48 Books on Writing for Writers

Thank you to everyone who has helped to add to this growing list. Please leave more ideas in the comments, and happy reading and writing!

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron

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

Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, by Charles Baxter

The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, by Ralph Keyes

Creating Character Emotions: Writing Compelling, Fresh Approaches that Express your Characters’ True Feelings, by Ann Hood

Don’t Murder Your Mystery and Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, both by Chris Roerden

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White

Elements of Writing Fiction: Characters & Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card

Elements Of Writing Fiction: Scene & Structure, by Jack M. Bickham

The Emotional Craft of Fiction, by by Donald Maass

Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True, by Elizabeth Berg

The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art, by Joyce Carol Oates

The Fire in Fiction, by Donald Maass

The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman

The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction, Volume 1: Building Blocks

Immediate Fiction, by Jerry Cleaver

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Lie that Tells a Truth, by John Dufresne

The Little Red Writing Book: For Writing Aficionados from all Walks of Life!, by Brandon Royal

Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, by Natalie Goldberg

On Writing, by Stephen King

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft, by Susan M. Tiberghien

Page after Page: Discover the Confidence & Passion You Need to Start Writing & Keep Writing (no matter what), by Heather Sellers

A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver

Publish Your Nonfiction Book, by Sharlene Martin and Anthony Flacco

The Right to Write, by Julia Cameron

Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, by Blake Snyder

The Scene Book, by Sandra Scofield

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne & Dave King

Shut Up & Write!, by Judy Bridges

Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life, edited by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz

Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life, by Terry Brooks

Starting from Scratch, by Rita Mae Brown

Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield

Wonderbook:The Illustrative Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, by Jeff VanderMeer

Words Are My Matter, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Writer’s Little Helper, by James V. Smith, Jr.

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, by Hallie Ephron

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg

Writing Great Books for Young Adults: Everything You Need to Know, from Crafting the Idea to Landing a Publishing Deal, by Regina Brooks

The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard

Writing Picture Books, by Ann Whitford Paul

Writing Spiritual Books, by Hal Zina Bennett

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maass

Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, by Peter Elbow

This post is part of the Summer Writing Reset blog series, with daily posts Monday through Friday. Subscribe to receive full-length new posts in your inbox or catch them on my Facebook page.

Coffee and Oranges: Sunday Links for Readers and Writers

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair…

Sunday Morning,” by Wallace Stevens

David Foster Wallace’s Advice to College Graduates

If you read or watch nothing else in this week’s list of links, devote ten minutes to this 2005 speech given by David Foster Wallace to Kenyon College graduates:

Sunny Orange

Carl Sagan’s Undergrad Reading List: 40 Essential Texts for a Well-Rounded Thinker

From Open Culture: “There are some heady scientific texts here, to be sure. But also some great works from the Western philosophical and literary tradition. We’re talking Plato’s Republic, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, The Bible, Gide’s The Immoralist, and Huxley’s Young Archimedes. It’s just the kind of texts you’d expect a true humanist like Sagan — let alone a UChicago grad — to be fully immersed in.” Read More

Brain, Interrupted

From the New York Times: “Clifford Nass, a Stanford sociologist who conducted some of the first tests on multitasking, has said that those who can’t resist the lure of doing two things at once are ‘suckers for irrelevancy.’ There is some evidence that we’re not just suckers for that new text message, or addicted to it; it’s actually robbing us of brain power, too. Tweet about this at your own risk.” Read More

CuppaDaily Rituals of the World’s Most Creative People

From Fast Company: “You can’t just work constantly on something that requires a high degree of focus and creative energy, whether it’s writing or composing or painting. No one can do it nonstop for hours on end. Taking a nap and drinking coffee were typical. Igor Stravinsky would do a headstand. Thomas Wolfe had the weird fondling-himself habit. Walking seems the most common, especially among composers. Composers all seemed to take a long walk every day.”  Read More

Wooden ChairGeorge Saunders: My Desktop

From The Guardian: “I’m not easily distracted, as a rule. Especially where writing is concerned. But I have noticed, over the last few years, the very real (what feels like) neurological effect of the computer and the iPhone and texting and so on – it feels like I’ve re-programmed myself to become discontent with whatever I’m doing faster. So I’m trying to work against this by checking emails less often, etc etc. It’s a little scary, actually, to observe oneself getting more and more skittish, attention-wise.  Read More

