If you do a search on Amazon.com for “writing,” over 50,000 books show up. That’s a lot and doesn’t even include the other great reference a writer might use, such as books slang, foreign phrases, and grammar. So I thought I’d share what’s on my writer’s reference shelf, the books I’ve found the most useful and helpful with craft and the inevitable questions that crop up for the odd bits and pieces sometimes necessary to create characters.
Techniques of a Selling Writer, Dwight Swain
This is a book I recommend in almost every workshop. My paperback copy has Post-it notes stuck onto pages, and a cracked spine, and pages falling out, and it stays right by my computer. The blub on the back says: “This book provides solid instruction for persons who want to write and sell fiction, not just to talk and study about it.” Swain is brilliant. His prose is clear, and he breaks down basic structure–beginnings, middles, ends–in such a way that you can’t help but become a better writer. For me, this book had so many, ‘ah ha!’ moments. If you struggle with “plot” and structure this is a great book. If you struggle with how to break your story down and put it into a synopsis, this is a great book. However, I know some writers who find that Swain doesn’t speak to them as well as Jack Bickman. Bickman was a student’s of Swain and so he teaches the same concepts, but with a slightly different approach. You might try Bickman’s works, but first go out, buy and read Techniques of a Selling Writer. Trust me, it’s money well spent.
The Elements of Style, Strunk & White
While you can read this slim book–my copy is 92 pages, including the index–front to back in a short time, it is designed for reference. Have a question about what words need a hyphen? There’s an answer on pages 34-35. Unsure about when to use ‘which’ or ‘that?’ Page 59. This is a book to help you add the gleam of polish to your writing. The index makes and table of contents makes it easy to look up topics that may be rattling your brain. And, let’s face it, we all have bad stylistic habits as writers that we pick up and sometimes really need to clear out. I use this book a lot during the editing phase just to make sure that every unnecessary work or unclear phrase is cleaned up and out.
What’s What, A Visual Glossary of the Physical World, Fisher Bragonier Jr.
Most libraries will have a copy of What’s What. My local library was where I first discovered this book, but I soon had to have my own copy. The book is just what it says; drawings and photos of all sorts of things and places with information of the names of everything. This is fabulous for a) you know the name of something and can’t quite remember it or b) you need your character to know the name of things because of that character’s profession and you haven’t a clue. Need to know all the parts of a sailboat? Or maybe a hot air balloon? Or what all those medieval arms are called and the parts of a knight’s armor? This is the kind of book I occasionally get lost in, it’s got so much wonderful trivia.
Characters & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card is one of the top names in Science Fiction, and you can see where he gets his reputation for good writing in this book. Card says of it (on the back cover), “This book is a set of tools: literary crowbars, chisels, mallets, pliers, tongs, sieves, and drills. Use them to pry, chip, beat, yank, shift, or punch good characters out of the place where they already live: your memory, your imagination, your soul.” I say buy the book and a highlighting pen. You’ll learn things you didn’t know, you’ll get ideas, and best of all it’ll makes you want to get back to the computer to apply the knowledge.
Write Away, Elizabeth George
This is subtitled “One Novelists Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life.” Elizabeth George is a New York Times Best Selling mystery author, and this book is based on the writing courses she’s taught. This is not your basic how to plot or writing book. This is about a writer getting inside her own fiction in a detailed, methodical fashion and telling you how she makes it work. It’s a fabulous book–but it can also be deep going. I found myself having to read, stop and process, and then go back and reread passages. But the purest gold often comes from the deepest mines where you have to sweat to get it out.
Goal, Motivation & Conflict, Debra Dixon
Published by Gryphon Books, the book is a companion to the workshop that Debra Dixon teaches. She also teaches novel writing and has written several romances. The book is one I end up recommending more than any other because it’s packed with sound, good advice about how to punch up a scene or a story with stronger characters and that means stronger conflict. Buy it.