The 5 Books on My Desk

I don’t know about you guys, but sometimes…writing is hard. Today I struggled. And I did not accomplish much. (The kitchen is clean. There’s that. It counts.)

To help combat the doldrums I keep five writing books within reach of my desk. I thought that if anyone else was struggling — especially in the middle of National Novel Writing Month — these books might help shake some cobwebs.

In no particular order, I give you the books which are sitting within arm’s reach:

  1. Stephen King’s On Writing

I know, I know, I know. Everyone drops this book in an “essential writing book” list. Like many, I try to stick to King’s admonition to not use adverbs and be active, not passive. Which is very good, solid advice. So is the advice on writing every day. So is not using weird dialogue tags. So is “read a lot, write a lot.” So is putting your desk in the corner.

But I love this book and I keep it close because King gives permission. That may not seem like much. But in a world of “You should be doing the dishes” or “You should go get a real job, with Health Insurance!”, having a successful person tell you “You have permission to tell a story” is magical. And sometimes, when I’m in the middle of “shoveling shit from a seated position” — it’s good to know that it’s okay.

2. Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor

My friends are really, really, really tired of hearing me praise this book. But I will continue to praise. Glory, hallelujah.

Blaspheming aside, this book is full of exercises, which is great, BUT the reason this book is never far from my side is because it puts me right back in the learning mindset. Because the exercises are geared toward refining your own work, they teach you something new every time you complete them. Beyond that, Long does a fantastic job (IMHO) of teaching things I’d heard about in workshops. You wanna know how to control the pace of the story? You wanna know how to use language to evoke certain emotional responses? You wanna know how a story/essay is structured? This will teach you. And then it will teach you again. And again as you work through your own creations. Nothing hard or complex or magical. She explains things in straightforward terms with straightforward examples.

3. Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook

This book is crazy wild. Gorgeous, strange illustrations. Loads of graphics. And filled to bursting with permission (noticing a trend?) and advice on storytelling from conception to completion. You can flip it open and land on advice and stories from bestselling/award winning authors. Vandermeer throws in a lot of checklists/questions to push you if you’re stuck. It really is a wonder of a book. (I know, that was terrible. It’s late.)

4. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Again. On every list of essential books on writing.

But if it works, it works.

If you dropped my copy of this book on the floor, it would automatically fall open to two essays toward the beginning: “Shitty First Drafts” and “One Inch Frames.” Both essays encourage you to push through and worry about what is right in front of you in the moment. This lesson cannot be taught enough. You can’t, can’t, can’t, can’t worry about perfection in the drafting. You will work on the same paragraph for the rest of your life. And guess what? That paragraph will still not be perfect. So write a shitty paragraph (one-inch frame), then write another one, and soon you’ll have a full shitty first draft. Which is amazing.

5. Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit

First, a word of warning: there is a lot of Great Gatsby references. If, like me, you are NOT a fan of Gatsby, you need to sit down and be quiet because there’s soooo much good information here.

You know that shitty first draft you wrote because Anne Lamott inspired you and Stephen King gave you permission? This book helps you clean up the scrap heap you’ve created.

She has great advice on gaining perspective if you’re in a crunch. Most drafts need to mellow in a drawer for a while so the author can read it with fresh eyes. Bell presents some methods to use if you don’t have the luxury of time.

There are two key checklists as well: macro and micro editing. My copy, if dropped on the floor, would fall open to one or the other of those checklists.

Three bonus books:

(Generally found somewhere in my vicinity.)

Chuck Wendig’s Kick Ass Writer: For when you need your ass kicked. Also for when you need to figure out how to kick ass.

Larry Moss’ The Intent to Live. Caveat: not a writing book. This book is designed for actors creating a character. Guess who creates the characters actors need to create? That’d be us writers. Best book I’ve found for understanding super-objective, objective, goals, and motivation.

Brian Kiteley’s The 3AM Epiphany. Last but certainly not least. As a matter of fact, I’ve bought three copies. I seem to keep misplacing them as I work through the exercises. Best book of exercises I’ve come across. Challenging and interesting.



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4 responses to “The 5 Books on My Desk”

  1. grumpytyke Avatar

    I have never read a book or taken a course on writing; I am sure it would kill any urge to write. So I’ll never be ‘successful’ but happy in my so-called ‘creative writing’. Professionally I was ‘successful’ as a journalist or copywriter for over half a century. Now I write just to please myself, a short story or verse about once a fortnight and from time to time work on my ‘novel’, so far occupying around 2 years.
    The only Stephen King novel I began to read I disliked intensely and never finished, but I like your writing having followed your blog for a number of years!
    What am I reading at the moment? A collection of short pieces recently published on Amazon by a blogging ‘friend’ Anca Dunavete, titled Mindscapes, and The Aeneid (in English). I’m enjoying both a lot.

    1. jenny maloney Avatar

      In the end, the only way to “learn” writing is to write and, then, to write even more. And I think there are definitely writing books that stifle the urge to write. (Many books about “writing systems” or anything prescriptive tends to annoy me — as if there was ever any one way to create.) These ones have had the opposite effect for me.

      I think it’s great that you know what works for you. Also, I think you’re already ‘successful’ if your creative writing makes you happy. I’ve read some on your blog. 🙂

      The Aeneid is on my to-be-read list. Currently I’m reading The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu. Sci-fi.

  2. Mark S Avatar

    I really enjoyed Steven Kings book. It was really good.

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