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staff picks winter2

Writers on Writing

You don’t have to know everything about writing and fiction and novels in order to begin your first novel. That’s true whether you’re writing or editing. But you do need to know something. A lot of somethings. There are many ways to mess up stories, so many pitfalls for the writer who is ignorant of craft and lacks both skills and experience. But no writer needs to remain ignorant, not today. Not when so many resources are available. Here are a few titles that have been fairly universally recognized as helpful to those hoping to learn the writing craft.

Staff picks 2106-3

Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster – Forster (A Passage to India) delivered a series of lectures on the art of the novel at the University of Cambridge. Although this book was written in 1956, Forster’s writing on character development, plot elements and story remain relevant today. He reduces the novel to its essential elements and provides a plainspoken approach helpful to both beginning and mature writers.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – With characteristic honesty and humor, Ms. Lamott (Small Victories) encourages writers to write authentically, to manage their progress incrementally, to use all their life experiences to inform their art, and much more. Her helpful advice is demonstrated by a story she tells about the book’s title. “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'” This has become a bit of a mantra in my own home as Lamott is one of our family favorites.

On Writing by Stephen King – Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft. King describes how the writing life coexists with the everyday by grounding his advice in his vivid memories from childhood all the way through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999. King believes the link between writing and living spurred his recovery. A tale well told.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King – Browne and King are professional editors who share the techniques they use to edit manuscripts. They write knowledgeably about the elements of dialog, exposition, point of view, interior monologue, and other techniques and take their readers through the same processes an expert editor would go through to perfect a manuscript. Each point is illustrated with examples, many drawn from the hundreds of books Browne and King have edited.

On Writing Well: the Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser – This title has become a classic textbook for learning the writing craft. On Writing Well has sold more than a million copies for good reason. Zinsser’s advice is sound, well-tested and applicable to many forms of writing.

Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels by Scott McCloud – McCloud analyzes the art form itself, detailing how to achieve emotional effects and tell stories in visual styles. He explores the creation of comics, from the broadest principles to the sharpest details (like how to accentuate a character’s facial muscles in order to form the emotion of disgust rather than the emotion of surprise.) He does all with a cartoon narrator mixing fun and serious instruction. This work is a wonderful view into how to master the human condition through word and image in a brilliantly minimalistic way. Comic book devotees as well as the most uninitiated will marvel at this journey into a once–underappreciated art form.


Beth Pocock is a Assistant Director at the Sawyer Free Library.