Books On Writing

Oscar Wilde once said, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”

Writing as an art can’t be taught, and even though Creative Writing courses and workshops undoubtedly help writers grow, writing is a solitary process, and it’s up to each individual to reach within the confines of his mind for answers.

Writers are unique to the extent that even if someone would try to replicate the same career a fellow writer had, he would most likely fail to achieve the same success. A lot of factors come to play in this, including luck, and blindly following a writer’s advice is not the most suitable of actions. What worked for him might not work for you. Instead, you should absorb the rules others have used before you and change them according to your own style and needs.

There are no maps to guide you in this journey. All you get are some folks who are more than happy to help you find your way from time to time.

Stephen King – On Writing

“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.”

Part memoir, part guide for aspiring writers, The King is extremely honest in this book of his. He offers some advice on the technics of writing, but he also underlines the importance of determination and perseverance.

The tools required to write great fiction can’t be borrowed or bought – they have to be acquired through hard work.

Anne Lamott – Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.”

Anne Lamott’s guide on writing is extremely helpful for the struggling writer – the biggest lesson she teaches in her book is that sometimes we fail to write the book we set to write, and often we fail to see the difference between what’s in our head and what’s on paper. Bird by Bird is an honest, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, account of Anne Lammott’s own career. A must read for any aspiring writer.

Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. For writing allows just the proper recipes of truth, life, reality as you are able to eat, drink, and digest without hyperventilating and flopping like a dead fish in your bed.”

Ray Bradbury’s legacy is far greater than just the dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451. From reading his novels and short stories I got the impression that, of all the wonderful writers in the world, he loved reading books more than anyone else on the planet. He loved writing them too, no doubt about it, but to me Fahrenheit 451 stands as the ultimate proclamation of love.

Zen in the Art of Writing is a collection of essays and articles on the art of writing from one of the most prolific and successful writers of our time.

John Steinbeck – Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters

“I feel that sometimes when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness.  Then time does change its manner and minutes disappear into the cloud of time which is one thing, having only one duration.  I have thought that if we could put off our duration-preoccupied minds, it might be that time has no duration at all.”

Written between January, 29 and October 31, 1951, Journal of a Novel is comprised of a series of letters written by the great novelist to his friend and editor, Pascal Covici. They offer valuable insight into the creative process of one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. They weren’t meant for publication, and maybe that’s why this book is my favorite from this list – great artists are rarely perceived as simple men and not some machines that churn out one brilliant novel after another.

Mario Vargas Llosa – Letters to a Young Novelist

“That is one thing I am sure of amid my many uncertainties regarding the literary vocation: deep inside, a writer feels that writing is the best thing that ever happened to him, or could ever happen to him, because as far as he is concerned, writing is the best possible way of life, never mind the social, political, or financial rewards of what he might achieve through it.”

Novel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa dissects many of the world’s best stories in a an attempt at helping young writers better understand their urge to write. It’s, in a way, the exact opposite of Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s not as much a visceral approach on writing, as it is a sentimental one, in which writing is viewed as the almost obsessive passion that it is. It’s not a guide on writing, it’s a guide on how to understand great literature and those who write it.

William Strunk, E.B. White – The Elements of Style

“Instead of announcing what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so.”

Technically a style guide, this little book has been helping writer for almost a century. If you want to write that perfect sentence, to make it so that no clumsiness can affect your story, this is the perfect book for you.

I once wrote that the world of art is like building a pyramid. Each writer adds one more brick or stone, relying on what others before him built. It’s a sinuous process, and it can lead to many frustrations along the years, but in the end, you’re helping art evolve, you’re changing history one layer at a time, helping mankind grow. But then, in the same story, I changed my mind. Maybe some artist are more like revolutionaries. They stare at what they predecessors built, and regardless of their infinite admiration, they choose to build a new monument, to change the rules of the game according to their own desires; though it’s worth remembering that you can’t change the world unless you know how it works.

Sometimes I think that you don’t become a writer. You are born one. Sometimes I believe in the opposite.

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24 comments on “Books On Writing

  1. Binki says:

    Thanks for the recommendations Christian

  2. redtearsblackwings says:

    I’ve always thought of writing as being our best and most destructive coping mechanism for the things that happen to us. I look at what I wrote when I was trapped in an abusive environment and see how truly horrible my thoughts where. This of course gave me an out let for actions that would otherwise have been very dangerous. On the flip side my complete withdrawal into my writing resulted in me not really being ‘present’ in the real life I was living, as a result I have very fragmented memories and that causes it’s own set of issues.
    Being able to write well, to make people feel something simply by words is both a curse and a blessing.

