“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  • Kit Reed’s Story First: The Writer as Insider is a recent discovery, but it too would have superseded probably 85% of the other books I read that only gave me fragments of how to write.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.