Make Your Writer’s Bookshelf Work For You

by Jenny Hansen

What do you do when you need help with your writing?

I don’t mean when you can’t find the right word or phrase…my critique partner, Sharla Rae, did an excellent job of solving that issue in her “Writing Antifreeze” post a few weeks back.

No, what I’m talking about is the books that:

  • Teach you how to create great characters and riveting scenes
  • Give you the deepest dose of Craft
  • Break down the info into concepts that writers of all abilities understand
  • Provide inspiration when you just want to quit this writing gig, lay down your pen and go work at Kinko’s

Below are the special books that I’ve found – the ones I refer to all the time, the ones I re-read every year or so and the ones that are on my bookshelf to be read as soon as I have time.

Note: I know that in this economy, you might blanch at some of these prices – remember I’ve had years to accumulate these books and most of them are available via eReader or at the library.

Books To Inspire

The first book I ever read on writing was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Though Wild Mind is also great, it was Writing Down the Bones that made me believe, for the first time, that I could actually be a writer. Goldberg believes that “trusting your own mind is essential for writing as words come out of the mind.”

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is another classic must-read. I’ve loved every non-fiction book she’s ever written and, when I saw she was speaking at UCLA with Elizabeth Gilbert a few years back, I made the trip up there. She’s what I’d call a writer’s writer – funny, informative, vulnerable and nurturing.

Not only does Lamott give you “permission to write crap,” she also gives stellar brainstorming advice such as:

  • “Keep a one inch picture frame on your desk to remind yourself that for each moment, you only have to write as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame.”
  • In other words, when a whole project is overwhelming, break it into little pieces or as she says, “don’t try to eat the elephant in one sitting.”

Especially if you are in that dark place, where you fear ever being able to write again, please pick up anything by Julia Cameron. Even though she puts you on a reading moratorium in The Artist’s Way, Cameron coaxes you gently out of any creative slump. Somehow she infuses the ailing artist with the courage to open that notebook or computer file that has them paralyzed. Her book, The Sound of Paper, is the reason why I dedicated 2011 to Showing Up For My Writing. She’s given me (and thousands of other writers) the nerve to create again.

Pen On Fire by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett is a very helpful book for any writer who is short on time. I’ve also had the pleasure of hearing her speak in person and here are some things she said that stayed with me:

  1. No one is born published
  2. People don’t start out as writers
  3. It only takes one ‘yes’ to get you started
  4. Start wherever you can.

Last but not least on the inspiration front, Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing is a lovely read. Whenever I need to read great writing, I pick up any book by Hemingway or Bradbury and read a sentence or two. It helps set the tone that I need to sit my butt down,  straighten up, and stop being lazy for that session at the desk. These two are brilliant.

Informative Books on the Writing Life

There are two writers who never fail to inspire me about the brass tacks business of writing. They give real insight about how to set your expectations as you push your stories (which we love like our children) out into the big, bad world.

Who are these brilliant sages? Stephen King andDavid Morrell.

If you haven’t read King’s On Writing or Morrell’s Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, I highly recommend that you at least check them out from the library or get them on a Kindle loan. It will be an informative experience for you, whether you love them like I do or not.

Writing Craft

For sink-your-teeth-into concepts on how to get a story moving, it’s hard to do better than:

My final MUST-read recommendation in this category is Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval. I’ve been surprised by how little I hear her name bandied about on the OMG-you-gotta-read-this list.

Building Fiction was the first book I read that really explained internal vs. external conflict to me in a way that was easy to understand. Bob Mayer rocks this subject in his workshops but if he’s not coming to your neck of the woods with this topic anytime soon, go get some Kercheval. Short story writers should build a shrine to this lady (she’s that good)!

Story Help

When I’m in a story and I’m having a hard time getting the dialog going, I’ve found the following books to be helpful in the idea department:

When I have an idea and need some help in fleshing out what things are called, I refer to the three books below. They are older but I use them all the time.

