Having just finished Haruki Murakami’s book Novelist as a Vocation, I thought it would be fun to look through some of the various books about the craft of writing. The fact that so many books exist I think is a great indicator that many people are interested either in becoming writers or learning more about writers as people. I’ve read the books below for both purposes. This healthy interest is reassuring that books will continue to thrive in our society.
The number of books out there is also proof that the craft of writing is inherently personal and there is no “standard” to the practice aside from putting words on paper (or in digital program). I often need this reminder, especially of late as I’ve failed to work on any writing projects. I have two sets of “rules” hanging on my office wall to remind me of the important parts of writing. Time is my nemesis at the moment, but I hope to develop a strong discipline to help me work toward my goals of writing several novels.
Now back to the list of books by writers on the craft of writing.
As I mentioned, I recently finished Haruki Murakami’s book Novelist as a Vocation which I found insightful for many reasons. It was first released in 2015 but recently released in English for the first time. This book gives insight into Murakami himself, but also a history of publishing in and outside of Japan, how unstable writing as a career can be, and also how much luck he had in starting and maintaining his career as a writer. In the end, my takeaway was that Murakami stayed true to himself, as we all should, and worked hard, diligently, and persevered. Times have definitely changed since he began writing novels, but this book gives a realistic “look behind the curtain” to what it means to work hard at this craft. He removes some of the romantic notions often circling the image of author which may be one of the most valuable takeaways for most writers.
I haven’t read too many books on writing recently, but I have read several throughout the past decade or so, and I keep a copy readily available of those I liked if I ever want to revisit or look up any particular portion.
Gareth Powell has a good little reference book called About Writing: A Field Guide for Aspiring Authors and he recently had published a much larger, expanded version I have yet to read. The smaller, original book is a great, brief look at writing and beyond but likely would seem dated already (perhaps the reason why the updated expanded edition was released).
Much older, but still insightful and inspirational, is Ray Bradbury’s book Zen and the Art of Writing. You can feel the passion Bradbury had for writing emanating from the pages of this one. It is a quick read as well and can help get the furnace lit for long writing sessions. I remember I randomly found this book at my local library and read through it then promptly buying a copy for my own shelf.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s book Steering the Craft is a structured discussion of craft that can be used as an instructional course on writing. Including writing assignments and exercises, it could be exactly the thing you may be looking for or want from a book about the craft of writing. This one is also shorter and more instructional than some other books on this list which discuss writing habits developed by the author. This again shows how individual this pursuit can be.
Negotiating with the Dead is a series of essays by Margaret Atwood which discusses writing. It has been some time since I read this book but it was insightful, and I learned a lot from Margaret Atwood when I took her Masterclass. That, I hate to say, is where I first discovered her and her work. I’m glad I eventually did, though I have much of her work to read through. She definitely has a lot to offer through her own experiences.
I recently went through a Vonnegut period where I read all of his work. It all got started when I read Pity the Reader which is a book about Vonnegut and his thoughts on writing. It was constructed from his original work and teachings and put together by Suzanne McConnell who was instructed that the book had to consist of mostly Vonnegut’s material. McConnell was one of Vonnegut’s students when he taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop and remained a close contact of his. She also has taught writing and gives some of her own thoughts in this book. The result of this book is an insight into the craft but also an insight into this author.
On Writing by Stephen King is likely one of the most well-known books on the craft of writing, and (if I remember correctly) it was the first book about craft I ever read. Part memoir, part craft-talk, this is a great look into one of the most successful writers in America and will likely remain a timeless book picked up again and again.
Diana Wynne Jones has a similar part-memoir, part-craft book titled Reflections which is also a great read. It is much different than others on this list primarily because of the time and location. Diana Wynne Jones was a young girl during World War II, lived in England, and later attended Oxford where she took a few courses taught by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. She is an excellent author in her own right and has some interesting thoughts about her two former professors.
Last, and not least, is the ever-present book The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. This small book seems to be a common denominator among writers and writing programs. It is an excellent reference guide to writing in the English language, but like all other books about writing, it shouldn’t be used as all-authoritative “standard” to writing. Stephen King even discusses this book and one of the “major” rules from it that he breaks often.
Writing is a very personal thing to do, and there is much to learn from those who made careers from this trade. The world of publishing has changed drastically within the past 20 years let alone the past century, but I believe this list covers most of the relevant themes anyone would need when exploring the craft.