Somewhere near bottom would be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It’s not that I don’t appreciate this book – remember, it’s still in my favorites pile – but I don’t love it the way others do. I see as it essential reading, but I don’t see it as the Holy Writ of writing guides.
Next up would be William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir. The first is sharp, winsome, and delightful (I reviewed it here). The second is a gritty, unvarnished look at one man’s journey as a writer. After reading it, I had a deeper appreciation for King’s work and what was behind it.
At the top of my favorites pile would be Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson. Though not a memoir, it is similar to King’s book in that it addresses not just writing, but the writing life. What sets the two apart is how they approach the subject. King has a treasure trove of wise and insightful observations, but his outlook is pagan, atheistic, and often pretty bleak. Wilson’s is staunchly Christian to the core.
I don’t care if you plan to make a career of writing, or merely have a passing interest in it – this book should be on your shelf. It’s an immensely rewarding read for those who want to “sling ink” full time, but most of the tips are such that anybody can profit from them.
The book is short – a mere 120 pages – but I think Wilson has inherited Lewis’ ability to pack into one sentence what most writers pack into three or four. He lays out and explains “a veritable Russian doll of writing tips”: seven exhortations for people who wish to cultivate the wordriht life.
- Know something about the world
- Read mechanical helps
- Stretch your routines
- Be at peace with being lousy for awhile
- Learn other languages
- Keep a commonplace book
I’ve already discussed his advice on keeping a commonplace book and the way he shoots down faux-humility in writing. My favorite tip, however, would have to be the first one: know something about the world.
By this I mean the world outside of books. This might require joining the Marines, or working on an oil rig or as a hashslinger at a truck stop in Kentucky. Know what things smell like out there. If everything you write smells like a library, then your prospective audience will be limited to those who smell like libraries. (p. 10)
An apt reminder for those of us who are tempted to think that the writer’s life happens almost exclusively behind closed doors with a stack of paper and a stack of books. As Thoreau put it, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”
“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
“I’m not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly; I’m not asking you to be politically-correct or cast aside your sense of humor (please God you have one). This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s not the moral Olympics, and it’s not church. But it’s writing, damn it, not washing the car and putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else. Wash the car, maybe.”
~ Stephen King, On Writing (pp. 106-107)
Cuba Libre by Elmore Leonard
Revolves around the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Cuban fight for independence. I’d never read anything by Leonard up until now, but I think he may become a favorite. His talent for characterization, plotting, and dialogue is quite something.
Born Again by Charles Colson
In 1974, Colson pleaded guilty to Watergate-related offenses and spent seven months in prison. This memoir is the result: the story of a man who sought fulfillment in political power, only to find it in Jesus Christ. It’s good so far – honest, sincere, and thoughtful.
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Surprise: I finally picked up a book by Stephen King. I’m about a quarter of the way through it, and (minus a few content issues) I’m enjoying it. King is a much better writer than I expected, and I’m relishing the fact that the vampires are, y’know, bad. Take that, Stephanie Meyer.
All Things For Good by Thomas Watson
A magnificent examination of God’s providence in all aspects of life… written by one of those great Dead White Guys. Need I say more?
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dostoevsky’s classic story of murder and guilt, and incidentally, my second encounter with Russian literature (Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych was my first). I’m expecting great things, and I doubt I’ll be disappointed.
On Writing: A Memoir by Stephen King
Loving it so far. It’s an honest, autobiographical look at King’s formation and growth as a writer. Drawing from his own experiences, he has plenty of helpful advice to share; nuggets of wisdom like this one: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
I generally try have at least one science fiction book going all the time. This one is already a favorite. Brilliant plotting, complex characters, and lots to think about. I sincerely dread coming to the end of it.
Road To Perdition by Max Allan Collins
Currently being shipped from Amazon. I’ve never read a “graphic novel” before, but I figure this is as good place to start as any. The 2002 movie (starring Tom Hanks) was gut-wrenching and profound, so I’m hoping the original will have just as much, if not more, to offer.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut…
“The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identiﬁcation pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor…
“It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but didn’t have time to read, I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
~ Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir
(HT Justin Taylor)