That chapter is filled with songs and filled with rhythmic writing. There’s someone who is out walking during this chapter and this person’s cane is tapping on the cobblestones. Tap tap. Tap tap. That walk takes on a musical element like the theme of that chapter.
In another chapter, the theme is about publishing and the chapter is filled with headlines. It’s such a brilliant example for writers that it’s not about finding your voice. It’s about finding the right voice, the right form to reflect the story that you are telling.
Take a month. Take two months. Read through Ulysses and pay attention to the form of it. It’s another one of those stories that take place over a single day. It’s overlayed overtop of Ulysses, the ancient story, but don’t even worry about that. Just look at how different one chapter is from the next and how brilliantly Joyce alters how he writes to reflect what’s going on in the story he’s telling.
A Quick Review
Alright. Let’s do a quick recap.
The Great Gatsby plus Tender is the Night to see how brilliant writing can be, but also what a fluke it can be and how quickly things can go wrong.
Look at The Catcher in the Ry e for point of view. You’ll learn how a character’s point of view can effect the language of the story.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for authentic rage, energy, and that rock ‘n roll voice.
Mrs. Dalloway , my favorite book ever, for psychological complexity and the poetical expression.
A Hundred Years of Solitude for how fiction can manipulate and play with time.
A Farewell to Arms as a great example of a minimalist approach to writing.
Lolita as the perfect combination of literary fiction and commercial fiction.
On the Road for an example of a stream of consciousness approach to writing that doesn’t overthink itself too much.
1984 for literature as a political weapon.
Catch 22 , to discover just how funny literature can be.
The Grapes of Wrath , to check out amazing example of the power of realism.
Ulysses by James Joyce, so that you can see how the form a writer uses, the sentences that they choose, the style that the bring to a chapter can reflect and emphasize or play against what’s going on in the story itself.
I hope you found this episode helpful! If so, you’ll love my book Novel Advice: Motivation, Inspiration, and Creative Writing Tips for Aspiring Authors . Grab a FREE copy by clicking the image below:
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Essential Books for Writers
The Center for Fiction
Maybe calling our list "Essential Books for Writers" is a bit of a stretch. We know that there are many opinions on what makes great writing, and what works for one person may not work for the next. Can you imagine Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, and Charles Dickens debating about the right way to write? But we wanted to give you some options and inspiration on your path to whatever a successful life as a writer looks like to you. We hope you'll find your essential guide in our list. Happy reading and writing!
By Stephen King
Published by Scribner
Leave it to the literary rock star to compose a craft book that’s as entertaining as a good novel. “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit,” King writes. What follows is a witty, practical, and sometimes poignant guide that is refreshingly devoid of the aforementioned BS. King relates his personal story of becoming a writer, then offers a “toolkit” of clear advice about everything from dialogue and descriptive passages to revisions and the head game. And there’s more: tips for beginning writers on submitting work for publication, a mark-up of one of King’s own manuscripts, and a reading list. You might not be awake at 3 a.m. turning these pages, but we promise On Writing will open your eyes to essential tricks of the trade.
By Dani Shapiro
Published by Grove/Atlantic
Dani Shapiro’s book, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life , is a perfect walk through an imperfect process. She shares the tried and true rules that some aspiring writers may want to hear, like using the five senses, sticking to a work schedule, and avoiding clichéd characters; but it is the places where Shapiro acknowledges the ambiguity of the process that stand out. Peppered with personal history and insight into how and where she created novels like Black and White as well as acclaimed memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion , Shapiro gives us a road map to writing with one simple direction at its heart: Keep writing. The rules she lays out are meant to be broken; no life-story is more worthy of being written than any other; no process (unless it involves surfing the Web instead of actually writing) is wrong. Yes, Dani Shapiro is still writing, and because she possesses that all-important need to create, it seems she will be doing so for quite some time.
On Moral Fiction
By John Gardner
Published by HarperCollins
John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction , by now a well-known classic, is as relevant in its exploration of the obligations of literature as when it was first published in 1979. Gardner discusses art and criticism, concluding that the artist has a responsibility to produce “moral” works for the sake of society. “Art discovers, generation after generation, what is necessary to humanness,” says Gardner. By linking literature to such elemental ideas as immortality and death, entropy and truth, Gardner dramatizes the act of writing itself, coloring literature and criticism with such vitality and excitement that it is hard not to become exhilarated. “Art gropes,” Gardner says. “It stalks like a hunter lost in the woods, listening to itself and to everything around it, unsure of itself, waiting to pounce.” You might say that some of his ideas are outrageous or unconventional, but none of them lack the ability to provoke us.
