To write is to read. In order to become a better writer, you must always have a book in the queue. Typically this advice falls in line with reading the style which you seek to write, but the same is also true of books which teach the practical, technical skills of writing. I have a bad habit of picking up books and keeping them on the shelf above my writing computer as if they are talismans whose very presence will impart great writing skill. But every so often I read a book that is so incredibly useful that it sticks with me. While this is by no means a replacement for a good writing course or an MFA, these books will help flesh out your skill set, tell you what to do once the first draft is done, or inspire you to greater heights. This is my (2017) top five list of books for writers.
5. Writing Monsters – Philip Athans
I write monsters. For Dead West I have to construct folk-lore terrors to stalk the majestically blasted landscapes of the American West. But I’ve also written my share of fantasy and science fiction, both of which require a thorough understanding of the monsters and monstrous antagonists that harrow the heroes of my books.
Athans has created the book to help you understand your monsters. In a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, he helps you needle through their anatomy, their psychology, their strengths, and their weaknesses. My favorite part of the book comes in the first chapter where he provides a fleshed out worksheet for building your boogeymen. If you write genre fiction (or maybe even if you say you don’t), then this is a great book to keep on your shelf.
4. The Emotion Thesaurus – Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
“Samuel was so gosh darn angry. He was so angry he could spit.” “The sight of the bad hackerman made Dera very afraid.” We’ve all seen it. Sentences like these are the reason ‘show, don’t tell’ is the first rule for writers. Don’t tell me that Samuel was angry, show the gritting of his teeth, the rigidness of his limbs, the darkening of his brow. Of course, Hackerman made Dera afraid. But what did that fear do to her? What about the rising pulse in her throat, the dilated pupils, the beat of quivering sweat down her cheek?
The Emotion Thesaurus is one book in the ‘Thesaurus’ series from Writers Helping Writers. I own three of the bastards, and I can recommend all of them. But I think this one is the most useful of the lot. Within you’ll find a list of the big ones for negative emotions, including the spectrum of anger, fear, and envy. Each entry will go over the physical signs of the emotion, what the character may experience internally, and ways that the emotion could escalate. Excellent stuff to avoid telling.
3. Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market – Writer’s Digest
There’s not much to say about this old standby. A new edition of this book comes out every year, with listings of agents, publishers, contests, paying markets, and more. Any writer who is looking to get paid for their work needs to keep a copy on their desk. The service is invaluable.
2. Take Off Your Pants – Libbie Hakwer
I will sing the praises of this book! Take Off Your Pants is the single best book on the subject of outlining that I have ever encountered. It gives incredible detail on a method of outlining that is so much more brilliant than simply listing out a vague sketch of the order of events. Hawker, a highly regarded historical fiction writer, has put together such an interesting and unique view of the outlining process—a technique that emphasizes deep character building first and foremost. Of the books I’ve listed this year, this one is by far the most technical. I’m only a new convert, but she’s earned a fan for life by her work here.
1. On Writing – Stephen King
Hooboy. It was late 2010. I was in a job that was eating me from the inside out, and outside of a very happy marriage, I was emotionally in the lowest place I can recall ever being. An errant thought wandered into my mind: Why not try and pursue something I’d always loved, but never felt like I’d be able to do? Something I’d always talked myself out of? I stopped off at the local bookstore and picked up a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing and my world imploded.
On Writing is only tangentially a book instructing the art of writing. Rather, it is a memoir that covers the topic in a brief touch. This is a beautiful book of inspiration. Because of its singular ability to capture and motivate me to write, it will likely always be the best book on the subject that I’ve ever read. If you’re on the fence about this writing thing, and you think you might want to take a go at it, this is a wonderful book to pick up and read. Or, even if you’re just curious about the head-space of a best-selling author. It’s a beautiful book, written from a very humble place. King does not take the time to brag, so much as to share with you the wonder and excitement of the milestones of his career. And he shares with you that great passion he has for the act, with the hope that you too will share in that love and passion.
So, those are my top five writing books. Do you have any you’d like to recommend? Leave a note in the comments below, or hit me up on my Facebook or Twitter. I’d love to hear what books have helped you the most, and maybe they’ll help me too.