Okay. Maybe the word “essential” is overused. But, this is a more efficient title than “Firewater’s Personal Recommendations of Books for Writers, Limited to 10 of His Nonfictional Favorites.” As with any list of things, your personal mileage may vary.
Although I haven’t read every book about writing or every reference book ever published, I have read enough to have a considerable sample size to create a 10-List from. If you’re a writing nerd as I am, you are going to hate that I left out some of your favorite books. I’m willing to admit that I could have been wrong, so, please, comment and tell me about it. If it’s something I haven’t read yet, I’ll get to add a new title to the slush pile.
Oh, one more ground rule thing I imposed upon myself. I believe the best instructional books about writing fiction are actually novels or short stories, works of fiction. You won’t find any of those in this list, because I approached the subject from a different direction. Which is not to say that this won’t provide fuel for a future 10-List.
Without further ado, and in no particular order:
On Writing: a memoir of the craft, by Stephen King (Scribner 2000) —
It’s been a while since I’ve read this now nearly twenty-year-old book. It is largely a personal memoir, and is interesting for that aspect alone. The parts that are about the actual writing mechanics employed by the Master would have made for a much quicker read. Perhaps a pamphlet.
If you’re searching for The Big Secret, you’ll be disappointed. King isn’t sharing anything you probably haven’t read or heard before, but he is doing it in his own inimitable (or, more accurately, “often imitated imperfectly”) way. King is always entertaining.
Although my memory isn’t what it once was, I recall the sections showing the actual editing changes made by the author on one of his own stories to be the most educational thing in the book. King overwrites and then trims about 10%.
Most importantly, reading this book made me want to write. If you’re anything like me, you think that’s one of the best feelings in the world.
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The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, by Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick (Dell 1998) —
For the most part, this 10-List avoids genre titles. Perhaps because, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking that 10-List: Essential Books for Mystery Authors (and/or Science-Fiction/Fantasy/Horror . . . whatever) isn’t a terrible idea for a future writing project. However, I’m including this one because it provided the impetus for me to begin writing my second novel, a mystery I call City of the Dead, which I began while recovering from foot surgery in Memphis, Tennessee, way back in 2000 or 2001, I think. I followed the template presented by the book exactly. Although writing and editing the novel was my main hobby for the following couple of years, the book was almost entirely mapped out during those first few weeks with this book.
Don’t search for my novel on-line. Any book by that title wasn’t written by me, because it’s never been published. It is, perhaps, unpublishable, but I started re-reading it after a decade-long forced exile and find a lot that I still like about it, although it feels very influenced by Robert B. Parker and Lawrence Block (two of my writing idols), and it’s hard to resist the temptation to begin editting it. Again.
For good or bad, it’s finished, and this book helped me do it. Robert J. Ray also wrote a book titled The Weekend Novelist that is much less genre focused. But, this is the one that led to a “finished” novel for me.
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Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury (Capra Press 1990) —
The late Mr. Bradbury’s writing was always imbued with a secret magic, for me and for millions of his other readers. This is another one of those books that just jump-starts your creative juices and makes you want to write.
Bradbury didn’t bother to try to demystify his creative process, really. Instead, he seems to revel in the mystery, the magic. This book helped make me the inveterate list-maker I continue to be, and inspired me to often imagine every event in my life as it would look in written form, even while I am still living in the moment.
Ray Bradbury still inspires me after his death. I like to think he’d get a kick out of that.
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Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, by Elmore Leonard (HarperCollins 2001) —
The late Elmore Leonard is also another of my writing idols. You can probably find these “10 Rules” listed somewhere on the Web. I purchased the hardbound, illustrated book, but didn’t really have to. This list was originally published in a New York Times article back in 2001. The rules are simple and easy-to-follow, and perhaps—just perhaps—none of them are wholly original, although they are presented with Leonard’s trademark panache. His best advice? “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
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Writing the Novel: from plot to print, by Lawrence Block (Writer’s Digest Books 1979) —
I’ve already mentioned Lawrence Block. You guessed it: writing idol.
Mr. Block wrote a column on fiction writing in Writer’s Digest for many years, and this column was my gateway drug to his fiction. There are book collections of these columns as well, and they are great. I like this one because Block focuses on a single task: writing the novel. As the subtitle says “from plot to print.” The business end of the book is a little out-of-date, sure, since on-line and self-publishing has altered the landscape a bit, but this doesn’t really detract from the meat of the book. There has been an updated and expanded edition that brings us into the computer age, but I haven’t read that edition.
