Books on writing are dangerous things. They hold a small but powerful trap hidden in their pages – the illusion that I am furthering my writing without having to come up with a single word.
The bait is doubly seductive. There is the promise of becoming a better writer. And it’s wrapped in the writer’s equivalent of Turkish delight – a book. I am weak. In the walk-in closet I converted into my office, my shelves bow under the weight of writing books, and I know I’m not alone. I recently talked with a woman who confessed that while she was still somewhat fearful of putting pen to paper, she had her own lovely collection of books about how to do it.
But we should not be entirely ashamed. Writing books have their place. Books like The Artist’s Way and Wild Minds helped me realized I really did want to write fiction. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life and E.M Forster’s Aspects of the Novel helped me to take my efforts more seriously. I’ve read everything from the inspirational to the academic, books on grammar, literary criticism, structure and form, and the literary life. And I keep them all on the shelf.
But a few I keep closer, within an arm’s length of my keyboard.
Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. If I could only have one book in the world, this would be it. I can’t begin to describe what a heavenly book this is. Words fail me.
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, two volumes. I covet the real, 20-volumne OED, but without the money or space, I’m incredibly grateful for this shorter edition. It even came with a DVD that enabled me to download it onto my computer.
Love Medicine, Beloved, The Shipping News, Cold Mountain. These are a few of my very favorite novels, but when I open them to random pages I am reminded that there is no pixie dust sprinkled on their pages -- they are just made up of words. Even Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich have to occasionally write something as mundane as “she said.”
The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. As a novelist and former journalist, I lean toward the linear, the logical. The exercises in this book have led me to surprising creative places. And the truth is, while my favorite novelists sometimes use mundane words, it is rare. They write like poets -- every word counts.
Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass. Usually I’m not big on the “formula for success,” but this one very succinctly and convincingly looks at why readers care about certain characters, how plots pull them in, and why universal themes can add depth. It then gives concrete advice on how to achieve these goals. Maybe it should have all been obvious to me without this book, but no such luck.
On Writing, Stephen King. This is almost embarrassing to mention because it has become so ubiquitous, just like all of King’s writing. Is there any aspiring novelist out there who hasn’t read it yet? I own it both in paperback and audio, with King reading it himself. A gritty, funny, incredible reminder of the realities of doing what you love.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Rennie Browne and Dave King. A very practical, fiction-specific handbook. I took several of their points and combed through my novel with them in mind. The changes, I think, definitely improved the manuscript.
Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See. This is one of my newest favorites. Among other great advice, she says that every day, five days a week for the rest of your life, you should send a note of gratitude to an author. I haven’t been that diligent, but on her urging, I reached out to a few of my favorite writers and told them “Thank you.” Including Carolyn See herself, who emailed me back! We’ve written to each other a few times now, and I am incredibly grateful for her encouragement.
These are just a few of my favorites, but I’m sure I could squeeze a few more into my office. Any suggestions?
Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel THE SNOW CHILD is set to be published next winter by Little, Brown & Co. She is a bookseller at Fireside Books in Palmer.