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  • Kit Reed’s Story First: The Writer as Insider is a recent discovery, but it too would have superseded probably 85% of the other books I read that only gave me fragments of how to write.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

Mother of Dragons

[It’s hard to know what to say on Mother’s Day anymore now that mine is gone, but this is the best thing I’ve ever written about her so I might as well share it again.]

A few years ago after we discovered that neither of my mother’s surgeries nor her radiation had stopped the tumor growing in her brain, a chaplain came to visit her bedside in the hospital.

He asked some delicate and insightful questions to figure out her religious beliefs, something that with her was a moving target, and she explained that she’d been raised Lutheran but saw the truth in all faiths. He asked what she expected to see after she died, and my mother said, “The Rainbow Bridge.”

The chaplain, a little surprised, said, “You mean Valhalla?”

My mother narrowed her eyes mysteriously and said, “Some might call it that.”

She then explained that what she expected from the afterlife is to cross the Rainbow Bridge you see mentioned in veterinarian’s offices when pets die, and that on the other side, every animal she ever loved would be there to greet her, all rushing and tumbling and barking and meowing.

On November 3rd of 2017 at 2:15pm, my mother crossed the Rainbow Bridge with all of us around her.

My mother met my horrible father when he locked the doors of the basement of the Lutheran church they attended and wouldn’t let her leave unless he kissed her. They were married when she was seventeen, and when she complained about the smell of his cigarettes, he hit and harangued her to start smoking, too.

The cancer that got her spread from the lungs.

We took my mother to see Fantasia 2000 on the IMAX screen when it was released, and when those giant whales the size of city buses swept onto the screen to Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” she leaned far back in her chair with her eyes wide and yelled, “Holy shit!” to a theater full of children on a school field trip.

When we moved down to Florida, my father wasn’t sure whether to open a hardware store or a bookstore, but he chose the bookstore because my mother could plausibly help him run it. Like me, she could never tell the difference between metric and Imperial tools and never gave a shit.

What she did give a shit about was making sure that our bookstore sold Dungeons and Dragons even when Southern Baptists were wringing their hands about it, and she made sure that I had a copy because that’s what she’d heard all the other smart and imaginative kids played. I read them in the backroom of that store along with Sherlock Holmes and Choose Your Own Adventure and books about ghosts.

She made sure I had as many Star Wars figures as we could afford, too, and we saw all three of the original movies together. I took her to see The Force Awakens and she bragged to a total stranger that she took me to see A New Hope when it came out.

I was wondering how I’d get her to the theater to see The Last Jedi before she died.

My father left my mother for another woman when I was thirteen, and I was surprised that my mother was depressed about it, spending most of her nights after work reading alone in her room. To me, it was like the fall of the Empire.

When my mother met a fellow social worker named Larry Hall and they fell in love, I wasn’t happy. He seemed too dreamy and irresponsible, and it took me years to realize that’s just what she – and all the rest of us – needed.

She lived two decades married to him, and they were a complete but happy mess, having my brother when I wasn’t so sure they could even take care of themselves, opening a doomed antiques business, inheriting hundreds of thousands of dollars from my grandparents and spending it all in three years, joining spiritualist churches and giving psychic readings and going to festivals about rocks.

They were almost always broke, almost always under-employed, but man, could they talk to anyone and everyone about anything. They were both endlessly curious about the world, and they drew the strangest people to them because they never recoiled from anyone.

Because of Larry, my mother got to live in the open again and not just in her books. They were an inspiration to anyone who lives beyond the so-called “normal” world.

When her strength was failing, I told my mother that I wasn’t sure what I’d do now without her around to impress or scare with my writing. She was always my best audience, the one most fun to entertain or shock.

She shrugged and said that was just a mommy thing, doing that.

I gasped in mock offense and said, “Are you saying you pretended to like my stories?”

She cough-chuckled and shook her head and said, “You know I’ve always been proud of you.”

There’s no question that I’m the son of a father of great darkness, and I told my mother more than once that I’d trade my existence for her never to have met him. She said she wouldn’t, not mine or Karen’s or Karen’s daughters, either.

