Favorite Books on Writing

books

Writers are foremost readers.  We consume words with voracious appetites.  Books line our walls, collect in corners in ramshackle towers, and cover the tops of our coffee tables.

We just can’t get enough!

Yet, ask any of us where to find our favorites, and there will be a sacred location with erect spines marching across a shelf.  Grabbing any one of the collection is an automatic response, little thought to its specific space given.

That’s a clue we’ve reached for it on numerous occasions, and the reason it occupies a place of honor.

So when another writing friend asked me which books on writing were my personal favorites, I didn’t have far to go to answer.  And while I was selecting my list for her, I thought I would share it with you as well.

Book - Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird has been a favorite of many writers since its publication.  It was the first one in my collection of books on writing.  Each reader will find a unique pearl of wisdom from it.  For me, it was learning not to rush through my stories.

Slow down, give each scene its due diligence, take a bit of the pressure off yourself.

This is a great starter book and describes a lot of the author’s own struggles with becoming an author.  If you haven’t started writing your main project yet–you know the one pecking at the backs of your eyeballs–start with this book.

Book - On Writing

I don’t write horror, although Southern Gothic and Suspense are both categories I would say my work falls into.  But you don’t have to be a horror writer to glean a boat load of wisdom from Stephen King’s On Writing.

In fact, this is my favorite book of all time on the craft of writing.

Yep, you read it right.  Stephen King knows what we are looking for and gives it to us in this book of advice to writers.  He says right up front that he assumes we have already read the basic books on writing and that he will not bore us with more sage wisdom on avoiding grammatical mistakes.

This book is about what you can do to improve your work.  And the one piece of advice I have religiously followed is from this book.  It is crucial–at least for me.

Once completed, put that manuscript away for thirty days at least.  Don’t look at it, don’t reread it, don’t even think about it.  Why?

As the writer, you know everything about your characters.  You have been living inside of their heads.  You know what they eat, when they sleep, what their bad habits are.  This knowledge needs time to evaporate before you can realistically judge how well you are communicating it to your readers.

And there are endless other tidbits of wisdom within the pages of this book.  It’s also easy to read and understand, and will give you a bit of insight into Stephen King’s journey into the macabre.  It’s fascinating!

Book - The First Five Pages

Noah Lukeman gives some vital instruction in The First Five Pages.

This is advice geared to help writers start out with a bang, grab the attention of the reader right from the start.  We tend to want the reader to know all of the backstory so they can then appreciate the struggles the main character(s) is/are facing.

But he also knows if we fail to engage the reader within the first few pages, they won’t stick around for the really good stuff.  This applies to agents and publishers as well.  You want to snatch their interest within those initial few minutes, closer to two pages than five.  Some say it is paramount to capture the reader’s attention within the first two paragraphs.

Even the first line can make you or break you.  Write everything if you must, then skip about sixty pages and make that your opening hook.  Read Lukeman for more pointers.

Book - The Right to Write

Janet Hulstrand, the instructor who made the most difference in my writing life, introduced me to Julia Cameron’s work.  This book, The Right to Write, was assigned as a precursor to studying with Hulstrand at The Essoyes School.

Boy, did it open my eyes!

For those who know me, even those who have known me for most of my life, my writing compulsion was a secret I hid from them.  I even hid it from my husband.  It wasn’t that I was writing hideously dark stories whose discovery might have made me seem like a deranged lunatic.  It was mostly that I felt as if I didn’t have the right to think of myself as a writer.

Who was I?  What gave me the right to assume my thoughts and imagination would resonate with others?  Why did everything in my life trigger a story, even if as far from reality as humanly possible?

The Right to Write answers a lot of these questions and Cameron gives the reader several assignments which are crucial to undertake.  It was through a few of her challenges that I made significant discoveries.  And I kept them in a journal which has been priceless to look back upon.

Book - Vein of Gold

Being impressed with Cameron’s The Right to Write, naturally led to an exploration of another of her works, The Vein of Gold.  In it, she helps us explore our inner archeological dig sites in order to strike that invaluable golden vein of inspiration.

We each have faced our own individual struggles, and our perception of them is based on our past experiences.  What do you have to write about that is uniquely your own story to tell?  Read this if you want help in unearthing your own golden nuggets.

Book - The Plot Thickens

Like Julia Cameron, Noah Lukeman occupies more than one space on my shelf.  In addition to The First Five Pages, his The Plot Thickens, helps writers focus on the storyline.

Another writer friend with enough degrees in poetry and creative writing to intimidate the average person, confided to me the serious lack of instruction offered on plotting.  Without a good plot, there will be little to hold a story together.

If you feel like your education let you down a bit in this area, start with Lukeman’s advice on plotting. Then follow it up with my all-time favorite plotting instructional written by Martha Alderson.

