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What’s in Your Five?–Writing-Craft Books

Thursday, October 4, 2007

I keep hearing about this phone plan where the customer can make as many calls as they want (“free”) to five designated people. I use my phone so rarely, this isn’t a draw for me. But I started thinking about top fives. Who would I have as the top five people I call most often on my phone? Let’s see . . . Mom, Dad (they only have cell phones, so no single number to reach both of them), my grandmother, my friend Pam, and my friend Corie. These are the people I speak to on the phone most often—and sometimes it’s only once a month. (We all love e-mail!)

So, I was sitting here tonight trying to figure out what to blog about, and I looked to my right and then to the shelf directly above my computer and I thought, Out of all these writing craft books, which would I rank as my top five? (Anyone dare to venture a guess as to what the #1 book will be???) So here they are, my five favorite books about the craft of writing (or what it means to be a writer):

5. On Writing by Stephen King. While I’ve never read a single one of his novels, and have really only enjoyed a few movies made from his stories (The Green Mile, Stand by Me, and The Shawshank Redemption), he has so many wonderful insights into what it means to be a writer that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this “memoir.”

    . . . write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it. If you’re very lucky . . . more will want to do the former than the latter (pg 47).

4. The Christian Imagination, Leland Ryken, ed. This is a collection of essays that was assigned as a textbook for my senior-level literary criticism class in college. But lest that frighten you off, I will tell you that if this book had come to me in a different way, it still would have had a great impact on my life and how I view writing and the imaginative arts from a spiritual standpoint. The essays cover a myriad of topics, from literature to being a reader to being a writer and more. And it includes some great quotes about the topics from famous authors and literary critics.

    . . . in a sense, I know very little about how [Narnia] was born. That is, I don’t know where the pictures came from. And I don’t believe anyone knows exactly how he “makes things up.” Making up is a very mysterious thing. When you “have an idea,” could you tell anyone exactly how you thought of it? (C. S. Lewis, qtd. from Of Other Worlds, pg. 108)

3. Writing the Romantic Comedy, by Billy Mernit. I purchased this book my first semester of grad school, because one of the things I wanted to do was to add more humor to my writing. (Yes, can you believe that the person who now writes “Inspirational Fiction . . . with a Sense of Humor” didn’t have it a few years ago?) But the treasure I found in this book was discovering how to truly structure a romance—or any story really—in addition to the keys to characterization, plot building, pacing, and structuring conflict. I highly recommend this to any writer, whether your writing a romance or not, whether your story is humorous or not.

    A [writer’s] resistance to getting into the “personal stuff” is absurd. It’s got to be personal, if anyone’s going to care about your story, and theme is the arena where your personal experience, attitudes, and insights come into play. Experienced writers understand that what’s universal comes out of what’s most personal—out of a fiercely personal, passionate point of view. Just as we relate to characters who have strong wants, we related to writing that’s strongly felt (pg. 89).

2. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art, by Madeleine L’Engle. I’ve mentioned this book quite often. Again, it’s one that was assigned reading for an undergrad class, but I’m so glad it was. This is a volume I can pick up and open it to any spot and just start reading and glean some kind of inspiration from it. Yes, she does tend to get a little metaphysical sometimes, but as a fan of her stories and an admirer of her writing, I’m so glad she took the time to write down her thoughts about what it means to be a writer—especially now she’s no longer with us.

    When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist . . . When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens. . . . We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it (pg. 24).

1. Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who’s read more than two or three entries on this blog. A former crit partner, Cindy Woodsmall, introduced me to this book by quoting from it in the crits she’d send back on my work. Finally, I had to just break down and buy the book—and I’m so glad I did. I’ve never read a single novel Sol Stein has written. But as far as writing-craft books go, this one is my bible. I will warn anyone who buys it not to try to sit down and read it from cover to cover. You’ll never make it through. Instead, go through the table of contents and choose a chapter on the subject you need the most help with and read that chapter. You’ll find it immensely helpful.

    . . . writers provide themselves with a monumental obstacle to achieving skill. Ballet dancers practice technique. Pianists wear down their black and white keys with hours of daily practice. Actors rehearse, and rehearse again. Painters perfect still-life objects at various angles, practice obtaining the best perspectives, experiment with color and texture, do sketches in preparation for oil. By practice one learns to use what one has understood. Only writers, it seems, expect to achieve some level of mastery without practice. . . . Life is short . . . the craft takes long to learn, the work is hard, but ah, when it is right, the writer’s triumph soars (pp. 12, 13).
  1. Thursday, October 4, 2007 8:52 am

    Craft books are an easy addiction. I think my most favorite is Write Away by Elizabeth George. Love love love it! In the early days of my writing (which it’s probably still my early days, LOL!) I had to train myself to spend more time writing than reading about writing.


  2. Thursday, October 4, 2007 9:07 am

    I loved King’s On Writing. Mostly because he writes in such a different way than I do, more internal, more visceral. I bought Stein on Writing at your recommendation, and you’re right. If you sit down to read it all in one go, it will eat you alive!


  3. Friday, October 5, 2007 11:25 am

    1. Plot and Structure by JS Bell
    2. Rough Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiessner
    3. The Weekend Novelist by Robert Ray
    4. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
    5. Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott

    Do I have to stop?


  4. Friday, October 5, 2007 11:27 am

    It is hard to choose only five, isn’t it? 🙂



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