Writing is something that has stumbled through to be truly appreciated. If you start by picking up a dozen books about how to write, most of it won’t mean much to you; all those terms and techniques have to be bungled before they can be understood, much less mastered. And spending a few hours reading about writing first, then doing the actual writing, will mess you up worse than loan shark you’re past-due on a payment to. Your writing will be so self-conscious you can’t possibly do it well. So write first, and write fast, and write frequentlly. Then, when you’re ready to take a break from writing, put your feet up and read from a few favorite books on the subject.
Here, in no particular order, are 15 books that I found to be extremely helpful (and yes, I’ve personally read every book on this list, some more than once):
- The First Five Pages – by Noah Lukeman
- Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy – by the editors of Analog and Asimov’s. Quite the line-up of experts; these are, after all, the people everyone is trying to sell to…
- Stein on Writing – by Sol Stein. A former book editor in NY
- How To Grow a Novel – by Sol Stein. Possibly the first book on writing I ever bought and hugely helpful one
- Zen in the Art of Writing – by Ray Bradbury. A master of the written word, if ever there was one.
- The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them) – by Jack Bickham
- Character & Viewpoint – by Orson Scott Card. No, not because I work for the man. And regardless of what you think about his politics (which he’s gotten vocal about in the last few years, and which I disagree with on numerous points), he knows how to teach writing.
- How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy – by Orson Scott Card. This book won the Hugo for a good reason.
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – by Renni Browne and Dave King. Both former agents, if memory serves correctly…
- Writing The Breakout Novel (and the workbook of the same title) – by Donald Maass.
- Story – by Robert McKee. This one is primarily aimed at screenwriters, but the advice is just so good you ought to read it and take notes no matter what kind of story your interested in writing.
- The Elements of Style – by Strunk and White. It’s not infallible (what advice book is?), but this thin volume is the foundation for a lot of great writing.
- The Keys To Great Writing – by Stephen Wilbers
- Of course, I have to mention our own How To Write Magical Words. Obviously I’m biased, but I think it’s chock-full of exceptionally helpful material.
- And I’ll close this list with a fun one: Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life. It alternates those wonderful “It was a dark and stormy night” cartoons of Snoopy hard at work on his type-writer, with essays by such varied authors as Elmore Leonard, Julia Child, and William F. Buckley.
So go forth, young man, young woman, and read about writing. Just remember that the writing comes first. None of these books will mean a damn thing if you’re not actually writing.