Craft Books: A List For Writers
By Becky Tuch
Craft books. Some people swear by them, some people swear they don’t need them. As Randy Susan Meyers wrote recently on Beyond the Margins , “Whisper the words books on writing to a bunch of writers and you might have to watch the whoosh of air as they take sides so fast it’s like being transported to West Side Story.”
I am an unequivocal card-carrying member of the craft-book school of writing. This became manifestly clear to me this past fall as I left my beloved city of Boston and moved to unknown territory in Pittsburgh, PA. Believe you me, if I could have put the entire staff, students, and beautiful workshop spaces of Grub Street into a box and taken them all with me, I would have done so. Barring that, I’ve had my many books on the craft of writing to console me through this transition.
The list below contains the books, essays, and references that have sustained me over the years, through highs and lows, moments of doubt and moments of excitement, as a writer, teacher, and student.
Plot, by Ansen Dibell
Could there be a more straightforward title than that? Plot belongs to a series of writer craft books titled “The Elements of Fiction Writing.” It is a bare-bones book with a blank white cover and it has been vital to me in explaining the most basic elements of a good plot. What does it mean for a story to have high stakes? When should a scene begin and end? How do you structure a scene? What’s the difference between drama and melodrama? All these questions are answered here with simple, straightforward explanations.
Immediate Fiction, by Jerry Cleaver
I tend to shy away from craft books that offer anything “immediate.” Writing takes work and time, often ten times as much work and time as you think. Still, this book contains the single most precious gem I’ve ever learned about conflict. Namely, that readers want to see characters in conflict not because we are all sadists who like to watch one another suffer. Rather, it is through conflict that readers see what characters are truly made of. Conflict reveals character. Before I read this book, I hadn’t fully understood this dynamic.
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham
This book is a list of 38 writerly don’ts. I don’t have much patience for people telling me what to do and not to do (in life as well as in writing). Bickham’s advice, however, will have you groaning at your own attempts at cleverness, and feeling surprised to learn how common such attempts really are. Bickham’s “don’ts” include “Don’t have things happen for no reason;” “Don’t write about wimps;” and “Don’t worry about being obvious.” Of course, all rules are breakable, but for the writer looking to identify why a piece might not be working, Bickham’s advice is sound.
The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop by Stephen Koch
I talk about this book all the time. I have photocopied hundreds of pages from this book and handed readings out to countless Grub students. This one is a must-read for writers. Koch writes in a friendly, supportive voice and he often gives unconventional advice. He has done a great deal of research and draws from the experience of numerous writers in relating best practices. His chapter on “Beginnings” is a great read for anyone at the start of a new project. And his chapter on “Working and Reworking” contains some of the best revision advice I’ve ever read.
Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood
Very often in workshop you will hear the maxim “show don’t tell.” But it can be unclear what that exactly means. How do you show that your character is confused? How do you make the reader feel that confusion, without, in fact, confusing the reader? Hood’s book is vital for writers struggling to convey the workings of characters’ minds and hearts in authentic ways. She covers a range of feelings here, including anxiety, apathy, despair, jealousy, and more. She also includes helpful writing prompts.
The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates
At the beginning of almost all my writing workshops, I hand out “To a Young Writer,” one of the essays from this beautiful collection. Here Oates advises, “Write your heart out. Never be ashamed of your subject, or your passion for your subject.” Oates draws examples from a myriad of writers whose darker impulses have guided their work. Her advice is encouraging, practical, and wonderfully inspiring. This essay also contains one of my all-time favorite writing quotes: “The novel is the affliction for which only the novel is the cure.”
Old Friend From Far Away by Natalie Goldberg
This book doesn’t have advice so much as a collection of writing prompts. They are geared toward writers of memoir, but could be utilized by fiction writers as well. Here as in all of Goldberg’s wonderful books, (Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, Thunder and Lightning, etc.), she encourages writing from a place of wonder, exploration, and trusting your own personal experience to guide you in your writing process.
The Artist’s Way; Vein of Gold; The Right to Write, three books by Julia Cameron
I am always amazed when a writer tells me s/he has never heard of Julia Cameron. I cannot imagine pursuing a career in writing without the guidance and support Cameron’s books have given me over the years. She can have a kind of new-agey vibe at times (some of her advice includes doing a warrior dance or the power of positive visualization.) But this woman’s words have helped me overcome so many crises of faith and moments of self-doubt that hell, if she wants me to do a warrior dance, count me in.
“That Crafty Feeling” by Zadie Smith
This essay appeared in The Believer in 2008. Here Smith discusses her approach to writing a novel and creates a distinction between The Micro Manager and the Macro Planner. Smith, who may take up to two years to construct the first twenty pages of a novel, falls in the former category. The essay is helpful, amusing, and also offers this nugget of wisdom: “In my opinion one should run, not walk, from any essay entitled ‘The Art of Fiction’ that is not about the art of a particular piece of fiction, or several. I don’t believe in craft in the abstract—each individual novel is its own rule book, training ground, factory, and independent republic.”
Lectures from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference
You may not have the opportunity to attend the Bread Loaf writers’ conference in Vermont. Fortunately, the lectures presented there are now available online for free. Visit their website and you can listen to insights about more nuanced aspects of craft. Currently I am listening to Charles Baxter’s talk on “The Request Moment,” which is fascinating, funny and extremely helpful in terms of framing scenes and thinking about what propels characters into action.
Paris Review interviews
The sheer quantity and caliber of writers that Paris Review has interviewed is remarkable. Since the 1950s, the esteemed magazine has spoken with the likes of Ann Beattie, Ray Bradbury, Michel Houellebecq, Tony Kushner, Pablo Neruda and so many more. It is truly inspiring and often educational to read about the artistic process as experienced by these literary greats. You can read all the interviews here. A recent favorite of mine is the interview with Jonathan Franzen.
There are, of course, hundreds of craft books out there, some that cover general aspects of writing and some which focus on very specific literary elements such as dialogue, story structure, revision and so on. And too there are the genre-specific books which will help you write sci-fi or horror or thrillers or suspense. I recommend that writers read advice outside their own genre, just to get more ideas. I’ve learned a great deal from advice typically geared toward writers of horror and thrillers, for example.
If you’re reading this, I trust that you too have a list of go-to craft book that have accompanied you on various phases of your artistic journeys. Please, tell me what they are and what they’ve taught you about writing. I am always looking to add to my collection.
I am a fiction and nonfiction writer, based in Pittsburgh, PA. My fiction has been honored with fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and the Somerville, MA Arts Council, as well as awards from Briar Cliff Review, Glimmer Train and Moment Magazine. Other fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Salon, McSweeney's, Post Road, Salt Hill, The Offing, Hobart, Barrelhouse, Literary Mama, Tahoma Literary Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Tikkun, Virginia Quarterly Review online and several anthologies including Best of the Net. I am also Founder of The Review Review, a website dedicated to reviews of lit mags and interviews with journal editors. The Review Review was listed for seven consecutive years in Writer's Digest's list of 101 Best Websites for Writers.See other articles by Becky Tuch