“Anyone who dithers in the business of writing long enough ends up reading a lot of books about the crafts of writing itself.
I’m no exception. It’s a little daunting to see how very many of these books have ended up on my shelves. I’ll skip the excellent books most often recommended by others (Strunk & White, Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Bird by Bird, etc.) in favor of the odd books that strike me as genuinely instructive, thought provoking, occasionally even inspiring; they’re the sort of deeply considered takes on fiction that prove useful in learning the craft. Below are a score or so that I turn to again and again.”
– Upstart Crow Founder Michael Stearns
On Visual Storytelling
Picture This by Molly Bang
There are tons of books about how to make pictures books (most are Not Good), but only a few about how to make pictures. Caldecott-honoree Molly Bang’s is one of the best. By playing with shapes, lines, and colors; and then using those elements together, she clearly explains how pictures gain expressive weight. It all looks pretty simple at first glance, but it’s an education in how art works on us and of how these elements contribute real emotion to story.
Writing With Pictures by Uri Shulevitz
Exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) guide to creating picture books, taking readers from the blocking out of an idea in dummy form right up to the breakneck action-adventure thrill ride of actual book production. (Want to know whether RGB or CYMK works better for the reproduction of images? Want to know what that alphabet soup even means? You’ll find out here.) Shulevitz also shows the various stages of his own much-lauded work, which is fascinating. (Like Bang, he’s got those shiny Caldecott stickers on some of his books, too.)
The Book of Movie Photography by David Cheshire
Primarily concerned with, yes, how to light, shoot, and edit film. But! It is also a fantastic guide to how stories are told in images, and how those images work in conjunction. Cheshire does superb shot-by-shot breakdowns of sequences from movies, explaining how composition steers the eye of the viewer, how cuts work together (think of cuts as page flips), and myriad other storytelling insights that apply to any visual medium.
Making Comics by Scott McCloud
Another book about visual storytelling, this one cleverly disguised as a guide to how comics work. Yes, it’s about drawing and comics. But it is, of course, about more: How images evoke reader responses—from the up close and personal (expressions on character’s faces and body language) to the big picture stuff (composition and panel shape and panel relationships). At times it is like a kind of practical application of Bang’s book, above. Which makes it sound dry, but it’s not: McCloud is more than just a great explainer, he’s also a great entertainer, and this book is a crackerjack read.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Like a sometimes annoying professor, Prose does a fine, mostly inspiring job of walking us, her students, through the building blocks of writing—words to sentences to paragraphs and more—and reveals how these parts of a text work together to create an effect in a reader. Some of the things she writes about remain a bit obtuse and unhelpful (gesture? really? well, okay), but she wraps the book up with a wonderful little essay about Chekhov that is a lesson all on its own about how there are no rules about anything to do with writing … once a writer has mastered the little things. Great fun that is also great fodder for thinking.
Bell was a finalist for the National Book Award, but he first came to prominence in the eighties with his short stories (four of which appeared in that decade’s Best American annuals). In this book on craft, Bell takes the whole idea of “close reading” much further than Prose. Five stories from other writers are reproduced in whole. Then Bell analyzes how the story works line-by-line, tracking the accumulation of details and effects and showing how things like word choice, sentence rhythm, paragraph breaks, and more work over the course of a piece of fiction. Sound intense? It is. But it also forces one to recognize that every decision in a piece of prose matters.
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Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner
Others have written about this with such eloquence and insight (see David Foster Wallace’s stunning review) that I don’t see how I can add much. But this is the best book on the vagaries of American English in the twenty-first century. Do you love words? Do you quibble about proper usage of “hanged,” or “ensure,” or “hopefully,” or “different from” v. “different than”? Are you the sort who happily gets lost chasing definitions in the dictionary? Are you passionate about why certain idioms have become acceptable no matter how Fowler and his sanctimonious flag-bears turn up their inky noses? Then this is the book for you.
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable revised by John Ayto
This massive reference has been published in one form or another since 1870, and it features a wealth of weird information and etymologies for common phrases and words. But what makes this book such a tremendous time suck are all the stories and histories and strange histories Brewer and his later editors have gathered here: folktales, superstitions, science, magic, popular culture, origins of heraldic devices, tales of patron saints and mass murderers, famous last words and tons more—it’s all grippingly odd stuff, and a great source for those looking for help with names in fantasy novels.
This one is actually on deck; I haven’t read more than the barest sampling of its 670 or so pages. But it looks like the go-to textbook for creative writing classes. Not only does it have the Norton imprimatur, it also has the kind of wide-ranging authority you’d expect from Norton. I bought it for Chapter Five: “Why You Need to Show and Tell: Or, why the most common piece of advice given to beginning writers is misleading.” Hallelujah! She plays around with and takes apart different versions of excellent prose from writers such as Robert Stone, Vladimir Nabokov, J.M. Barrie, Annie Proulx, Flannery O’Connor, Tobias Wolff, and Z.Z. Packer. And that’s just one chapter.