I read this one many years ago, but still occasionally use it as a reference.
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The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (Macmillan 1979) —
Speaking of references. You had to know this one would be on this list. I use the third edition. I frequently break many of the rules listed in this book, but I feel better about myself by having access to them.
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Descriptionary: a thematic dictionary, 3rd edition, by Marc McCutcheon (Checkmark Books 2005) —
Since on-line dictionaries are so readily available and convenient, I’m not even going to list the one, huge collegiate dictionary I still sometimes turn to. This is a different type of reference book, however. It’s for when you know what something is, but not what its called.
Maybe you’re blessed with total recall. I am not, and not being able to come up with the correct name for something is often frustrating.
Let me give you a for-instance. Say I’m writing some heroic fantasy and I have scenes set in a castle. I need some accurate architectural terms, so I turn to the section ARCHITECTURE and then to the sub-section CASTLES AND MEDIEVAL BUILDINGS. Here, on page 25, I find out that the open ground or courtyard encircled by walls is known as a bailey, or a ward, and that the person in charge of caring for the horses at the castle is called the farrier.
The Descriptionary also has main sections for art, clothing, electronics, the military, and lots of others. Invaluable when your fiction is in need of some verisimilitude.
This reference pairs well with the next one.
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The Macmillan Visual Dictionary, (Macmillan 1997) —
This is a huge picture dictionary. I’m sure there are many others out there, but this is the one I own. It has 3,500 illustrations, each labeled so that you can find out the names of things. Keeping with our castle theme, there is an illustration on pages 180-181 of a castle. The enclosed courtyard is labelled bailey. See?
This book amazes me with just the sheer amount of information it offers. Just letting the book fall open to a section on women’s clothing, I now know the difference, by appearance, between a bertha and mandarin collar and a sweetheart neckline and a draped neck. And in water sports, I know the difference, in swimming, between a flip turn and a butterfly turn.
I have used this book a few times over the years. I remember that I was once writing a scene involving a big rig. As a Target logistics manager for many years, I knew some trucking terminology that the average layperson may not know, such as kingpin (and, my favorite, the kingpin lock) and fifth wheel, support legs and their crank, wheel chocks. Stuff like that. But, I found myself grasping for the word to describe that side pipe that rises up above the cab (it’s exhaust stack, by the way). You can write about trucks without knowing this stuff, but there is a kind of power in knowing the names for things.
If I ever write a great seafaring adventure, I can write about flying jibs and topsails with some assurance, and without having to crack the pages of Moby Dick again, a fate I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.
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Fumblerules: a lighthearted guide to grammar and good usage, by William Safire (B&N 2002) —
As with the Elmore Leonard rules, you can probably find all of these on-line. I found this cheap hardcover edition at a Barnes & Noble years ago. The late Mr. Safire was a political columnist for The New York Times, and also wrote his “On Language” column for The New York Times Magazine. This list of fifty grammar and usage rules is effective because the rules themselves are broken within the rule as presented.
For example, Fumblerule #1 is “No sentence fragments,” which is, in itself, a sentence fragment. A rule I break all of the time, I should add. If it’s any excuse, I know when I’m breaking the rule. Honest.
My favorite Fumblerule may be #23: “And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.” And it’s also another of my favorites to break.
Plenty of your favorite authors break some of Mr. Safire’s rules occasionally. You will find that knowing the rules helps improve your writing. I recall reading somewhere that, like Picasso learning how to create realistic art before moving on to the abstract, a writer should learn the classical rules of grammar and usage before choosing to break them for effect.
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Scene & Structure, by Jack M. Bickham (Writer’s Digest Books 1993) —
The scene is the basic building block of all storytelling, whether you’re writing a novel, a movie or television script, or a stage play. The late Mr. Bickham published about 80 novels during his lifetime, and knew a thing or two about writing. No matter which medium you’re writing for, you will find his instruction about scene and structure to be invaluable. The appendices contain excerpts from published fiction that illustrate many of the points Bickham brings up in the text. Even today, 26 years after this book was published, I find myself referring to it.
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That’s it. That’s my 10.
I realize I’ve failed to mention some of your favorites, but going bird by bird and writing down the bones to discover a treatise on writing well often makes the writer’s journey a daunting one. I’m sure your choices for “essential” books are perfectly fine, and I would enjoying seeing them.