IMG_3334

Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer has been a valuable source of plotting guidelines for me.  One pre-reviewer of the novel my publisher is releasing next, commented on my success at tying up all of the ends, answering every question, polishing the book into something satisfying for the reader.

That was amazing for me to hear.  And likely due to some of the advice offered by Alderson in The Plot Whisperer.  It is realistic, how-to information, presented in an understandable fashion.

There you have it!  My all-time favorite books on the craft of writing can now be yours as well.

How about you?  Do you have a favorite book or even website that offers valuable information to you about building new worlds through words?

Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray.  She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food.  She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.   

About reneejohnsonwrites

I have recently returned from University of Iowa's Novel-Writing Intensive during their Summer Writing Festival. Other credits include two stints at The Essoyes School in France, two terms at a writer's residency at Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha's Vineyard, and a retreat in Italy. Join me in 'writing the world.' -- Renee Canter Johnson, author of "Herald Angels", "The Haunting of William Gray", and "Acquisition" published by The Wild Rose Press. Coming soon--an international intrigue set in Venice, Italy--where adventure and danger are as masked as the characters.
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29 Responses to Favorite Books on Writing

  1. O, Renee,
    I rushed over here immediately when I saw the title!
    I am addicted to writing, words, and how other writers create.
    Annie Lamott, yeah, I’m kind of obsessed w/ her. Bird by Bird (CLASSIC)
    Have you read Natalie Goldberg’s, “Writing Down the Bones?” Yep, kind of stalked her! LOLlll.
    I’ve heard Steven King’s book is fabulous.
    I must get it. Doesn’t he say something about Adverbs?!
    Thank you, darling, for all of your worthy blog posts!
    I appreciate greatly.
    PS. OOO, and I love Cameron. She and Goldberg have done writing books together.

    xxx

    • Thank you, thank you.
      I’m so pleased you like this post. I have read Natalie Goldberg and she does a retreat/workshop in New Mexico I have seriously considered. It’s hard to choose favorites, but yes, I think Writing Down the Bones is excellent.
      You would love King’s book. It’s not lengthy. You could finish it quickly and then, if you’re like me, read it over and over. Love, love, love his book.
      Geez, can you tell?
      Hugs!!

      • Yes, I can tell.
        And I’d love to go to one of Goldberg’s Writing Retreats. I listened to her Audio Retreat about Monkey Mind. I love the idea of writing w/out stopping or making corrections…you know, just being in the zone.

        happy Tuesday. xx

      • That’s how I write, that freestyle, no self-editing manner. Someone once told me it was impossible to use both sides of the brain to full potential when creating and editing. Whether or not that’s true, it somehow made sense. LOL. So I write, then edit. Nora Roberts is famous for saying she can fix her errors, but if there’s nothing on the page, there’s nothing to work with. However, Monkey Mind finds me wherever I try to hide. I need to listen to this. Do you know if it’s available through Kindle?

  2. Always fun to poke inside writers that we read heads.
    Fine collection of golden hints and ideas to explore

  3. I loved this, Renee! I have a major craft book addiction. I have all of the book you mentioned with the exception of Julia Cameron’s book. Hum…might have to head over to Amazon. 🙂
    I love Bird by Bird. I also follow Janice Hardy’s blog…she’s awesome.

    • Thanks Jill. I believe you would love Julia Cameron’s work. And I’m going to check out Janice Hardy. I’m not familiar with her blog, but if you recommend it, it must be awesome!

  4. jmgoyder says:

    Great recommendations. I have a couple of these but am going to find the others now!

  5. E.C. says:

    Thanks for this list of books. Great thoughts on which books are helpful and the ones most helpful to you. You’re right about the special shelf of books. They’re like old friends.

  6. Very helpful post. I’ve been looking for the great book on craft and you have a couple here that have come up over and over again. Thanks.

  7. Thanks for the list, Renee. I don’t have any books on writing (yikes). I love Anne Lamott and have read a few of her books but don’t have ‘bird by bird.’ Think I’ll start with that and Stephen King’s. They’re all great suggestions!

  8. Thanks for sharing Renee – Lamott is one on my to read soon list.

  9. Great post, Renee, and thanks for the recognition. Much appreciated! I am so proud/grateful to have had the chance to help you get launched on your path. Hoping to see you sometime soon. I feel the time is coming! 🙂

    • Yippee!! I’ve had so much growth since my time in Essoyes under your wonderful and encouraging tutelage. If a small percentage of that occurs during the next great meeting, I’ll be unstoppable! Looking forward to seeing you again.

  10. Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss

  11. Excellent list, Renee, and I’ll add two more of my favorites that have been around for a long time:
    Ray Bradbury’s ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING: ESSAYS ON CREATIVITY, and Leonard S. Bernstein’s 1986 book, GETTING PUBLISHED: THE WRITER IN THE COMBAT ZONE.

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