Here are my favorite craft books on writing (in random order). Each came along to me at exactly the right time, and most are either highlighted the hell out of or stickied up. If you’re new to writing and even this curated list feels daunting, I’ll follow with a few quick thoughts on what I think each book is best for. (NOTES: These are not resources for how to publish. Also, because I mostly writing fiction, these skew that way.)
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
How Fiction Works by James Wood
Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval
Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood
Vivid and Continuous by John McNally
The Promise of Failure by John McNally
The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell
Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy
Memoir Your Way: Tell Your Story through Writing, Recipes, Quilts, Graphic Novels & More
Crash Course: 52 Essays from Where Writing and Life Collide by Robin Black
The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship & the Writing Life by Lori A. May
Naming the World edited by Bret Anthony Johnston [writing exercises]
Bird by Bird is like a funny, generous friend who says smart things and assures you it will all be all right. This is a good first writing book.
On Writing is also a good first writing book. There’s a memoir in the beginning about King’s horrific accident/recovery that feels tempting to skip, but I suggest reading it. Also, don’t listen to him when he says a novel draft should be completed in (I think) six months. I mean, REALLY??
John Gardner’s books are the one that will have to be pried out of my cold, dead hands. Everything I am comes from those books. BUT—I find that my low-res students at Converse often don’t like his “dictatorial” writing style which distresses me. I like his authority and confidence (and less so the focus on the male writer…a product of the time, alas).
Prose and Wood are great for learning how to close-read, and I’d say that some knowledge of Chekhov and other “ancient” masterpieces will be helpful. (Of course such knowledge is helpful anyway.)
You can find a very structural, “how to” approach in Building Fiction. Thrill Me is also helpful in approaching concrete topics. I like Vivid and Continuous because the topics addressed move beyond the “traditional” craft books, staking out new territory.
If you’re feeling lost and uncertain about yourself as a writer, I suggest The Promise of Failure. Also Crash Course, which intersperses writing tips with thoughts on managing your overall writing life.
And managing and shaping your writing life in a big-picture way is what The Write Crowd is all about.
Memoir Your Way offers creative approaches to sharing your life story.
Margaret Atwood is a brilliant thinker. The last essay in this book is something I refer to again and again; it’s not exaggerating that reading and rereading it informs my writing at its very core.
You can’t have a better guide leading you into CNF than the smart and generous Beth Kephart in Handling the Truth.
The Half-Known World is like listening to a series of intelligent and interesting craft lectures, which is what these chapters originally were (delivered at Warren Wilson).
Finally, Naming the World is the best of many prompt writing books/guides I’ve consulted. If I can only choose one, this is the one I’m snatching up.
Let me add that I know there are million more excellent books on writing—and that I own maybe a half-million of those. This is just my winnowed-down, whittled list…the life-changing list that I can’t live without, the list that if you were my student, there’d be some point where I’d exclaim something like, “I know exactly which book you need to read,” and I’m 99 percent sure would be one of these.
Happy reading, and, more importantly, happy writing!