“Can You Recommend a Book to Solve What’s Wrong with Me?”

I get asked from time to time what books I’d recommend for writers. This is a little like being a pharmacist who gets asked, “What drugs do you recommend for mammals?” The truth is, I have no idea where you are in your career or what’s wrong with you, so it’s hard to tell you what can help.

In the spirit of the right tool for the right job, here are my recommended writing books in little lists based on when they’re useful:

“I have no idea where the fuck to start”

  • Stephen King’s On Writing, which every relative will buy you at least once, isn’t a bad book for getting started, especially in a blue collar sense of making it a job instead of a magical mission from God.
  • Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction is an excellent guide to the basics of short story writing. It gives you a nice set of training wheels for your first couple of stories, helping you gather what you need to know to make a work feel complete.
  • David Gerrold’s Worlds of Wonder is also a good launching point for understanding the mechanics of fiction, though don’t get too hung up on the word “mechanics.”
  • Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing is a strong push to dive headlong into the subjects that matter most to your heart, though I think ol’ Ray makes it sound easier than it is.   

“I wish I’d come back from the future to give myself the books I ACTUALLY need to get started.”

  • Stephen Koch’s The Modern Library Writers Workshop would have saved me actual years of blundering around, and it is the closest I’ve ever found to a complete guide to crafting a story of any length from idea to rewriting.
  • Kit Reed’s Story First: The Writer as Insider is a recent discovery, but it too would have superseded probably 85% of the other books I read that only gave me fragments of how to write. This one resonates very much with my particular style of composition, the “put on a character’s face like Hannibal Lecter and role-play a story” method.
  • Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dreyer, will help remediate everything your English teachers got wrong.

“Jesus Christ, I’ve got to step up my game. I can’t keep selling stories to Vampire Dan’s Story Emporium forever.”

  • Samuel Delany’s About Writing contains several great essays that are the stern talks you need from an honest professor about what it takes to make your writing worth the effort.  
  • Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook is a fabulous guide to writing fabulous fiction, full of weird and intriguing illustrations and charts and prompts that lead you away from writing the dopey ideas at the top of your (and everybody else’s) head.
  • Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story not only provides some excellent things to say at parties about the importance of fiction to the human consciousness, but it ALSO delivers practical advice for flipping the right switches in the right order to appeal to a reader.

“Oh, shit. I have to care about practical stuff as a writer?”

  • Starve Better by Nick Mamatas is the straight talk from a worldly mentor you desperately need for facing the business of writing.
  • Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer is perhaps one half step behind the marketing curve since it was published in 2009, but it is still the best guide I’ve seen for finding communities who will enjoy your work without seeming like a mercenary douchebag.

“I kind of wish I’d never heard of writing.”

  • Jason Ridler’s Fxxk Writing is surprisingly inspirational for a book that suggests maybe you’re caring a little TOO MUCH about capital-W “Writing” as your heroic, identity-making avocation.
  • Given his personification of “resistance” as an active negative universal force working against your heart’s work, Steven Pressfield may seem like something of a crackpot. His book The War of Art, however, is an important kick in the ass we all need from time to time to demystify our difficulties.   

Thank God, a White Man is Weighing In

Nothing I say can really help right now, especially when there are other voices than mine who need to be heard, and the last thing I want is to be congratulated for saying or thinking the right things. It occurs to me, though, that doing good within the reach of my arms isn’t enough and maybe it’s time to try within the reach of my voice, too.

I used to write about politics a lot more in years past. That was before I gave up on the idea that people choose them through reason instead of picking a group they want to be part of and then rationalizing and performing their membership in it, including me.

A long time ago, I was part of the stern realists who feel brave by facing (and maybe enjoying) the brutal truths that life is hard, work is mandatory, feelings don’t matter, and we all should get only what we deserve in this life or the next.

This, if you can’t tell, is a young Republican.

These days, I’ve opted to be part of the passionate and naïve do-gooders who think there’s not much point of money or civilization or government if it isn’t making people’s lives better, regardless of the cost. If America can collapse because of gay marriage, pollution control, racial and gender equality, fair wages, easier healthcare, better education, and nicer cops…maybe it should.

This is an old liberal who is more popular with dogs.

I’ve tried to determine forensically just what changed my mind between 1996 and 2000, in case it is any help for someone else.

  • Star Trek laid the foundation for the goals of freedom from prejudice and economy, but The West Wing (Star Trek for civics nerds) inspired me to think that conscientious and smart people could be working in that direction now.
     
  • A professor at UNF, Dr. Pritchy Smith, assigned us to watch the PBS show Eyes on the Prize about the civil rights struggle and I was horrified by how people could fight AGAINST such a basic and fundamental value.
     
  • My notion of how much of our fate is luck versus work changed from a 10%/90% split to a 70%/30% split after meeting countless wealthy incompetents in my working life and many more broke and brilliant people.

  • The mental gymnastics required to rationalize conservative ideals began to feel exhausting and thin. If you’re digging deep enough to get to things like, “Helping the homeless really hurts them in the long run,” and “The Civil War was about states’ rights” without feeling a little sick and desperate, you’re a better rationalizer than I was. Too good, maybe.

Mostly, though, that shift came from meeting and talking to and caring for people who weren’t as well served as I was by the system. I wanted both of the gay Roberts in my life to be able to marry who they loved. I wanted my nieces to make as much as I do. I wanted my friend Ray to get the same shitty service at the deli that I was getting instead of even worse.

The first half-step of love is thinking that the people you care about are exceptions who deserve more than they’re getting.  

The second step is realizing that they’re not exceptions.