Wednesday, May 22, 2013

My Favorite Writing Books and Resources

I know I said I’d be taking a break until the fall (and I will!), but I’d meant to post this list of my all-time top favorite resources for writing, so enjoy this last Wednesday post before I fade away into the sunshine…

Walk into almost any bookstore and you’ll see a shelf of writing instruction books, usually with loopy, poetic names like Capturing the Muse or Mastering the Craft. It can be a little overwhelming to figure out which books are actually helpful, so here’s my list of my all-time top favorite books and resources.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamont
One of the most popular writing guides out there, and for good reason. Anne Lamont’s book reads more like a book of thought-provoking, philosophical essays than a guide to writing. It’s beautifully-written and funny but still full of useful and practical tips for writing, editing, and publishing fiction. It’s a book about writing that speaks in a writer’s language, and it’s a must for beginners and experts alike.

Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, Bret Anthony Johnston
I’m a little biased here because Bret Anthony Johnston (who is also a short story writer) was my writing professor in college. But I’m not at all exaggerating to say he was one of the—if not the—best professor I had, smart and engaging and just demanding enough to coax out your best work. I’ve heard other writers recommend his writing guide, which is based off his classroom techniques and full of exercises from other writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Tom Robbins. There are so many smart little points in this book—from how to get dialogue just right to how to craft characters—and when I’m stumped, I still think back to the things Bret taught me in class.

Dictionary of American Slang, Barbara Ann Kipfer and Robert L. Chapman
Oh! This! Book! This is possibly my favorite book that I’ve bought this year, and it sits in a lofty place on the side of my desk every single day. Basically, it gives the year and first usage of slang, and it is absolutely indispensable for a historical fiction writer. I discovered it when I was looking for the origins of “to have a stick up one’s ass” and although the phrase turned out to be too modern for me (1930s, bummer), it happily led me to this book. Once you realize how many idioms and phrases we use on a daily basis, it feels almost impossible to write historical fiction without something like this. I’m constantly reaching for it and constantly surprised by what I learn (like that lollapalooza dates to 1904 or the first use of the phrase dollars to doughnuts).

When I need origins of specific words, this online dictionary is a life-saver. It’s how I knew I could write “the pain rocketed up my arm” in my 1870s historical fiction, because by 1860, people were already using the word to mean “to spring like a rocket.” While it’s not as good with phrases as the Dictionary of American Slang, this etymology dictionary makes up for it by providing detailed word origins and an easily-searched database.

The Physics of Star Trek, Lawrence Krauss
Although arguably one of the most fun parts of writing SF/F is getting to imagine crazy technologies, I enjoy my fiction with a dash of reality, and Lawrence Krauss’s book is a must. Krauss breaks down popular sci-fi tech like laser shooters, faster-than-light travel, and “beaming” and explains what would and wouldn’t work in the real world. While full of useful scientific information, it’s written for laypeople, and it’s a fantastic resource for anyone building a realistic, plausible sci-fi.

In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius,
Akira Okrent
Love, love, love this book! Such a great resource for sci-fi or fantasy writers or anyone who wants to attempt the daunting task of creating a unique language or method of communication for their book. Written from a linguist’s point of view, In the Land of Invented Languages is a fascinating history of the development of languages, from Esperanto to Klingon. What’s great about it is that it so cleverly describes the different ways people interact with and conceive of language, a perfect jumping-off point for creating your own fantasy language.

The Art of Looking Sideways, Alan Fletcher
Technically, this is a book about design, but more broadly, it’s a book about how to see the world in all its beautiful, weird, serendipitous angles. It’s a huge book, but I’ve carted it around since high school, and every time I open it up, I learn something new. Part humor, part memoir, part philosophical journal, The Art of Looking Sideways is just a special book, full of quotes, drawings, photographs, and other musings on the creative process. Anyone in the creative field, from a painter to a copy writer to a comedian, can benefit from leafing through.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards
This is another book that’s technically meant for art students, but it’s so rich that writers can learn a lot from it, too. The book’s main tenet is that artists need to understand and utilize the “right,” or creative, side of the brain. Essentially, it teaches you how to bypass the practical, logical constraints of creative work and access the imaginative, free part of your subconscious. I’d love to see a Writing on the Right Side of the Brain knock off, but until then, this book gives all kinds of artists valuable tools for understanding their own creativity.

The Nerdist
Hosted by comedian Chris Hardwick, The Nerdist podcast features long-form interviews with some of the best and brightest creative minds of the day, from Tina Fey to Mel Brooks to Tom Hanks. It focuses on comedy, but there’s so much writers can learn and relate to listening to these interviews; I can’t tell you how many times an actor or writer or comedian has talked about the grind of working through new material, facing rejection, or the snake-eating-its-own-tail feeling of finding and keeping work in a creative field. Favorite interviews for writers: Donal Logue, Conan O’Brien, Neil Gaiman.

The Moth
A must for storytellers. The Moth podcast culls the best stories from its country-wide storytelling evenings, which are often open mics that anyone can participate in. What I love about The Moth is the sheer diversity of stories—homeless recovering addicts share the stage with bubbly party girls and prize-winning scientists. It’s a great lesson in voice, in capturing an audience, and in simple storytelling. Every time I listen to The Moth, it reminds me of why I love stories: they bring us together to listen to—and learn from—each other.

Do you have any favorite writing resources? Leave a note in the comments!

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