Can spring be far behind? Or, a different happiness

“A writer is dear and necessary for us only in the measure of which he reveals to us the inner workings of his very soul.” ~ Leo Tolstoy

Ge_TolstoyEveryone is talking about the prolonged winter weather. On this second day after the vernal equinox, with spring break and baseball’s opening day only days away, we are still dealing with icy sidewalks and mounds of frozen, dirty snow. When I woke up yesterday morning and realized that the wind chills were in single digits, the phrase “can Spring be far behind?” came into my mind like a gift, without my bidding. While the poem the words come from, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” is about autumn, the final lines give shape to my current feelings:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither’d leaves, to quicken a new birth;
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Last night in class we talked about Tolstoy’s theory of happiness and read sections from his short story/novella “Family Happiness:”

“I often lie awake at night from happiness, and all the time I think of our future life together. I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor—such is my idea of happiness. And then, on the top of all that, you for a mate, and children perhaps—what more can the heart of man desire?”

I was happy; but I took that as a matter of course, the invariable experience of people in our position, and believed that there was somewhere, I knew not where, a different happiness, not greater but different.

To love him was not enough for me after the happiness I had felt in falling in love.

…I was in excellent spirits. They had once been even higher at Nikolskoye, when my happiness was in myself and came from the feeling that I deserved to be happy, and from the anticipation of still greater happiness to come. That was a different state of things…

Below is a clip from Into the Wild, in which the main character, Christopher McCandless, reads from “Family Happiness” on his quest to reveal the inner workings of his soul.

What lines from literature stay with you to reveal your thoughts and feelings?


The Brain Science of Cliches

Dead as a doornail. We’ve all heard the cliche, but what does reading it do to your brain?

According to some neuroscience research, not much.

In the AWP 2013 session “This Is Your Brain on Fiction,” Susan Hubbard discussed the 2012 New York Times article, “Your Brain on Fiction,” which references several recent studies of how our brains respond not only to literature in general but to metaphors specifically. Metaphors—comparisons between dissimilar things or ideas—add depth and complexity to our writing. When a metaphor is overused, however, it becomes a cliché—hackneyed, meaningless, dead as a doornail.

In “From novel to familiar: Tuning the brain for metaphors,” published in NeuroImage in February, 2012, researchers suggest that as metaphors become commonplace, our brains lose interest and show decreased activity in not just the meaning-making right hemisphere but in the language-centered left hemisphere, as well. We read a cliché as though it were literal, without any added mental activity on our part. Fresh, new metaphors, however, “require suppression of the literal sense of the sentence” because we must understand abstraction or similarities drawn between otherwise unrelated domains (E.R. Cardillo et al., NeuroImage 59 (2012) 3219).

It’s the difference between the phrase “the sea was angry,” which we read literally because we have heard it so often, without anthropomorphizing the sea in our mind, and the words uttered by George in a famous Seinfeld episode, “The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.”

Readers, writers, and teachers have known for a long time that clichés flatten language and meaning, and science is now showing us the how and why. This research doesn’t change what makes writing powerful, but it might poke us into taking the extra time to write with more care .

7364908998_3e96afb6ccWhat does dead as a doornail mean, anyway? Used as long ago as the 14th century in Langland’s Piers Plowman, the phrase probably refers to large nails used in doors, as Gary Martin explains:

“Doornails are the large-headed studs that were used in earlier times for strength and more recently as decoration. The practice was to hammer the nail through and then bend the protruding end over to secure it. This process, similar to riveting, was called clenching. This may be the source of the ‘deadness’, as such a nail would be unusable afterwards.”

Being dead as a doornail implies that something is no longer usable for another purpose. And, with that, the commonplace metaphor becomes fresh again, at least for a little while.

Brain scan photo (header) by Tim Sheerman-Chase: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_uk/. Nail photo by Stewart Black: http://www.flickr.com/photos/s2ublack/. Both photos made available by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.