Craft books are useful tools to keep on hand. Whether you want to use them as references while writing or revising, or you’re looking for some inspiration from accomplished writers, they’re valuable resources for your writer’s toolbox.
Below, I’ve shared my thoughts on my favorite craft books. I’ll keep this list updated and add to it as I read more, so bookmark this post and check back periodically for more recommendations!
1. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott
Lamott’s memoir of her writing life is often excerpted for workshops and classes. Her advice on “shitty first drafts” encourages writers, whether they be new to the craft or long-time practitioners, to approach the page without fear or expectations and to write with abandon. Then you can refine your work through revision.
The title refers to an anecdote in which Lamott’s father tells her brother to tackle a school project on birds by writing it “bird by bird.” This idea is a cornerstone of Lamott’s practice as well as what she teaches her students. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, just take it one small piece at a time.
If you’re new to writing, I think Lamott’s book is an excellent way to set yourself up for a healthy, effective writing practice. And for more experienced writers, there’s much in Bird by Bird to remind you of why you started writing in the first place, and how to maintain your sanity as you continue to evolve.
2. The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr
My M.F.A. is in creative nonfiction, and so I’ve read quite a few craft books specific to this genre. The Art of Memoir is an excellent one, and I would go so far as to say that there is plenty in this book that applies to fiction writers and poets as well.
Karr is considered one of the best memoirists. You’ll find chapters in this book on incorporating detail in your scenes and on fact checking your work. Interspersed throughout are close readings of successful memoirs, which give you the chance to see how the concepts Karr discusses play out on the page. I find this to be an extremely helpful element in a craft book. Chapter after chapter of writing advice can only get you so far, but seeing that advice in action really helps you internalize those ideas.
My favorite chapter in this book is on how to deal with friends and family members when writing about them in your work. While this challenge is somewhat unique to nonfiction writers and memoirists in particular, I think navigating the tricky waters of relationships as a writer is something each of us has to face in some form or another.
Karr’s advice on how to handle this intersection of your writing life and your personal life takes The Art of Memoir beyond the page and addresses the fact that although we may write in isolation, the product of that time doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
3. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King
This may be one of the best known craft books for fiction writers. It’s chock full of exercises, advice, and anecdotes from King’s writing career.
Revision has never been a strong suit of mine. Something I learned from On Writing and still use today is the practice of setting my drafts aside and taking some space from them. Revisiting past work with fresh eyes can be quite illuminating when it comes to self-editing.
Like Lamott’s book, I would recommend On Writing primarily for newer writers who are looking for guidance and information on the foundational tools of the trade.
4. The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults, Cheryl B. Klein
Although this book is intended for writers of children’s and young adult books, it includes advice that’s useful for fiction writers of all stripes. It also features several practical exercises you can use, either for general writing practice or to help shape your current work in progress.
My favorite of these is the character outline. This is a list of questions you can ask about each character in your story to gain a better understanding of who they are, including their internal qualities and motivations. These are easy to forget when creating your characters, but central to a good novel or short story. You need to know not only whether your characters are tall or short, dark-haired or blond, but also what morals guide their behavior and how their past shapes their future actions.
For young adult and children’s writers specifically, this book also includes handy references for age ranges and the length, content, and reading level that is appropriate for each.
5. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Lee Gutkind
This is the craft book for nonfiction writers. Creative nonfiction covers a plethora of subgenres, and Gutkind at least touches on many of them in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. He shares insights from his decades of experience writing, editing, teaching, and advocating for the genre, including guidance on fact checking, the rise of the memoir subgenre, and craft elements such as dialogue, structure, and detail.
You’ll also find advice on living “the writer’s life,” from building a routine to approaching your daily life with keen eye that hones in on details that might later become part of your work. Gutkind discusses the practice of immersion (which can be useful for fiction writers as well as nonfiction writers) and legal considerations to keep in mind when writing about others.
I’d call this a must-read for anyone looking to write nonfiction of any kind.
6. Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, John B. Thompson
Although it’s not technically a craft book, I recommend Merchants of Culture to anyone who is interested in publishing a book, now or in the future. It provides insights into the industry that can help guide your efforts when it comes to getting your work out into the public.
Thompson discusses the roles of chain bookstores and Amazon, literary agents, digital publishing, and more. Understanding how your work fits into the ecosystem of the literary industry is useful for determining the next steps to take if you want to pursue publication.
7. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, John McPhee
In this book, accomplished essayist John McPhee shares his experiences as a writer for The New Yorker and other top publications. His deep dive into essay structure provides interesting ideas on how to determine the best way to tell your story, and his anecdotes about the different editors he’s worked over the years shed light the on the unique relationships between writers and editors.
If you’re looking for a straightforward craft book with overt practical application, this may not be the book for you. McPhee’s approach is more along the lines of telling you about his process and letting you draw your own conclusions than walking you through exercises and close readings.
That said, if you’re a more experienced writer looking for fresh ideas, Draft No. 4 may help jumpstart your practice again. It’s more geared towards nonfiction writers, but there’s plenty of content that applies to fiction writers as well.
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