Building Your Writer’s Craft Library

Books on the Writing Craft

Books by writers, for writers

Over the past year or so I’ve amassed an alarmingly large collection of books about the writing craft, all in the name of improving my skills. I justify this by a) reading the blurbs on these books from established authors who swear by them and b) reminding myself that to improve, you need to learn the craft of writing.

I thought I’d share a few of the books that had the biggest impact on me, whether the impact was in my writing skill, or in the way I thought about the writing life. I hope you find these books as helpful as I have!

Finding Your Writer’s Voice by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall:

Finding Your Writers VoiceFinding Your Writer’s Voice was recommended to me by my first creative writing teacher, Naomi K. Lewis, and I credit this book for helping me get my first story published. Finding Your Writer’s Voice covers everything from using your childhood and life experiences to drive your writing voice, to discussing first- vs. second- vs. third- person narratives and giving practical advice on how to create believable characters. Each chapter includes exercises and lots of tips. I devoured this book, and I’m certain I’ll be reading it again in the near future.

Read this book if: You feel like your characters are falling flat or could be more developed.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg:

Writing Down the BonesThis classic writer’s craft tome is classic for a reason: it’s darn good. Writing Down the Bones is one of the only writing-related books I have read more than once. Part workbook and part discussion of the writer-life,  Writing Down the Bones is designed to unblock creativity and get you writing. As other reviewers have mentioned, this book relies heavily on Zen philosophy, which worked for me, but could be challenging if that’s not something you’re into.

Read this book if: Your inner editor is taking over and sterilizing your writing.

The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell:

The Art of War for WritersI purchased The Art of War for Writers after hearing great things about it on Twitter and from other bloggers, and I was not disappointed! This book got me excited about writing. Each of the 77 short chapters are based on quips from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and filled with advice and encouragement for aspiring (and established) writers. In the introduction, James Scott Bell writes that he hoped to, “…fill in some of the ‘cracks’ in what is normally taught in writing books and classes,” and I believe he succeeds in doing so with The Art of War for Writers.

Read this book if: You want to be motivated to write and you want a honest advice on the publishing industry.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott:

Bird by BirdAnother oft-referenced writer’s craft book, Bird by Bird became one of my favourites because of its gentle encouragement and insight into the life of a great writer, Anne Lamott. I read Bird by Bird early in 2011, when I first started to take my writing seriously, and it helped me gain confidence and be realistic about the writing life. Perhaps the most famous chapter in Bird by Bird is ‘Shitty First Drafts.’ This chapter made me feel SO much better about my writing: it’s okay to write crappy first drafts because even famous writers do! Here’s a great article about the lesson behind Anne Lamott’s ‘Shitty First Drafts’ concept.

Read this book if: You want to build your confidence as a writer.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner:

The Art of FictionThe Art of Fiction was recommended by Jack Whyte at the When Words Collide conference in Calgary last year. Mr. Whyte’s deep voice and Scottish accent were too much to resist, and I bought the book the same day (side note, you can hear said accent on Jack’s website). Unlike several of my other favourite books on writing, The Art of Fiction is heavy on the ‘instructional’ side, rather than the ‘advice’ side. It’s technical and includes lots of exercises (some that are very challenging!), and I’m sure if I were to master this book, I’d be a much better writer.

Read this if: You want to improve your writing from a technical perspective (as opposed to a creativity perspective).

More Books on Writing:

Here are a few more books on writing that have helped me.

On Writing by Stephen King
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice for Writers by Betsy Lerner
The Right to Write & The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

If you’d like to read more about books on writing, check out these posts for more lists of writing resources:

The Best Books on Writing You’ll Ever Read from Jeff Goins
Gold-Plated How-To Resources from C. Hope Clark
My Favorite Fiction Writing Books from AdvancedFictionWriting.com (Randy Ingermanson)

Some News & A Request For Recommendations:

Before I sign-off, I wanted to mention two new short stories that I’ve been lucky enough to have published this week (best week ever!).

My short story Knit, Purl, Breathe was included on Fiction365.com on Thursday, April 5th. Here’s the synopsis and a link to read if you’re interested:

As Louisa struggles to understand her son’s sexuality, her tenuous marriage is strained to the breaking point. Louisa tries to spice up her relationship with ballroom dancing lessons, but when her radio-obsessed husband refuses, Louisa is left to find her own (unexpected) hobby. What she finds is not that her marriage or her son needs fixing, but that perhaps she’s capable of a lot more than she could have ever imagined. You can read Knit, Purl, Breathe here.

