There’s a lot to be said for instruction from professional artists. Their advice can help you to steer clear of issues they encountered on their journeys. They can offer support and encouragement, maybe a little insight and motivation.
Over the years I’ve read many books about writing that were written by writers. Many were insightful, giving me a glimpse into the author’s background, what inspires them, what their process is like, and I’ve often tried following their routines and advice to see what will work for me. Some things have worked, other things haven’t. The point, however, is to try.
Recently, as I was straightening up my book collection, I started thinking about all the advice I’ve read and how much of it has guided me on my writing journey. And with that in mind, I thought it might be useful to other writers to share some of this. So here are some of the books on writing that I’ve read and garnered some useful guidance (in no particular order). I hope you’ll find some insight in them, as well.
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. This is my favorite book about the writing process by one of my favorite authors. Bradbury mixes bits of personal history with an overall view on the process of writing, even managing to throw in a few humble brags (like writing a story every week for most of his life). The man was a writing machine, passionate about the craft, and never at a loss for inspiration and ideas. If you only read one book about the writing process, please make it this one.
Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. Stern was a beloved creative writing instructor at Florida State University and was incredibly passionate about fiction. In addition to writing essays for National Public Radio and heading the Creative Writing program at FSU, he also founded the World’s Best Short Short Story Contest (250 word limit). He was a proponent of the spontaneity of the writing process, encouraging his students to “not overthink”, but instead let inspiration guide them. A great read for writers who want to break the rules.
From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. An excellent book by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (which is one of the best short story collections ever written). Butler’s view is that fiction does not come from ideas, but from our dreams, or more precisely, from the same place where our dreams originate. It’s an interesting concept and one I appreciate. Imagination is the starting point, hidden in our unconscious minds. Reading this book got me thinking deeply about where my ideas come from, and it’s the reason I keep a pad and pen next to the bed so I can write down my nocturnal thoughts.
On Writing by Stephen King. I think it’s safe to say that most writers, especially younger ones, have read this book. But if you haven’t, it’s definitely worth your time. King writes about his story-telling journey, interspersed with his thoughts on the process, other writers, and the publishing industry. A must-read.
On Writing by Eudora Welty. Another Pulitzer Prize winner and an interesting, if slightly outdated, look at the writing process and what it takes to be a writer. On Writing is actually an excerpt from a longer work entitled, The Eye of the Story, but this slim volume focuses on the fundamentals of fiction. This is a book that discusses the rules in a concise fashion, and although originally written in 1942, much of the advice is still pertinent. And for what it’s worth, Welty’s book came before King’s.
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. This is arguably the most technical book on the list. Gardner, a best-selling author and creative writing instructor, offers a clinical and straight-forward approach to writing fiction, even going so far as to use graphs, geometric charts, and sentence diagrams to illustrate the process of plotting, development, and rhythm. While not necessarily a fun read, The Art of Fiction provides a technical view of the process. I found it educational.
I believe there’s a lot to learn from other writers. Everyone has their own personal take on the process, with a little overlap here and there. But still, in my opinion, it’s important to explore the craft, to see what other writers do, to learn new tricks and tips, and maybe even improve your own writing along the way.
Never pass up an opportunity to learn.