What Developing Writers Should Read

Some of the books I’ve found most helpful as a writer, roughly in the order that I think a person should read them.

1. The Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. The “development of a writer” stuff really gets going in Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown and continues through Betsy’s Wedding, the last in the series. Read these to learn some basic truths about writing (never neglect your writing, be persistent) and to see the wonderful support she gets from her family, friends, and partner. Though Betsy makes mistakes sometimes, this is essentially a portrait of the ideal way for a writer to grow up and develop.

2. Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. I once loved these books so much I typed out Wild Mind so I would really absorb its lessons. These days, I rarely return to them. But I found them invaluable for teaching me to keep my hand moving and to write what I’m really thinking.

3. Stuff like the stuff you want to write. If you want to publish your work, you need to read what’s already out there. If you’re writing short stories, read a lot of short stories. If you’re writing fan fiction, read a lot of fan fiction. The more recent the better.

If you’re not reading the kind of stuff you want to write, it’s easy to, say, think that a contemporary retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” is a fresh idea, only to discover that there are already several books out there based on that premise. Or to write a children’s book from the perspective of an adult (rare these days). If you’re only reading older stuff, you may write a story that feels like it’s from the 1990s, or the 1890s. The definition of “recent” depends on the genre, but for young adult fiction, I try to concentrate on books from the past three years.

The flip side of this is that whatever you like to read is probably what you should be writing: if you love European literary fiction, don’t write a romance just because you think it’s going to be easier. Romance has its own set of conventions and you need to really know them before you can write a (publishable) romance book. In almost any genre, the rules can be broken, but you need to know them first.

4. Okay, back to advice books. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Lamott is hilarious and low-pressure but also gives it to you straight. It’s been a while since I’ve reread it, but I think it works for both beginning and more experienced writers.

5. On Writing by Stephen King. Just a good, general, all-around writing book. If you think that successful writers are mysterious and perfect, King will show you otherwise. One thing I like about this book is that it covers the whole spectrum of writing advice: King’s development as a writer, the nuts and bolts of adverbs, and advice on publishing.

6. The Emily books by L. M. Montgomery (Emily of New Moon, but especially Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest). If the Betsy series shows the ideal development of a writer, the Emily series shows the (almost) worst-case scenario. Emily has to work for her success. Her guardians forbid her to write fiction, and even once that ban is lifted, Emily often writes late at night in a cold attic room by the light of a single candle. Though she does have a mentor, he’s not always encouraging, and one of her closest friends constantly belittles her work. Read this series to learn about persistence and to feel better about your own obstacles.

7. Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. If you write, but don’t feel like a “writer,” read this book. I love her advice about connecting with other writers and how to build a life that feels like your vision of what a “writer” is. Particularly valuable for people who feel stuck in a day job, or in their identity as “student,” “mom,” or “bartender.”  Her craft advice is pretty good, too, but it’s the lifestyle stuff that makes this book invaluable to me.

8. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. This book on screenwriting finally helped me “get” plot. The writing isn’t always great, and he’s sometimes dismissive of certain types of “artsy” films, but his advice is straightforward and simple (though not always easy) to follow.

9. Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. I like the time-management advice in this book, which is basically “even two minutes counts.” The chapter on “Dead Weight–What You Can Ignore” was good, too. Take the craft advice and his frequent “always” and “never” tips with a grain of salt.

10. Writing the Breakout Novel and accompanying workbook by Donald Maass. I’m not sure I’m even ready for this one yet. It makes you think HARD about the novel you’re writing, examining your characters and plot, adding layers, etc. Even a few hours spent with this book will make your book richer.

Have you read any of the books above, and do you agree with my recommendations? What other books have you found helpful as a writer?

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