Four of My Favorite Books to Help you Become a Better Writer
I just started listening to Chuck Palahniuk’s Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different for the second time. I wanted to remind myself again to put into practice some of many sage tips he gives to writers. Tips that include: use multiple points of view, active verbs, short sentences, and nonverbal communication to reduce dialogue.
Being read, being published is the end game, but it’s the act of writing which is for me most important. Before we write we read. It’s my love of reading that drew me to writing. What better charge is there than finding the perfect assemblage of words to create in someone else’s mind- a feeling, a scene, a story. I’m addicted.
This is why I write. It’s the creative process I become emerged in that has me hooked. It’s an art form that evolves. And I always want to improve my craft. This means I’m always challenging myself to try different approaches and learn from other writers.
Each writer has different visions of what they’re striving to convey, but for me I’m seeking to find new ways to describe a scene and the inner thoughts and motivations of my characters. I listen to books on tape and also like to read words on paper. Helpful are a number of books on my shelf. About fifteen years ago I picked up Steven King’s bible for writers, On Writing, published in 2000. I bought it on the remainder table for one dollar. I think initially “literary writers” were dubious that the king of pop fiction would have useful advice, but now in 2021 his book is a favorite. Open the book to the section entitled “Toolbox” and you’ll receive sound advice like, “ Remember the basic rule of vocabulary is to use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.” In his section entitled “On Writing” King explains that he gets his writing impetus not from imagining What if?. “ A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can be expressed in the What-if question:
What is vampires invaded a small New England Village? ( Salem’s Lot)
What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight. ( Desperation)
Both Palahniuk and King emphasize the importance of reading other writer’s work, one of the best books to guide you in this is Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (2006). The book covers all the craft elements so important for all creative writers: close reading, words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, and gestures. What is most invaluable, in addition to all the books she cites throughout the text, is the reading list at the end. Yes, we may all be readers, but it is important to seek out unfamiliar authors who are masters of their craft. Best sellers come and go. Books fall in and out of favor and an important authors are forgotten. While many of the authors and books on her list I was familiar with, I got introduced to Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green and Denis Johnson (Yes, Denis Johnson who I selected for my in depth research MFA research project) thanks to Francine Prose.
Try not to repetitively read the same authors you like. Discover old and new talent.
I’ve got a number of books on writing in my library, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story and The Half-known World on Writing Fiction by Robert Boswell, but it seems that all these books are written by men. As more women and people of color take leadership roles in publishing, perhaps we’ll see books on writing from a more diverse group of authors. Meanwhile I will close with talking about one more favorite book, number four on my list. I’ve read Unless It Moves the Human Heart by Roger Rosenblatt (2011) several times. Rosenblatt’s book shares the writing process from the teacher’s viewpoint as he interacts with his students at Stony Brook University. He taught classes in poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction and what ensues is a thoughtful introspective dialogue that stimulates the reader to look at their own work with fresh eyes.
In closing I will repeat again for emphasis, read as well as write. You are never finished learning how to be a better writer. So what are you waiting for? Have you written, revised, and re-revised some stories today?
Follow Nadja Maril on twitter at SN Maril or read one of her short stories published this year. Here’s the link to Lovely in the literary magazine Instant Noodles.