I love reading about writing. Despite having gobbled up dozens of craft and inspiration books over the years, I’m never sure when a new approach or even just a new description of something I already know will spark one of those “Ah-ha” moments, or help me see my manuscript or my craft in a new way.
There are zillions of books about writing short stories and novels, but sometimes, the books that spark the most “ah-ha” moments aren’t about fiction prose at all. Stepping outside the field in which I’m so immersed often leads to interesting and unexpected perspectives and ideas.
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
by William Zinsser
This book is amazing. The first time I read it, I cursed myself for forgetting a pen — there were too many sections I wanted to underline, highlight, commit to memory, burn into my brain. Zinsser speaks about style in the way I’d always thought about it, but had never articulated. An example of one bit that stuck with me:
Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself. No rule, however, is harder to follow. It requires writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.
No, we can’t always “be ourselves” when we’re writing fiction, but slightly modified, we can strive to be true to ourselves, and to our voices.
I also loved his chapters on writing about people, places, science and technology, and sports. As fiction writers, we often cover all that ground in the course of a single novel.
by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge
My friend Sally gave me this one back in 2001 and inscribed it, “For Jenn, who loves the importance of words.” And that’s what this book is, it’s a word love fest. The focus is supposedly poetry, but it feels more like a book about creativity, about playfulness, about celebrating communication and writing and art and yes, words.
Stuck for a story idea? You might try one of the numerous exercises in this book for a different way to jumpstart your brain. Here’s a brief section on the importance of names:
Last week I watched a juggler using rods to toss other rods like wands over his head at One Mile. I asked if there was a name for the sticks clicking in the air. In America, he said, they’re called “Twiddle Sticks.” That’s innocent enough. But in China, he explained, where the sticks come from, they’re called either devil sticks or flower sticks. When the juggler said devil sticks, my perception shifted and for a moment the sticks looked sharp and their clatter sounded sinister. When he called them flower sticks, the rods suddenly looped into a daisy in the air.”
Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need
by Blake Snyder
This is a recent addition to my writing-craft playlist, and has quickly become my go-to inspiration book for structure and plot. Novels are far more forgiving than movie screenplays as a medium, so we don’t have to be as strict as Snyder suggests. For me, there is something wonderfully freeing about structure. It’s like finding the architecturally perfect house so I can have fun playing with the interior design.
(Caveat: I am a plotter, and outliner, a planner. People less inclined in those areas may not enjoy this nearly as much.)
I also really like how Snyder talks about theme and stakes and transitions between acts. It’s not the high-level philosophy that you find in a lot of prose-writing books, but practical advice that you can use or ignore as you see fit. Snyder says there should be line elucidating your theme by page 10 of your screenplay. That the break between Act I and Act II should involve the characters physically stepping into a different situation. That there are certain places in the screenplay where you must explicitly raise the stakes, remind viewers (readers) of the bad guys, and move towards your finish line.
Yes, it’s way too specific for most of us and certainly doesn’t apply to all of our projects. But does it make you think? Oh, yeah. In all sorts of awesome ways.
I know I haven’t exhausted all the cross-pollination possibilities! Please, talk to me about writing books you love, especially if they have nothing to do with short stories or novels. Bonus points if they’re craft books that have nothing to do with writing at all!