I’m the son of a man of great darkness, but I’m also the son of a mother of much greater light. She was his first abused child at sixteen and he kept at it for 22 years, but she never gave up on angels or books about dragons or crystals or seances or ancient Egypt or playing River Raid on the Atari and Kirby on the Game Boy. She never gave up on goodness, even when she had to squint pretty hard to see it.

I’ve lived my whole life in dread of what my father gave me, and I’ve never appreciated enough what my mother gave me, too: the power to resist that dread and that darkness, to make it funny, to see it and nod but go on anyway even in sneaky ways with a few fellow saboteurs in enemy country.

She knew what goodness costs, and that it is always worth it.

That chaplain who came to visit asked my mother if she wanted to pray for anything, and we clasped hands so she could. She asked to see all of those animals, and she also wanted her children to remember that when she died, they’d never be alone again.

I know now that we never were.

AWA: Where Did You Learn the Most about Writing?

Each week in my newsletter, I do “Ask Will Anything” where I answer a reader question. Aimee P. of Jacksonville, FL asks:

Other than just doing it, where did you learn the most about writing?

Thank you, Aimee, for your tough but fair question. 

I decided I liked writing in the fourth grade, right around the time that E.T. came into theaters and my teacher Mr. Clark read Where the Red Fern Grows to us. I realized that people actually made stories and that I could do it, too, and Mr. Clark let me read/perform my stories to the class each week.

I didn’t take an actual class in writing fiction until my freshman year of high school, and I got a D in it because I was too afraid to submit my work and threaten my great “potential.” I took no creative writing classes as an undergrad either, mostly for the same reason. I considered an MFA program at UF back in 1994, but I was told with a sniff by the chair that “we don’t DO genre fiction.”

So almost everything I learned about writing came from books, especially these:

  • Stephen Koch’s The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, which is as complete and encouraging a writing book as I’ve ever encountered.
     
  • Samuel R. Delany’s book of lectures and essays About Writing, which contains a lot of wisdom about going beyond simple competence and trying for something special in your work.
     
  • Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction simplified the process of writing stories in a way that seemed workmanlike and do-able to me.
     
  • Stephen King’s On Writing does a great deal to demystify the process of writing, too.

That’s what I needed most: someone or something to tell me how to lower the stakes of writing so it was easier to take risks and experiment while doing it instead of being such a fundamental part of my identity.

In that way, I’m grateful I didn’t seek formal writing education until much later on. I went to Clarion in 2006 when I was 33 and the Stonecoast MFA in popular fiction in 2010 when I was 37.

It’s hard to say which had more impact, though it’s probably Clarion. That was my dark night of the soul: after submitting some terrible stories and receiving some (perhaps excessively) harsh critiques, I realized that I had to either commit to ruthlessly judging my own writing (not being satisfied with merely doing it but with doing it well) or give up altogether and get out of the way.

My MFA from Stonecoast was also extremely useful. Clarion is a sprinter’s education, belting out a short story a week for six weeks. Stonecoast was a marathon where I wrote my first completed novel, and I’m grateful for people like Jim Kelly and Liz Hand who led me through to the end.

The upshot of my long answer: go where you are encouraged to write and told honestly what you can improve.

My biggest regret is that I didn’t write more sooner, and I almost wish that I’d majored in journalism or communications because I would have far rather learned to get words out on demand than how precious and wondrous they were from my literature major.  

We’re All Fine Here Now

A few days ago, I resolved that I would blog and write more, but when I dove in to do just that, I completely destroyed my previous website.

(Technical wonkery: Botched upgrade to a new version of WordPress despite my web provider having the wrong version of PHP.)

After a couple of days of tinkering, I’m pleased to say that we’re all fine here…now.

What does this mean for the page? Well, I definitely plan to use my new site better than the old one, which probably means:

  • Posting more personal news.
  • Presenting more writing advice.
  • Returning to my Postcard Stories (where I write a short story in a single sitting based on an image from online).
  • Reposting some of my best-of entries (about my mother, Norman, and other things)

Come join me again!