4 Must-Read Craft Books to Get or Keep You Going
You’re stuck. The idea that had you vibrating with delight last week now seems so boring. Or you’re floundering in the doldrums of the middle of your novel. Or you just don’t think you can bring yourself to get started on the seemingly insurmountable project you’ve already signed a contract to write.
Enter craft books. A good craft book might help you get a handle on your particular problem or on the larger creative issues you’re grappling with, might provide you with a fresh perspective, and might even inspire you.
Below are some of my go-to books. Even if none of them are exactly what you’re looking for, reading about other writers’ strategies, approaches, and understandings might lead to further reflection on your own practices and philosophies. And that’s never a bad idea.
1. My first recommendation is not even an entire book — it’s the “Introduction” to Joe Hill’s short story collection, Full Throttle (2019). In it, Hill describes his life as a reader and a writer (and a son — his father is Stephen King) and talks about how he initially resisted writing “scary” stories, trying instead to compose the kinds of pieces that are likely to appear in The New Yorker. Ultimately, Hill surrendered to his calling to write about the weird, the horrible, and the creepy — that is, the kinds of stories he was surrounded by and that he enjoyed. Hill concludes, “You get the life you’re dealt, and if you’re going to write, that’s your ink. It’s the only ink you get. Mine was just very red.”
Take Home Message: A key to being a happy (and possibly a productive) writer is to follow your passion. Don’t try to fit into anyone else’s mold or write what you think you are “supposed” to be writing. If you don’t find your own work thrilling, you probably shouldn’t expect anyone else to either.
2. My favorite part of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (2016) is Elizabeth Gilbert’s contention that ideas are always swirling around us, looking for a home, a person’s mind to inhabit. Gilbert basically proposes that when you’re in the shower or on a jog or in traffic and you have a moment of creative inspiration, that’s an idea landing on you and seeing if you’d like to collaborate. It’s an elegant, optimistic, lovely way of thinking about creativity; I’ve taken to thinking about it almost like an idea dating app. That is, sometimes you get an idea and keep scrolling, and other times, if you like an idea, you swipe right and get to know it a little better. You see where it takes you.
Take Home Message: Ideas will come and, if not nurtured, they will go. Make a practice of writing down your ideas and then, when possible, committing to them, before they move on to someone else.
3. There’s so much to love in Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Advice on Writing and Life (1995), including the idea from which the title is taken: Lamott tells the story of her brother having to complete a big school project on birds that he has put off until the last minute. How can he possibly finish this seemingly-overwhelming task? The answer is “bird by bird.”
Take Home Message: Writing is ultimately the act of placing words down, one after the other, in an order that will make sense to a reader. That’s all it is. The process itself can be exciting or discouraging or hard or easy, but it’s still just words on paper, one after the other. We do it bird by bird; we do it word by word. Just keep doing it.
4. Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need (2021) is an excellent resource for anyone struggling with pacing or structure. Drawing on the “Save the Cat!” strategy for screenwriting, Brody describes the 15 narrative “beats,” discusses what each beat should include, includes genre-specific organizational charts, and provides copious examples from popular novels. Brody has done the work of reverse-engineering novels so that you don’t have to.
Take Home Message: While not everyone wants to follow the exact structure Brody provides, this craft book is absolutely invaluable as a tool for analyzing narrative as well as understanding how to implement a strong structure in your own work. This is so important because, as I think we all know but don’t like to discuss, no reader is obliged to finish a novel they’ve started. Strategic, deliberate structure can provide your work with the momentum and pacing it needs.
Each of these authors offer practical, applicable advice. To sum up their ideas: follow your bliss, invite ideas into your life, and commit to them. Don’t give up, even when the task seems insurmountable. And don’t think you have to figure it all out by yourself: use established ideas about narrative and structure to help you get a handle on your project.