If you’ve seen Adaptation, then you’ve seen Brian Cox’s hilarious portrayal of Nicolas Cage’s screenwriting mentor. That guy? He’s basically Robert McKee, one of the great old blowhards of a certain kind of Hollywood storytelling. I’ve attended one of his screenwriting seminars, sat through several days of his rants and lectures, and even though I found him tiresome, I also have to admit: He knows what he’s talking about. I took seventy-five pages of notes and annotated a copy of the Casablanca script. I could have saved myself that trouble and simply read his book, because it’s all in here. You have to sift through tons of hyperbole, but it’s worth it.
(This book is out of print, sadly, and the copy I bought in the late eighties fell apart this year. Happily, Barnes & Noble issued it in a cheap hardcover a few years back, and those are easy to find on the net.) Madden’s book is broken down into hundreds of tiny little essays, each of which is tagged to a question a writer might ask of her work. Think your secondary characters are too thin? Find the questions you might ask under “Character,” and then read through his examples. He’s pulled examples from classic literature—not just the final product, but archival drafts, so you get to see how writers such as Woolf and Fitzgerald and other greats tackled the exact same problems and fixed them. All great writing is revising.
Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern
A witty creative writing guide from the former director of the FSU program, this book falls easily under the heading of “Inspiration.” Stern is adept at encouraging everything from the importance of spontaneity to writing to the need for discipline, and he’s funny, too. Best of all is a grab bag alphabet of miniature essays he’s assembled on writing-related issues beginning with “Accuracy” and ending with “Zigzag.” That’s where I learned about the dangers of the “Bathtub Story.” (That’s a piece of fiction in which a character thinks about something but doesn’t actually act or have to suffer the messiness of conflict. Tsk, tsk.)
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On Writing by Stephen King
There are some nuggets to be gleaned from King’s tips (my favorite being a formula on a story that was returned to him once upon a time: Revision = first draft – 10 percent) (or is it 20%? I don’t remember, but I think 20% is a better amount to trim from a manuscript), but the best thing here is the long autobiographical essay about King’s life and writing career. Even if you don’t care for King’s novels (I confess that I do and think he’s a truly fantastic if uneven writer), this book has something to say to you about work. And discipline. And why what often matters most is putting your butt in a chair for long periods of time and struggling with a text. Eminently worthwhile.
The Paris Review Interview Series, compiled by various series editors
[Also can be found under the series title Writers at Work, which published many volumes over the years. The pretty cover at the left marks the new incarnations.]
The most reliable source for inspiration and instruction are the sublime Paris Review interviews with our best writers. Packed with many memorable quotes, from Forster’s lament that his characters sometimes run away with his stories, to Nabokov’s rejoinder that unlike Forster’s, his characters are “galley slaves” who go where he tells them. Each interview features a page of their work in its initial form (fascinating in itself) and then a forty-page interview. Like great craft essays.
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Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstorm, edited by Leonard S. Marcus
If you care deeply about children’s books, then you’ll want to check out pretty much anything Leonard S. Marcus has published. (I have yet to read his new one, a definitive history of the industry called Masters of Make-Believe.) Dear Genius is a collection of letters to authors from the legendary Harper editor Ursula Nordstrom, who published books by Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Margaret Wise Brown, and on and on. Her letters are smart, funny, frank, and never shy away from conflict. She was the Maxwell Perkins of children’s books. Or, scratch that: He was the Ursula Nordstrom of mainstream adult literature.
Sebastian Walker: A Kind of Prospero by Mirabel Cecil
Good luck finding this long-out-of-print biography of the founder of Walker Books (which became Candlewick in the US). But if you can track down a copy in a library, it’s worth a read. (Also short, which always recommends a book.) Walker’s innovative approaches towards publishing picture books in the UK changed that market substantially. So that’s interesting. But more interesting still is the way this vivid character inspired those around him. He seems to have had a passion that diminished obstacles others might have found insurmountable.
Another Life by Michael Korda
Korda worked his way up the ranks of Simon & Schuster during the golden years of the sixties and seventies, when publishing hadn’t yet become fully corporatized, and big personalities ran the show. It sounds ridiculous to call a 500-page trench-level account of publishing a page-turner, but that’s the case with this memoir. Korda edited or took part in the publishing of Jospeh Heller, Jacqueline Susann, and other writers, and he has a gift for the quick, deft portrait of a person. It’s oftentimes hilarious, but just as often bittersweet: This world is no more, and books will likely never matter as much as they did in the last century.
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The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin is one of the great American writers, period, who happens to specialize in the genre of science fiction and fantasy. In this first collection of her essays, she spends a great deal of time discussing the finer points of genre writing, which places different demands upon story and the reader. Whether musing on a book’s shortfalls in a book review and thereby illuminating some writing axiom only she knows, or discussing how Tolkien’s novels work (it’s about world-building and backstory, people, about creating a fictive history that is sensed—but not cited—in every detail), she makes clear the different burdens placed upon genre writing.
The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel R. Delany
Again, good luck finding this long-out-of-print essay collection. (I’m still searching for his second, Starboard Wine, which I’m beginning to believe is a thing of myth.) Delany is, like Le Guin, brilliant about language, and similarly, he spends a good deal of time meditating on how exposition in a story (always the bugbear in science fiction) can and should be suggested by word choice. (The old saw example is “The door dilated”—a world is suggested by that odd verb.) Also of interest is a long dismantling of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. He points out flaws in the book, none of which take away from its impact (still a great novel) but all of which reveal just how important the smallest details are in the creating of convincing worlds.
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