If, at this moment, you’re ready to light fire to that steaming pile of mess that you called your NaNoWriMo project, don’t. If, at this moment, you’re poised to push SEND on an email to a New York literary agent with that NaNoWriMo project attached, don’t. Because you’re not done yet. National Novel Writing Month, which non-nerds call November, is about one thing: removing obstacles to the seemingly simple but, in reality, quite daunting task of putting the words on the page, with the motivation of a ticking clock and the sympathy and inspiration of 300,000 other committed writers at your back.
But the rest of the year is about the real heavy lifting: revision.
NaNoWriMo is done for the year, but your work is just beginning. If you’re not sure how to proceed now that the word count tickers have stopped and the steam has evaporated, know that you’re not alone. These books on writing—covering inspiration, memoir, and nuts-and-bolts advice—will keep you going through the other 11 months of the year.
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White (yes, that E.B. White)
That’s right. The book that tormented you all throughout middle-school language class is back. Actually, it never went away. Strunk & White knew what they were talking about. Every writer should have a copy, because you can’t break the rules until you know them.
Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose
I am a slow reader. As a writer, that seems like a liability. I can’t breeze through bookshelves like some of my colleagues. But here’s why: I read like a writer. That means I read each sentence, each word, and always, in the back of my mind, I’m wondering how and why the author did it this way. I’m like a contractor looking for studs. In this “Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them,” Prose (oh, to be born with that destiny) teaches readers and writers how to slow down and pay attention, because we learn to write by reading.
On Writing, by Stephen King
You don’t have to be a fan of King’s writing (or his made-for-TV movies) to find real worth in the suspense master’s “memoir of the craft.” In a highly accessible way, King writes about his own life and hardly meteoric rise to best-selling superstardom. He also offers notes on the writer’s “toolbox,” but the real takeaway is the persistence, the delight, and the dedication that it takes to be Stephen King. Quote: “For me, not working is the real work.”
Aspects of the Novel, by E.M. Forster
If you’re one of those writers who has lost patience with impenetrable literary scholarship, you’ve come to the right place. Aspects of the Novel was compiled from a series of lectures at Cambridge University in 1927 (bear with me), but Forster is devoted to plainspoken English (for 1927), and the conversational over the rhetorical. He breaks the novel down into seven fundamentals: story, people, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm.
Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
Writers need discipline, focus, and the ability to let go. Know who else has those skills? The Zen Master. Goldberg brings her meditation practice to the writing table. The most important lesson, grasshopper, is the same for the writer’s path or the seeker’s path: Get your butt on the seat cushion, because showing up is half the battle; then, let all the rules go. It’s a bit dated (in 1986, there weren’t a lot of novelists on laptops), but the message still rings clear as a Tibetan singing bowl.
Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke
A collection of ten letters written by the Prague-born poet to a 19-year-old military cadet contemplating a future in the literary arts. The truth and beauty of Rilke’s words are enough to make even a hard-boiled detective novelist weep. This book will remind you of the purest reason to write—because you must—and give you the courage to be gentle with yourself.
The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
Writing can feel like a fairly passive activity, and sometimes you just want to feel like you’re doing something. Therein lies the lasting appeal of this New Age–tinged twelve-week program for artists of any medium, not just the written word. Readers work their way through a course in creative “recovery,” keeping daily “morning pages” and taking solo, exploratory “artist dates” that may sound silly but can be quite freeing.
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
In the immortal words of Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, “You have to laugh at yourself, because you’d cry your eyes out if you didn’t.” This goes double for a writer. If you’re having trouble with that, read this: a writing book with a sense of humor. With frank advice on topics like “shitty first drafts” and knowing when you’re done, it’s a book about living as much as writing.
Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
Best known for his dystopian and science fiction, Bradbury was also known for his gusto, which he brings to this practically giddy book of essays on creativity and writing. Luckily, that enthusiasm is catching. It infected at least one other author on this list: Stephen King.
The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
Gardner may be addressing his advice to young writers, but it applies to the old geezers, too. A lifelong teacher of the craft, Gardner doesn’t waste time stroking the egos of would-be writers, encouraging them to release their inner creativity. He gets straight down to the fundamentals of theory and technique. This is shop talk from a master, not a pep talk.
The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
Save this one for October 2014. Before you embark on another NaNoWriMo of heaping up words at breakneck speed, take a quieter, contemplative moment with “gregarious recluse” and naturalist Dillard as she shares insight into how and why she writes. Wise, meditative, and sometimes wry, think of her as the Yoda of Writing.
What’s your favorite book on writing?