Sharing from my 'Cabinet of Curiosities' - Favourite Writing Books

Apologies that the post is a day late.

Recently, and quite by accident, I discovered Austin Kleon who describes himself as “a writer who draws. I make art with words and books with pictures.

He’s written two fun little books – actually, he’s written four, but I’ve only read two – to do with being creative. When I say ‘little’, I do mean ‘little’; they're a neat little size, 6”x6”.

The first one, ‘Steal Like an Artist’, is just over 140 pages, and the other, ‘Show Your Work’, is about 215 pages.

'Steal like an Artist' and 'Show your Work' book covers

I read both books quickly then went back and read them again, slowly this time while making notes.

Steal Like an Artist’ is about unlocking your creativity. The 10 points that he expands on are listed on the back of the book:

  • Steal like an artist
  • Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started
  • Write the book you want to read
  • Use your hands
  • Side projects and hobbies are important
  • The Secret – do good work and share it with people
  • Geography is no longer our master
  • Be nice (the world is a small town)
  • Be boring (it’s the only way to get work done)
  • Creativity is subtraction

In ‘Show Your Work’, Kleon explains how to ‘share like an artist’, again in 10 points:

  • You don’t have to be a genius
  • Think process, not product
  • Share something small every day
  • Open up your cabinet of curiosities
  • Tell good stories
  • Teach what you know
  • Don’t turn into human spam
  • Learn to take a punch
  • Sell out
  • Stick around

Over the next few weeks, I’ve decided to share by opening up my cabinet of curiosities, mainly to do with writing.

Today, my all-time favourite writing books.

I can’t remember how many I bought and read when I decided to get serious about writing, but the first one that I truly enjoyed was ‘Becoming a Writer’ by Dorothea Brande.

'Becoming a Writer' book cover

Described as a classic, it’s not a book about how to write, but about how to be a writer, which, as she says, “is quite another thing.

According to the blurb on the back: “She believes that there is such a thing as the writer’s magic, that everybody has it in differing degrees and that it can be taught. This book is about freeing that unconscious ability in all of us.

Here’s an example, on originality:
There is one sense in which everyone is unique. No one else was born of your parents, at just that time of just that country’s history; no one underwent just your experiences, reached just your conclusions, or faces the world with the exact set of ideas that you must have… if you can tell a story as it can appear only to you… you will inevitably have a piece of work that is original.

And then there’s Josip Novakovich’s ‘Fiction Writer’s Workshop’.

'Fiction Writer's Workshop' book cover

It’s a writing workshop in book form, complete with writing exercises. Even though I write fantasy, what I like about this book is that he doesn’t only use modern examples to illustrate his points, but classic literature too. What makes this book great, in my opinion, are the exercises, in which he teaches us to develop our writer's skills.

In the chapter on plot, Novakovich describes it as “the plan – the design – of your story… plot interconnects and moves the elements of your story.” He quotes the playwright Harold Hayes: “The essence of drama is that man cannot walk away from the consequences of his deeds.

Here’s an example of an exercise:
Three to four pages. Continue this story (from ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ by Ambrose Bierce):
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his neck…

Tell us why and how the man got into this predicament, and where, if anywhere, he goes from here.
Objective: to work from a strange situation. Learn how to jump into the story right at its crisis moment and work from there – forward, backward, whichever way you see fit to explain what’s going on.
Check: Does your story make sense? Have you convinced us that a real man, with realistic thoughts, feelings, perceptions, is there?

Jane Yolen’s ‘Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft’; and no, it isn’t because it’s got my name on the cover.

'Take Joy' book cover

What drew me to this was the first line on the back of the book – “Are you a writer longing to rediscover the joy that you once had in the craft…

Three pages in, I knew this was the book for me – “I contend it is not the writing that makes writers miserable. It is the emphasis on publication.

It’s the kind of book you can dip in and out of and even, I think, just open to a random page and go from there. The book is peppered with personal anecdotes, which only serve to show that even the pros struggle with finding lost inspiration amongst the routine of everyday life.

Chapter 5 is fun - 'The Alphabetics of Story', where she lists, from A to Z, various aspects of a writer's life.
I’ll use ‘I is for Irritation’ as an example – “By this I am not talking about those everyday irritations we all suffer… By irritation, I mean the kind of sand in the oyster that produces a pearl. A good story is that kind of irritant. You read it, then you cannot stop thinking about it. Eventually, your mind and heart encyst about it, and what occurs is a pearl of the soul.

And then there’s Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, part memoir, part writer’s toolkit, and oh-so-readable.

'On Writing' book cover

I’ll let the master speak for himself:
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose… Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling.