Trying to parcel out a writer’s various influences–the novels and stories they’ve read, the poems, the how-to manuals, the courses on narrative structure–is a tricky business, to say the least. You can ask the writer, sure. But writers (especially fiction writers) are apt to lie.
I have an English degree, which means more or less that I took a bunch of classes where I read a lot of books. In many ways, an English degree is overrated. You won’t learn anything in an English class you couldn’t have learned in a library. Trust me. But what collegiate English courses will make clear is that everyone wants to be thought of as a Reader With Discerning Taste.
Writers suffer from this more than most.
If you ask most writers to trace their literary lineage, it’s a sure bet you’ll get a lot of smug hooey dressed up to sound neat: Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Mailer…well, maybe not Mailer so much. Not anymore. But you get the idea.
What follows is my attempt at total honesty. The writers, books, and articles that taught me and helped me the most. I won’t tell you that they’ll help you too. They might. They might not. We all have to find our own way. But (as Bruce Springsteen once said) these are the ones that kept me good company on my journey. May they keep you good company on yours.
Books on Writing
Unless you’re a writer, you can’t really believe how many damn books have been written on writing. It’s a cottage industry, for sure. My pet theory is that writing manuals are akin to diet guides: they prey upon your wildest dreams.
That said, there are good diet books out there, and good books on writing. I’ve had my share of wild dreams, and thus read my share of writing manuals. These are the best that I’ve found:
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Story by Robert McKee
- 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley
- The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop by Stephen Koch
- Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
- A Reader’s Manifesto by BR Myers
- The Imaginary Girlfriend by John Irving
These are the books that I’d read cover to cover. The ones worth reading twice, and then a third time, and a fourth.
Odds and Ends
Much of the best advice I’ve ever come across regarding writing has been in the form of interviews, mini-essays, letters and introductions. The kind of stuff that never gets collected anywhere. Mostly it gets forgotten.
I wouldn’t expect anybody to track the following works down. I mean, that’d be a lot of work. But you could. You might learn something.
- Michael Chabon’s essay at the end of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (found in the PS section of the paperback edition)
- Stephen King’s introductions to his short story collections
- John Irving’s essay at the back of the paperback edition of Last Night in Twisted River
- Ernest Hemingway: The Last Interview published by Melville House Publishing
- Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing
- The Suggested Reading section at the end of Dean Koontz’s How to Write Bestselling Fiction
- John D. MacDonald’s introduction to Stephen King’s Night Shift
- Michael Chabon’s introduction to the 2005 edition of The Best American Short Stories
- Dan Simmons’ essays on the craft of writing found on his website
- The essays Selling Stories and Marketing by Andre Dubus
- John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize speech
- William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech
- The advice of my high school English teacher, Robbe Pitts, to me my freshman year: “Miller, get to the fucking point.”