Reading to write

A stack of books.

To become a better writer, I have to focus on two essentials: write a lot, and read a lot.

Honestly, these are the only pieces of advice that everybody, it seems, can agree on. People differ on what time of day, or how much outlining, or the best way to research, or even what font to use—but when it comes down to it, everyone agrees that reading other people’s writing and practicing your own are foundational to improving as a writer.

When it comes to reading, I see three important areas of focus:

  1. Reading what you want to write
  2. Reading what you need to know about in order to write
  3. Reading about the craft of writing

Now, I want to write fiction. Primarily a few sub-genres of fantasy. (Right now, I’m working on a psychological fable, a space-fantasy epic, and a retelling of an ancient myth.) So I’m always reading some kind of fiction, often but not always fantasy fiction, and I’m usually reading something about world cultures and history and mythology, or something about astrophysics or technology. I’ll probably blog about noteworthy books and articles as I go along. Those interested in the same things I’m interested in will find those posts interesting.

But books and articles about writing are more universally applicable. They’re about communication, about the nature of human interaction, in a way about human nature itself. They’re a kind of philosophy, and I’ve learned some genuine life lessons from books on the craft of telling stories.

So I wanted to show you the list of books I’m currently using to improve my own writing and (to some extent) my own practice of being human. Some of these I’ve read already, others are on my to-do list. And I’m absolutely open to suggestions and recommendations. Let me know what books or articles you’ve found helpful in art or in life!

  • Aristotle’s Poetics. This is literally the classic starting point for thinking about story and writing. I have Richard McKeon’s Basic Works of Aristotle, which is probably available used for a couple bucks. It also includes a few other must-reads: the Nichomachean Ethics and On the Soul.
  • Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. Bradbury is one of the most beautiful and thoughtful of the Golden Age SF writers of the 20th century.
  • Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream. Assigned in a writing class I took, and I found the assigned parts helpful enough that I’m looking forward to reading the rest!
  • Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The modern foundation for today’s commercial fiction, especially on screen. Love it or hate it (and I feel a bit of both), it’s worth knowing where it comes from.
  • Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. Some stories are better told in a visual medium, so I want to learn the vocabulary of comic books and graphic novels.
  • Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story. An application of story structure to all kinds of communication, particularly journalism. He also describes effective approaches to structure that go far beyond the commercial narrative.
  • Stephen King’s On Writing. I haven’t read it, but I keep hearing that it’s a must-read for any writer. So it’s on my list.
  • Robin D. Laws’s Beating the Story. An integration of various approaches to “beat sheets” with an eye to role playing (interactive storytelling) as well as single-author storytelling.
  • Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor. A great resource for prompts and exercises, as well as diagnostic help when I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong.
  • Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. Solid advice on communicating a vision in a way that the audience can get on board with it.
  • Brian McDonald’s Invisible Ink. I’ve been enjoying Brian’s podcast, so I’m looking forward to learning his approach in a more systematic way.
  • Robert McKee’s Story. This book has been part of every creative writing class I’ve ever taken. It’s perhaps the clearest explanation of why the “rules” of story structure work to communicate the experience of a story.
  • Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. Shows how every word on the page affects the reader, and why. Essential insights.
  • Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! His “beat sheet” is ubiquitous, and the foundation for most other contemporary approaches to beat-based story structure. I’m particularly intrigued by Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes a Novel! which develops screenwriting techniques for the very different medium of the page.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Monsters and the Critics. A collection of essays on language and story. “On Fairy Stories” and “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” stand out in describing why telling stories is a vital human activity, and why fantasizing is indeed a good thing.
  • Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. A comprehensive application of Joseph Campbell’s concept of “the hero’s journey” to concrete storytelling.
  • K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel as well as her follow-up books. Katie’s internet resources are fantastic, and I’m looking forward to seeing how she develops her ideas in her books.

I considered adding links for each of these books, but I’m ambivalent at best about Amazon’s stranglehold on the market and I’d prefer to promote smaller locally-owned booksellers. However, if you have trouble finding any of these books, let me know and I’ll link to where you can get them.

Finally, this is an incomplete and ever-changing list. Not all these books are for everyone, and I’m certain there are books that I haven’t heard of yet but that belong on this list. So please let me know in the comments if you have suggestions to add, and also if you have experience to share about any of the books already on the list! Thanks!

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