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  • Diane Telgen

Our favorite craft books

You’re staying at home and doing nothing, they said! It’s the perfect time to write, they said!

“They” have overly optimistic expectations. Some of us have kids to take care of (and educate!), spouses working from home and interrupting our writing routine, or family members far away to worry about. It’s completely understandable if you don’t have the headspace to feel creative right now.

So maybe it’s the perfect time to pick up a craft book. Whether offering practical techniques or general inspiration and encouragement, craft books can often give us that little push we need to feel inspired again. And if not, at least you can give yourself bonus points: I spent time educating myself!

There are so many great craft books out there, but I surveyed the Angel Editors for some of our favorites. If you can’t get an e-copy from your local library, order from your local indie bookshop, using the convenient IndieBound links we’ve included.

Books to help beginning writers

A couple of us mentioned ON WRITING by Stephen King; Danielle calls it ”practical, no nonsense, and instructive.” It’s part memoir, part writing advice, and all King, so if you’re looking for something more informal to get you started, it’s a great choice.

One of my favorites is John McNally’s VIVID AND CONTINUOUS: ESSAYS AND EXERCISES FOR WRITING FICTION. McNally is an author and creative writing teacher, and he discusses the elements of creative writing, points out common errors, and provides insight into revision. While he shares issues he’s had with his own writing as well as common mistakes he sees in his students’ work, this isn’t a dry academic text. Its tone is friendly and conversational, and he includes exercises at the end of each chapter. If you want some practical prompts, try this enjoyable look at both craft and the writer’s life.

A recently reissued classic is STEERING THE CRAFT, by the late sci-fi master Ursula Le Guin. Danielle likes this “short how-to” for how it “makes a beginning writer feel that it’s possible to get better.” The chapters are short and easily digestible, and the exercises are basic but instructive. I frequently refer to her discussion of “crowding and leaping,” which helps you decide when to let readers stay deeply in the moment and when to skim over events.

If you’ve already got your story but are stuck on how to revise it, then Jay has the essential book for you: SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King. “This is a catch-all for everything from how to write dialogue to point of view to internal monologue (avoiding the dreaded exposition),” Jay says, and she recommends it to every beginning writer.

Books about story structure

Maybe you’re feeling confident in your writing, but you sometimes struggle with storytelling. For a more in-depth, developmental resource, Jay recommends John Truby’s ANATOMY OF STORY. “He does such a good job of explaining character desire and how it affects plot, how to write strong dialogue, create settings that enhance the storytelling, and more. It’s truly a masterclass.”

Another book that emphasizes the importance of character desire and conflict in developing your plot is Robert McKee’s STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE, AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING. If you’re a movie buff, you’ll enjoy the examples he chooses from twentieth-century films to illustrate his points. He also includes a method for dividing your story into scenes and analyzing how they fit into your plot before you start to write.

Two books from Lisa Cron also made our list of favorites. Since I’m a science nerd, I devoured her WIRED FOR STORY: THE WRITER’S GUIDE TO USING BRAIN SCIENCE TO HOOK READERS FROM THE VERY FIRST SENTENCE. She uses recent research in cognitive neuroscience to give writers tools we can use to meet the human need for story. It covers a lot of the same ground as the two previous books, but I loved it because it explained why it’s essential for our works to have character desire and conflict.

While WIRED FOR STORY is mainly theoretical, Cron’s STORY GENIUS is a practical, step-by-step guide to creating a story structure that grows organically out of character choice. I’ve used it couple of times myself, and Jenn found it life-changing: “Learning it's best to neither be a Pantser nor a Plotter validated my bifurcated writing process. And it is always good to understand why and how readers respond to story.”

Books for specific formats/genres

Maybe you’re thinking of exploring a format or genre that’s new to you. There are books for that! If you’ve always wanted to try your hand at picture books but aren’t sure where to start, the Angel Editors recommend Ann Whitford Paul’s WRITING PICTURE BOOKS. As Jay says, “She breaks down the process of writing PBs into easily understandable lessons, with each chapter a concrete step in the process. If you follow her book, chapter by chapter, you will come out with a much better draft than trying to do it solo.” Jenn agrees wholeheartedly, and adds that “her explanation on openings is wonderful!”

Maybe your interest in illustrated formats extends to comics and graphics novels. Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS: THE INVISIBLE ART looks at the form’s history, techniques, and narrative potential, and it’s rightfully a classic. It’s a very intellectual examination of the medium, looking at in the pictorial history of words, and includes lots to think about in terms of narrative. Even if you’re not thinking of working in the format, it’s a great read.

For poets, I recommend the classic from the late Mary Oliver, RULES FOR THE DANCE: A HANDBOOK FOR WRITING AND READING METRICAL VERSE. If you weren’t an English major, the information about types of feet, forms, and rhyme schemes is essential. But even if you’re familiar with verse theory, her analysis of how to use line length, variations in metrical feet, and line ends lines to deliberately affect the mood and energy of a piece is extremely useful. Bonus: all her wonderful examples might inspire you to go out and read more poetry!

As we’ve all realized lately, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. And GOOD PROSE: THE ART OF NONFICTION, from Pulitzer-winning Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor Richard Todd, explores elements of good nonfiction writing. Many of these interesting observations are applicable to all kinds of writing, not just nonfiction. The section on revision is particularly revealing, describing ways of deciding what scenes are big/little, finding and fixing “bumps” (things out of place or proportion), worrying about story structure, etc. You might also enjoy the book for its insights into the writer-editor relationship and process. This is one of those craft books which contains good advice without being by-the-numbers, and is also enjoyable to read.

Books to jump-start the creative process

Maybe you’re in a mental space to be writing, but aren’t sure where to start. For those people, Danielle recommends FROM WHERE YOU DREAM by Robert Olen Butler. “It talks about how to use your imagination by dream storming before you ever start writing.” If you want to learn to dig into your emotions and use them in your writing, this guide will help.

If your creativity is down a deep, dark hole right now, maybe THE ARTIST’S WAY: A SPIRITUAL PATH TO GREATER CREATIVITY by Julia Cameron can help you find your way back to the light. Last fall, our friends at the Truer Words podcast provided a great introduction to this classic. Chapter by chapter, it offers techniques to access your creativity and remove the emotional blocks that might stand in your way. It’s not for everyone, but check out Melissa and Kathryn’s discussion of how they’ve used it. The book might be just what you need.

Books to reassure and inspire

Okay, I get it. Maybe you just can’t. even. go. there. Can’t think about techniques or exercises or ANYTHING. So my last two recommendations are less instructive and more inspirational. ART & FEAR: OBSERVATIONS ON THE PERILS (AND REWARDS) OF ARTMAKING by David Bayles and Ted Orland will reassure those of you (all of us) who sometimes despair about ever being capable of making great art. This is what you (we) need to hear: “Lesson for the day: vision is always ahead of execution—and it should be.”

Finally, there’s Anne Lamott’s classic BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE. You’ve probably heard of it before, but maybe you’re like me and avoided reading it because others have talked about how inspiring it is and you don’t want all that woo-woo stuff. I want to wallow in my writer’s despair, dammit! But when I finally read it, instead of getting the touchy-feely pep talk I expected, I got darkly funny—very funny—ruminations on the ups and downs of writing life. Sounds like just the thing we need right now.

And if you’re not up to reading any of these books right now—YOU’RE FINE. They’ll still be here when you’re ready. Remember, living is research, right? Take care of yourself—we need your stories and your words.

Diane is available for developmental edits, copy edits, and editorial assessments, and is currently thrilled to live in a tall and skinny townhome with her office two floors away from her spousal unit’s. Find out more about her here.

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