Sometimes when I get writer’s block, I don’t do what I know would be most helpful: Just.Keep.Writing. Instead, I decide I need to read another book on writing, because that will surely help. Let’s be honest: no amount of reading is going to help when what you really need is to get your ass in front of the computer and just write.
BUT, books on writing are invaluable in the grand scheme of things. So as long as you’re reading them to improve your craft instead of to avoid your craft, then have at it. These are the best books on writing I’ve read so far.
1. On Writing
This was the first real book on writing (haha) that I ever read, so it holds a special place in my heart. Besides, Stephen King has sold literally millions of books, so he must know what he’s talking about to a certain extent. It’s heavy on the autobiographical stuff up front, but you could always just skip that part. Once he really starts talking about writing, it’s good stuff. He points out a lot of the errors that amateur writers make, and gives some good tools for how to avoid those mistakes. It’s a pretty solid first book on writing.
2. Revision and Self-Editing for Publication
This is my favorite book on the nuts and bolts of writing. Some of the other books I’ve read (which I’ll mention soon) are great when you want to philosophize about the art of it all. But when you just want someone to tell you how to do it better, god dammit, this book is great. I know it’s called “Revision and Self-Editing” but it would be helpful to read even before you start writing. And in the middle of writing. And definitely once you’re trying desperately to revise your writing. He has several other books, most of which are just deeper looks into topics he covers in this book. So read this one first and then decide if you need any of the others. (This book is mostly for people writing novels, not shorter pieces. But it might be valuable no matter what.)
3. Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction
Again, even though it’s called “Revision” you should pick it up before you start writing. This one is a little less technical, but still full of great advice. He’s focused on short story writing, so if that’s your thing, this is definitely your book. But even if you’re writing novels (or something else) a lot of what he says will be valuable. This was the first book I really read about the Revision process, and I loved it because he kept saying over and over again: “First drafts suck”. They’re supposed to suck. It’s their place in the Universe. Your job as a writer is to write as many more drafts as it takes to make the piece terrific. It’s advice I’ve heard a lot since then, but he really made me believe it in this book.
4. The Plot Whisperer
This is my second favorite book on writing. She talks about the Universal Story and your own journey as a writer, so it might be a little too, I don’t know, spiritual for some people. But I found it to be incredibly helpful as I was working through my plot. I’m not an outliner and have never really been into any of the “draw a diagram”, “chart your scenes” advice I’ve read online. But she suggests doing a plot planner and I honestly found it to be such an amazing process. She explains how to do it for both plot-driven and character-driven books, and she has some other useful exercises as well. I would suggest this book for anyone who’s having trouble with a weak or muddled plot.
5. On Becoming a Novelist
This is one of those books that is about “writing” the way that a book about the exhilaration of skydiving is about “skydiving”. It’s not a how-to manual. It’s a “this is why you should put aside your fears and just do it” manual. So if you haven’t fully committed to becoming a novelist, pick up this book and see if you’re ready. But be warned: it’s pretty snooty. John Gardner would say that Stephen King doesn’t even count as a novelist – only people writing great novels count in his book. Okay, I get it, there’s art and then there’s commercial fiction. But honestly, Stephen King tells a damn good story, unlike James Joyce in Ulysses. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Ulysses, but if every book were like that I’d never read. Most people just want to read a good story and there’s nothing wrong with that. So don’t let John Gardner scare you off.
6. The Art of Fiction
Similar to On Becoming a Novelist, but with a little more focus on the how-to. Still though, not nearly as helpful when push comes to shove as the two Revision books above. If you’re feeling like you need a little more poetry in your book and you want to get yourself in that mood, this is a good book for that. Otherwise, don’t psych yourself out.