Building My Bookshelf

When you want to be a writer, there are two things the wise tell you to do. One, first and foremost, is write. According to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success, it takes 10,000 hours to become a master. The second thing to do, of course, is read. But not just anything – it makes quite a difference what you read.
The New Yorker is a given. Poets & Writers Magazine is a popular one. Certain literary journals, which can be found in the magazine section at Borders for easy research. Of course, the Writer’s Market.

The classics are always a good place to begin – learn from the greats. Thanks to my English major education, I have a head start: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, not to mention various required Spenserian and Elizabethan lit courses. I also took a Greek mythology course, so I’m up on my Homer and Euripides too. My reading list is peppered with all the things I managed to skip. I, like many fellow English majors, became accomplished in the art of BS – taking exams and acing them, on books I hadn’t actually read. I admit there is some Joyce I have yet to tackle.
When my writers’ group asked me to put together a brief book list, I came up with the following. My mentor suggested most of these books, which have been – and surely will continue to be – instrumental in my journey:

1. The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Commonly known as “Strunk and White.” Possibly the simplest, most straightforward grammar guide ever. I “borrowed” my sister’s gorgeous, red fabric, hardcover copy, which was given to her by one of our aunts. The illustrations make the grammar much easier to take in.
2. The Art of Fiction, John Gardner
On Becoming A Novelist,
John Gardner
This stuff is dense. And brilliant. When I first tried to read him, I couldn’t connect. I went back to it as I began to pursue writing and encounter the struggles involved. Everything made so much sense. It was amazing to discover something that so perfectly described what I was dealing with.
3. On Writing, Stephen King

A much easier read than the Gardner. Having read only two short stories of his, I won’t weigh in on whether or not King’s work is “literature,” but the guy is undeniably prolific. And he sells. My favorite pieces of advice: no adverbs, and don’t give up (I love the nail of rejection slips that turned into a stake!).
4. Story, Robert McKee
This is technically a film bible, but it holds true for fiction – plot techniques, character voice, etc. The examples are more helpful when you’ve seen the movies discussed, but overall they make the book much easier to understand.
5. Writing Fiction, Gotham Writers’ Workshop
If I’m ever stuck, this is a great place to go for prompts. It also includes fundamentals of writing. It is definitely worth going through the whole thing, and then starting over again.
6. The Weekend Novelist, Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris
I love this guide because it takes you step-by-step. So far the way I write stories has been to just jump in, which makes editing both cathartic and excruciating. I can see that it makes a lot of sense to plan my novels before writing.

Beyond these, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given is, read things that are similar to what you wish to write. Discovering my genre is… under exploration.

2 thoughts on “Building My Bookshelf

  1. Omit needless words :). Why stop at standing on the shoulders of giants when you could use their work to fuel your rocket ship? Now show me that horizon.

  2. Thanks for the list 🙂 I'm definitely getting The Weekend Novelist and Story. Straczynski's book on scriptwriting is also a great source for those who want to write for film or television.

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