Lots of Fish in the Sea
You’re reading WowPow because, like most writers (me, too!), you’re always looking to better your craft. There are so many resources available today that you could spend your children’s inheritance and your summer vacation sifting through them to find even one that speaks to you. To save your children from penury and make sure you actually wiggle your piggies in the sand, I’m sharing the writing resources I can’t live without. These are real, honest-to-J. K. Rowling, published-by-fancy-dancy-publishers books. I’ve read them multiple times and I get new inspiration every time.
These should be on your desk, getting dog-eared and spine-broken. If you’ve already read them, let this be a reminder to read ’em again.
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White
It’s immediately apparent why this little volume (105 pages) is in its fourth edition. Before you even buy it, you’ll notice that nearly every review on Amazon is five-star, studded with
“classic,” “a must,” “great book,” “the most valuable.”
Once you open it, you could get away with reading only White’s introduction, which is the perfect embodiment of the rules and style tips that follow.
Of course, though, you’ll want to read the rules of usage, which take up only 14 pages.
Compare that to your three-inch-thick freshman grammar handbook!
Despite S&W’s succinctness, you can usually find the answer to any grammar or punctuation question in those 14 pages. Rules are stated directly, as orders: “Do not join independent clauses with a comma,” then followed by short essays and right/wrong examples.
The remainder of the book details the case for “cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity” in composition, form, commonly misused words and expressions and style. Some of the topics include active voice, placing emphatic words at the end of a sentence, write with nouns and verbs and avoid qualifiers.
S&W has its witty moments, but does not clutter its pages with stories. When you need to find a specific rule or principle, you can find it quickly and easily. And you don’t have to read page after page to discern the essential idea. This makes The Elements of Style the quintessential writing guide—The Writer’s Bible. I’m on my second copy.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
King is sometimes called a hack because a horror writer can’t possibly be a good writer, can he? It doesn’t help that he litters his books with the f-word. However, being among the top 10 best-selling authors of all time, with 350 million books sold, argues otherwise. So do I.
King is a master of his craft.
There are no better characters than Chris in The Body (made into a movie as Stand By Me) and Andy and Red in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption; the plotting in The Shining makes it one of the most chilling haunted house stories ever.
On Writing ranks up there with King’s best.
The first half is memoir—a poignant example for struggling writers, as it reveals the paycheck-to-paycheck trailer living, janitorial work and nailed-to-the-wall rejections King suffered before finally publishing Carrie (which only happened after his wife plucked it from the trash) and his later addictions and near-fatal accident. About never giving up, he writes,
“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”
Most people will be intrigued by the look into the average man who writes such disturbing yet compelling tales.
The second half of the book is a master-class writing manual that pushes King’s revered Strunk and White to the back of the shelf. The former high school writing teacher imbues advice on character, description, theme, narration, grammar and vocabulary with in-your-face irreverence: e.g.,
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
He offers tips S&W don’t (such as the proper way to use fragments and run-ons and that a fast pace is not always best for a story), and he’s more fun to read. The section on technique takes on particular significance once you’ve read how King finally made it as an author.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
This is the advice Anne Lamott gives readers who ask how to write, and what gives the book its title. Reading the book is like reading a stream of amusing anecdotes about her life growing up in California in a home her father turned into a writing salon.
The anecdotes serve as metaphors for the writing techniques she explains. For example,
“I know I set out to tell you every single thing I know about writing, but I am also going to tell you every single thing I know about school lunches, partly because the longings and dynamics and anxieties are so similar.”
She writes that opening your lunchbag is really about laying bare your inner self and letting everyone see whether you are “okay,” just as you do when you write. Lamott says everyone writes “shitty first drafts,” and that “[i]f one of the characters wants to say, ‘Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?’ you let her.”
Lamott serves up a different type of advice than S&W and King. She doesn’t offer grammar rules or how to write dialogue. Rather, each chapter discusses one overarching idea. In “School Lunches,” the idea is to avoid getting overwhelmed trying to come up with a big, important idea to write about. The most mundane moments of your life—school lunches—offer insights to the big questions, and will get you past any writing block.
As a writer, I’ve found that pondering these ideas is as important as—or more than—learning new techniques.
Lamott makes it all a wonder, rather than a chore. I didn’t want her stories to end, and went out and bought more of her books to continue feeling the magic.
Please comment below—I’d love to hear what you think of these books, if you’ve read them. Or, which have I inspired you to read? Also, please let us know which books on writing have been invaluable to you.