School does not necessarily prepare you to be a writer, so there is a market for books that promise to teach writers about the craft. In fact, there are way too many books, and I have the unpleasant belief that the more “how to write a novel” books you buy, the less likely you are to ever write one. (That’s why I stopped buying them, though I am not yet any closer to that novel.) What follows is a list of books that are better than most. Most of these will teach you something. A handful might change the way you look at the world.
In any case, here it is, my list of books for writers:
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott – I first stumbled upon Lamott’s writing because of this book. When did I first read it? College or soon after. The when I read it is not memorable, but reading it was. The book sits on the shelf right next to Walking on Water, evidence of the high regard in which it is held. The book is writing advice couched in personal narrative, and it brought up a lot of the emotional stuff that gets in between a writer and the blank page.
Walking on Water by Madeline L’Engle – I read this book back in college, and I need to read it again. Not a book about writing in particular, L’Engle (the author of A Wrinkle in Time, Two-Part Invention, and other classics) explores what it means to be an artist, particularly a Christian artist. A carefully considered treatise, you will find the ideas here will linger in your thoughts long after you’ve read it.
Story by Robert McKee – Story is a classic screenwriting guide, but it’s so much more. Focusing on the fundamentals of storytelling, the book has great value for anyone writing anything. I write a lot of nonfiction, including guides for travelers, hikers, and campers. Some of these books are ripe with narrative opportunities; others are less so. Regardless, the basic framework of good storytelling can help make even mundane topics more readable. So no matter what kind of writing you do (or want to do), this is a must-read book.
Thinking Like Your Editor by Susan Rabiner & Alfred Fortunato – Since I work in publishing, people often ask my advice about how to get a book published. It’s not easy advice to give. Thankfully, Rabiner and Fortunato have nailed it with this book. It’s everything seasoned authors wish they knew the first time around. You will want to pay special attention to the section on preparing a proposal. Not only will you gain a better reception with an editor, but you will quite honestly write a better book because of the effort.
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark – This book is divvied up in to fifty chapters, one for each tool. Small segments make it easy to dissolve. You can learn a lot from this one, or just snag a tip or two.
The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton – First published in 1653, The Compleat Angler remains an oft read and quoted book. That’s impressive for a book about fishing, and it stands as a testament to Walton’s skill with words. If good writing begets good writing, do yourself a favor and read the Angler. I prefer the 1824 hardcover, but Amazon has Kindle editions from 99¢.