My super-short vignette, The Blemish Collector, was included in the second issue of Vine Leaves Literary Journal. You can read it on page five of the issue here. The story is short by creepy (“It will give you shivers,” the editors kindly wrote in the issue’s introduction).

Vine Leaves is a really neat journal: they are the only lit journal (that I’m aware of) that specifically publishes vignettes. Lots of great stories, poems and artwork in there if you’d like to check it out!

Finally, I’d love to hear what your favourite books on writing are! Does your bookshelf look a lot like mine, or do you have some gems I’ve yet to discover?

14 Responses to “Building Your Writer’s Craft Library”

  1. Thing Feigned or Imagined: The Craft of Fiction by Fred Stenson
    A Passion For Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction by Jack Hodgins
    Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You by Ray Bradbury
    Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King
    Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose

    And I can’t recommend enough three from your list above…
    On Writing by Stephen King
    Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott
    The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

    Thanks, Carrie, for this great list and the opportunity to add to it!

  2. Great resources, Carrie! Thanks!

    I also like Writing About Your Life by William Zinsser.

  3. I second the recommendation of “Forest for the Trees” and “On Writing”. However, “Bird by Bird” left me cold – I found it a bit too new-age-y for me.

    I heartily recommend “Beginnings, Middles and Ends” by Nancy Kress. In fact, I recently wrote a review of that book on my site: http://christinavasilevski.com/2012/03/2012-reading-challenge-book-8-beginnings-middles-and-ends/

    A friend of mine also recommends “Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore” by Elizabeth Lyon

    • Hi Christina!

      Thanks for the link to the review – I’ll be sure to check it out. I haven’t heard of Nancy Kress’ book before.

  4. Great book suggestions! I have a few of those and love them. There’s just something about collecting writing books that feels fun.

    • There really is something about collecting books on writing! I have to keep reminding myself that one also needs to READ the books on writing to get any true value from them ;) So many books, so little time!

  5. »Knit, Purl, Breathe« is a very, very beautiful story!
    I like the tone of your stories, and I do love your characters!

    I always get the feeling, that I am only scratching on the surface, that every character is very, very deep and that there is much more to it than meets the eye during the first reading. I love this. Thank you so much for giving the links!

    Now, about the books:
    I was given Julia Cameron’s »The Artist’s Way« as a Christmas Present last year, and I have owned »The Right to Write« for about two years … Both are wonderful, inspiring books I have to look into again, because at the moment, I am not writing enough, and I am having kind of a low-time … *sigh*

    Then there is a German book I can recommend, that deals with academic writing. It is called »Frei geschrieben« and is, basically, an adaptation of Julia Cameron’s methods to academic writing – an awesome book! :)

    About Natalie Goldberg’s books – I know that she is a celebrated writer and that her books are recommended often. I have read »Writing at cafés« (if that’s the original title), however, and it didn’t do me any good – maybe, because I misunderstood her.

    While I was reading her book, I got the impression that you HAVE to write nonstop as a writer, if you ever want to make something of it – ever. So there is no time for other hobbies, because every spare moment should/could be spent writing … and that was too much pressure for me, I became all stressed out.

    But thanks for the other books! I’ll try and check them out. :D

    Take care!
    Julia :)

    • Hi Julia!

      Thanks so much for your kind words about Knit, Purl, Breathe! That was a tough story to write, so I really appreciate it :)

      Don’t be too hard on yourself about being in a ‘low time’ with you’re writing – perhaps you’re just gathering your creative forces to come back and write something fantastic!

      The first time I read Natalie Goldberg and the second time were quite different for me (they were also 10 years apart, so perhaps that had something to do with it). I’ve found that I have read other books on writing that people raved about and they didn’t resonate with me. Thank goodness there are lots of books on writing! :)

      Nice to hear from you and good luck with your studies!

  6. Hi, Carrie — I found your blog in my Google reader (I set an alert for “craft of writing). How wonderful to have your work published! I’ve recently restarted my writing life and have a growing collection of books. William Zinsser’s On Writing has been the most helpful so far. I just finished Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell (excellent) and am about to begin Character, Emotion, and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. These two are part of Writer’s Digest’s “Write Great Fiction” series. Another must-have is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, the classic on grammar. I have a list on the Writer’s Toolbox page on my blog, if you’d like to take a look. Happy reading!

    • Hello Darla! It’s so nice to meet you.

      I have had my eye on James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure; I’m glad to hear it was helpful! I’ll have to check out Character, Emotion and Viewpoint as well. I’m off to check out your Writers Toolbox now!