First You Write
By Joni Rodgers
It’s fitting that Joni Rodgers’s First You Write: The Worst Way to Become an Almost Famous Author and the Best Advice I Got While Doing It is available only as an e-book. Rodgers’s writes with wit and candor not only about her circuitous route to becoming a New York Times bestselling memoirist ( Bald in the Land of Big Hair , a searingly funny account of her journey through cancer) and a critically acclaimed small-press novelist ( Crazy for Trying ; Sugar Land ), but also about her pioneering adventures in self-publishing on Kindle. Rodgers’s willingness to experiment (isn’t that what artists do?) and to turn preconceived publishing notions on their ear is wonderfully refreshing, and her whip-smart observations will keep you turning (virtual) pages.
The Forest for the Trees
By Betsy Lerner
Published by Penguin
Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for The Trees begins as a psychological compendium of the writer’s life; written to the writer, with love. Lerner diagnoses writers: the ambivalent, the natural, the neurotic, and as we relate to aspects of each, we are delivered through an embarrassing adolescence of our own writerly growth, discovering who we were, are, and might better be. Through humorous and often moving anecdotes and a wealth of quotable quotes, we sweep through the personal and into the political landscape of the literary industry. Like all good books, Lerner’s reflects the reader (as writer) back to herself at every moment. She morphs between midwife and editor, weaving stories that teach us how best to birth our own.
The Writing Life
By Annie Dillard
In the years since its original publication, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life has become a must-read for aspiring writers of all walks. Perhaps this is because her approach to the creative process manages a kind of golden ratio, a balance of magic and pragmatism that continues to reveal its depths to writers of the 21st century. Plainly, this is not a field guide. Dillard does not draw a tidy map. She does the opposite, acknowledging the unknown and unknowable wilderness that every writer must face. “The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.” A master in the art of illumination, she focuses on the edges of big ideas. The resulting work is as mystifying as it is enduring.
Writing Past Dark
By Bonnie Friedman
In Writing Past Dark , Bonnie Friedman shines a light on the hidden ways we mess ourselves up—with envy, fear, distraction, and other self-defeating habits of mind. “Successful writers are not the ones who write the best sentences. They are the ones who keep writing,” she says. “They are the ones who discover what is most important and strangest and most pleasurable in themselves, and keep believing in the value of their work, despite the difficulties.” With warmth and candor, Friedman offers insights into surmounting those tricky obstacles.
The Elements of Style
By William Strunk & E.B. White
Of the hundreds of volumes written about the art and craft of writing, The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White is the elegant granddad. This slim volume offers no touchy-feely solutions for writer’s block, no inspirational exercises, and no musings on the writing life. Instead, it contains clear, concise rules for writing well, delivered with panache. Whether you strive for formal excellence or stylistic innovation, whether you’re a first-time author or have a string of publications to your name, there’s something here to learn—or gladly rediscover.
By Robert McKee
Robert McKee (the renowned screenwriting guru whose real-life teaching persona was portrayed by Brian Cox in the film Adaptation ) is required reading, but not just for screenwriters. He illustrates good plotting and structure that can make your novels or short stories as gripping as your favorite film. In Story , McKee structures his advice by first broadly stating a principle of writing, then expounding on different ways it can be applied, with examples from all kinds of scripts. His pearls of wisdom have been legendary in the Hollywood world, and they’ll certainly stick in your head after you’re through this book. Whether you’re writing for the screen or the page, this fantastic book will help you break your work down to the core of why we write fiction in the first place: the story.
Making Shapely Fiction
By Jerome Stern
Published by W. W. Norton
It’s easy, when one is far enough along in the “writing life,” to assume that a manual won’t have much to offer beyond technical guidance and fluffy prompts. But Stern’s wise and thorough little book should be as indispensable to the master of the form as the student. Like Stern himself, who was the head of the Creative Writing Program at Florida State University for many years, it takes a brass tacks approach to fiction, one that can be read straight through if you want to bone up on the basics or in bits and pieces as inspiration is needed. The “shapes” in question are sixteen storytelling archetypes which Stern breaks down in the book’s first section, followed by a tongue-in-cheek section on whether or not to write what you know, and finally a glossary of terms “from Accuracy to Zig-Zag.” This may all sound like stuff you already know, but to read them again in Stern’s irreverent voice is like revisiting fairy tales from your childhood and discovering all the dirty parts that went over your head. You’ll want to dig back into your own discarded ideas box and sculpt something new.
Steering the Craft
By Ursula K. Le Guin
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Le Guin has published two books about writing. The more recent of these, Steering the Craft (1998), is intended for experienced writers, the ones, she says, who “blow all Rules of Writing to bits.” It offers exercises and advice on storytelling, point of view, and grammar. For the younger author, there is her 1979 volume, The Language of the Night , filled with inspirational essays on science fiction and fantasy, that are no less rigorous than the later book. “In art,” she observes, “‘good enough’ is not good enough.”