  3. I really enjoyed On Writing. King has a real knack for connecting with readers (THIS reader, anyway).

    I have about a billion books on writing, editing, storybuilding, etc, all jammed onto bookshelves in my office. But Bird By Bird is definitely one of my absolute favorites!

    The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield is one I liked that I didn’t see on here. Check it out if you’re so inclined! :)

  4. Gloria says:

    This is a good list and spot-on comments. I would also recommend Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino, written the last year of his life as his gift to the writers who would be. I go back to it all of the time for inspiration and insights.

  5. Kim13 says:

    Perfect timing for this review…I had a copy of “On Writing”, but after many moves, I’m not sure it’s still here. However, just reading the quotes from all the books has given me inspiration…and a new idea. Thanks so much!

  6. Great list of books, and I love the quotes. I too wonder sometimes if we’re born or made, and maybe it’s a little of both.

  7. muggleinconverse says:

    The Mario Vargas Llosa quote makes me want to cry. I do feel like writing is the best thing that happened to me, inside my head.

  8. Juan Ayza says:

    Hi Christian! Thank you very much for such a useful article. Wish you many readers this Christmas Season, happiness and love. Keep up!

  9. nyreadergurl says:

    These books are useful, for sure, but they will by no means turn you into a successful writer on their own accord. You either are or you aren’t. There is no magic formula.

  10. nyreadergurl says:

    My favorite writing advice has been “Write drunk, edit sober.”

  11. cardamone5 says:

    Love your comments, and the books you reviewed. Haven’t read them all, so I thank you for introducing me to them.

    Sometime while writing my memoir, I found my own voice. It is at times braggart (a legacy from my father), at times intensely vulnerable (when my truth shines through and leaves me feeling buzzed) and at times goofy (my clumsy attempt at humor.) But, it is mine, and I am so glad to have found it. It reconnected me to a part of myself I haven’t felt since childhood, the spontaneous, creative, optimistic side.

    My mission now is to carry over this part into other areas of my life, such as when I am interacting with my children.

    I think writing provided me with the key to happiness in all areas of my life. There is no monetary compensation that could top that, but it would be great to get published!

    Thank you for your thoughtful, inspiring words.

    Best regards,
    Elizabeth

  12. JL says:

    This is a great list of books about writing that are as pleasurable to read as any fiction. Good list. Self Aware. Cheers!

  13. Good selection, Cristian. My favorite remains Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. The author uses a selection of writers, their books, and some specific passages to illustrate the various creative writing steps. She doesn’t believe much in writing theory and rules but helps us to learn how to read in order to write well. I find this book inspirational and very concrete, too, which is not always the case for books about the craft of writing.
    She would agree with your sentence “You don’t become a writer.” But she also believe that you can become a better writer.

  14. This was a fantastic article, thank you :) I’ve had King’s ‘On Writing’ on my shelf for years, I need to open it and start reading!

  15. Great books! However I always write best after I’ve lived. Experiences with people help me greatly in my friction. It can take a quiet cabin in the woods to write a novel, but to push a novel or blog to the top takes a community. You’ve fostered a great one here! Thanks for the post.

  16. The Mario Vargas Llosa quote is beautiful. I will definitely have to pick up “Letters to a Young Novelist,” maybe after Christmas.

    If I may recommend a book on writing, I have enjoyed reading “Stein On Writing,” by writer and editor Sol Stein. While the book covers nonfiction in addition to fiction, it is still quite good and well worth a read, in my opinion.

    -Tim

  17. another great blog! i love so many of the books you list, but one of my faves is missing. i wish i had read “self-editing for fiction writers” by browne and king a decade ago. it is one of the greatest.

  18. nhonnhoi says:

    They all interesting. Ho dear, I think it time to pay for books again T-T

  19. I have read some of the books on your list, and I’ll look into the others. I would also recommend “If You Want to Write” by Brenda Euland. She doesn’t worry herself with grammar or spelling but taps into the soul of writing.

  20. You have to have the elements of style. I also recommend 8 ways to bring fiction to life. I forget the author’s name, but it has really helped me.

  21. Payal says:

    Thanks for enlightening us Cristian.
    Good Day.

  22. 1moreattempt says:

    Just when I was about to give up… thanks for recommendations!

  23. ernestwhile says:

    I was delighted to see Bird by Bird here. It was a late 20s gift to me and wonderful. I should probably go read it again.

  24. So kind of you Christian…thanks for the recommendations. Bless your darling heart.

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