I have a really, really difficult time writing sex and I find myself begging Sharla Rae to do it (Seriously…did you SEE that Sensual Word List?? Hubba-hubba…). When she turns me down — and she always does — I refer to the following books when I edit a first draft with steamy scenes:

Finally, my To Be Read shelf!

My reading has slowed up since I had a baby. (Stop laughing, moms!) I used to average 250-300 books a year, but now I’m lucky to finish a book in a few weeks. (Thank goodness that baby is cute!)

Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder has been on my list for more than a year now. He came to speak to our chapter and was wonderful. We were appalled to hear that he passed away so young, but what a legacy he left! His Save the Cat books are just the tip of it and the first one is next up on my reading list.

Right now, I’m reading Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which has been waiting patiently on my writing bookshelf for a few years. I was lucky enough to attend an event with Mr. Vogler a few years back. He gave us so much in that one day seminar that it has taken me these 3-4 years to digest it. Finally, now, I’m ready to rock the The Writer’s Journey. I’m soooo excited about it.

Do you have a writer’s bookshelf? If so, what are some of your favorites? What books have made the biggest impact on you, as a writer or a reader?

CONTEST ALERT: Speaking of being a writer…Have you entered the Going To The Chapel Contest? You use one of our ‘processional lines’ to write the first scene of a fictional wedding. How fun is that for wedding season??!

The finalists get bragging rights on this blog and are listed in all their glory on our site. Writers in the Storm bloggers will then choose a single finalist whose entry will be revered on the contest page for a month AND receive at least three critiques by our WITS posse.

Last but not least, there is a Comment Contest this week to win a copy of Lyn Horner’s Darlin’ Druid. All you have to do is comment on the latest post in her amazing Druid series. You’ve got to get over there and see the gorgeous artwork from The Book of Kells!!

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12 Responses to Make Your Writer’s Bookshelf Work For You

  1. Thank you so much for this list of books. I am going to cut and paste it into my computer so that I will know what to read when I need it. It’s invaluable! THANK YOU!
    Patti

  2. angela says:

    Some of these I have not read, so many thanks! I think something like this would make an excellent blog carnival–people posting their actual writing bookshelf. I think I’ll do this–I love seeing what other writers are reading for craft and why.

    • A Blog Carnival sounds like serious fun…count us in! I can guarantee that all of us here have very fun, and very different writers’ shelves. Sharla Rae’s would make you keel over with envy (it does me)!

      Thanks for the comment, Angela!
      ~Jenny

      • All right–once my current contest is over and I have some breathing room, I’ll get some names together and we can pick a date! : Woot!

        Oh and I meant to say in the last comment but forgot–you will not be disappointed with Save the Cat. Wow, so good. Too, try Writing Screenplays that Sell (Hauge). Just finished that one and it was the perfect companion to STC.🙂

        Angela

  3. One author whose two books about writing have always inspired me, and who I recommend to my author clients, is Heather Sellers. Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter are both funny, warm, uplifting, and energizing books (in an Anne Lamott Bird by Bird kind of way). And another book that isn’t funny, but that captures so many elements of the writing experience, is Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. My copy is heavily underlined and thoroughly loved, with certain lines long memorized. Thanks for this wonderful post.

    • Wow, Laurel…thank YOU for these great book recommendations. This is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping to get this this blog. Every writer seems to find a few very special books that really speak to them. It’s nice to be able to pass these gems along, isn’t it?

      ~Jenny

      • Glad you liked my “passalong” books! One more that I might add to this list is novelist Elizabeth Berg’s Escaping into the Open. It’s her only book about writing, and it’s characterized by her generous and life-loving approach to writing, so it both inspires and encourages. Berg’s book also offers a little insight into what kind of person becomes a writer, and that, too, could prove affirming for those who find themselves slightly at odds with the pursuits of the larger culture. I own about 1,000 books on writing and marketing writing and books, but these are the books that give me a feeling of happiness whenever I pick them up. And are closest to my own experience after decades as a professional writer. Thanks again for this opportunity to share these titles.

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