On Books (On Writing)
“I have found that collecting books and reading them are two very different hobbies.”
I own quite a few books. Years ago I signed up with LibraryThing and put my bookshelf in by hand, but haven’t updated that list since … probably the initial draft. I’m on GoodReads as well, and here I make a more good-faith, though admittedly sporadic, attempt to keep up with what I’m currently reading.
My bookshelves are generally organized by subject. One shelf for games, one for anthropology, one for history, one for spirituality, one-half for comic books, one-half for To Be Read, one-half for novels … and one for creativity.
The creativity shelf isn’t just for writing. It includes inspirational fluff from people like SARK (whose colorful, childish spirit of play I continue to admire in my late forties, thank you very much) and publishers like North Light and HOW Design. It includes some rather optimistic books on “Making a Living Without a Job” and, oddly enough, on stock investing. There are a few books on other hobbies such as leatherworking, and some books on topics of interest to genre authors, such as worldbuilding and language construction.
But it certainly includes books on writing, and today I’d like to share my personal top five.
Steering the Craft by the marvelous Ursula K. LeGuin is one of three pillars which rescue me in times of creative despair. A workshop in a book which can be used independently or in a group of any size, I find this collection of exercises and reminders sparks both joy and imagination. With dry wit and sly winks, the late LeGuin has become a favored professor and a cherished memory. It is slim – many of my choices are – but meaty, and the nautical metaphor of writing as a river-journey unsurprisingly calls to me. While your mileage may vary, it’s the first book I would recommend to any young person seeking to learn.
Poemcrazy, by Susan Goldsmith Woodridge, is the second pillar. Perhaps even slimmer than LeGuin’s, and focused entirely upon poetry and language rather than technical craftsmanship in terms of prose, each chapter is a tiny bite of Woodridge’s reflections on her own path and inspiration for how one can find magical words of their own. I love poetry, from the bottom of my heart, though sharing it online is even more fraught than sharing fan fiction; and being able to spin magnificent, meaningful language – without fretting over verb tense – is a balm to my soul. I often make a small poem before starting any serious writing, in order to get words flowing.
Make a Scene, by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, is the book that … well. It hasn’t stopped me from writing meandering, meaningless paragraphs of dithering protagonists and conversation which goes nowhere, but it has stopped me from trying to get them published. Dryer and more to-the-point than the two above, Rosenfeld truly helped me understand how much every scene has to mean in a well-crafted story. Chapters on tension, intension, theme and subtext all do wonders to help me edit what I’ve written and pre-edit what lies ahead.
The Plot Thickens, by Noah Lukeman, is the best-selling and probably most well-known of my top five. Its first half is a marvelous checklist of things to think about while creating your characters: from hair style to relationships to food and authority. After this, Lukeman discusses the far more relevant application of characterization. How can you best build tension and conflict between two characters? Within a group dynamic? Why does this character’s journey matter in the end? What part of this characterization is going to change by the end of your story, or by the end of your scene? It’s a remarkably practical reference book, though reading it end to end may be a bridge too far.
Hamlet’s Hit Points is a queer little gem by author and game designer Robin D. Laws. Technically more a book for role-playing gamers than for authors, Laws’ “beat theory” nevertheless makes a good deal of sense to me – and is easier to apply to individually written stories than to collaboratively narrated games. In addition, seeing a story I know well (Hamlet) broken down into individual beats gave me a way to look at the overall structure of the things I write, rather than the scene-specific focus of the two above.
Now, I know the classic answer from most writers of my generation is the much-beloved On Writing by Steven King. It is a good book, to be sure, and one I did read cover to cover. Overall, though, I didn’t find it as valuable as those listed above. Perhaps a contrarian streak, perhaps just a preference for workbooks and exercises over collections of thoughts. I honestly don’t know.
So tell me – what helps you write? Or, in other arts, from cooking to calligraphy, what are the reference and inspirational books which let you steer your own craft?
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