I am a rabid reader of nonfiction in nearly any form. One day my teenage daughter caught me with a 1800s history book on a county in Iowa and commented ‘how boring!’. I suppose, but there is something exciting to me in non-bias, no nonsense facts, or the wild ‘truthful’ accounts of people that see their world much differently than we see our modern society. If you’ve ever read one of these seemingly dry genealogy records, sometimes you’ll find the most outrageous stories of Native Americans, natural disasters, and real-life wild frontier incidents hidden between the boring bits. Truth can be far more entertaining sometimes, as it allows us to relate or reflect on a more personal level than an imaginary world can. Fiction is fun, but nonfiction can improve us as a person.
Over the years, I’ve collected my fair share of books on the topic of writing. I’ve come across a few that were promptly given to the local book trader after reading the first chapter, but most were worth keeping. Most likely this list looks similar to other recommendations, and that’s okay. It never hurts to see your favorites along side new additions.
The list is as follows:
On Writing by Stephen King
This book appears on damn near every “greatest book” list, most likely because it’s half a memoir, half instruction, and full on mad-scientist-genius. If you are looking for a more technical book, this isn’t it. It’s barely organized and he doesn’t go too far into the editing process, however, there are several excellent examples of the technical aspects of writing sprinkled within the book and hiding in the entertaining stories. What makes it great is King shows us how he got to where he is without regurgitating meaningless educational tips. It’s not a manual, and should be used for inspiration and learning by example.
Gotham Writers’ Workshop
Technically this one is a college text book that I ‘borrowed’ from my 20-year-old cousin. However, it’s quite possibly the cleanest and least boring college text book I’ve ever read for fun. I found it to be well organized and offer a well-rounded perception of the process of writing without sinking you in dull topics of grammar and format. I think the examples in a variety of different types literature is what moves it along – you aren’t just being taught writing, but rather you see it in action. Oddly enough, this book was published around the same time as On Writing, and I did find some very different views on several aspects. The contrast adds to both of the books, as I love to see a variety of views and the reasoning behind it.
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
An old one, but a great one that’s extremely useful if you are struggling with finding and organizing ideas. It’s mentioned a few times in On Writing and classified as a classic with good reason. Like Stephen King, Ray Bradbury gives instruction from a place of experience. By showing the road they took to their own success, they aren’t suggesting we use it as a blueprint, but rather we find similar elements in our own life and writing.
The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maas
This author also comes from a place of experience as a successful fiction writer with the added bonus of successful agent. I have to admit, I haven’t finished this one yet, but we all know within a chapter or two if the book is a keeper or not. This one is a keeper. The subtitle “How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface” sums it up well – Maass digs deep under the surface and into the emotion of the story to demand you write to make your readers feel something instead of simply reading a plot. There are plenty of examples along the way to show instead of just teach as well.
Room to Write by Bonni Goldberg
This small gem from the 1990s I must have picked up at a book sale somewhere along the way, and what a lucky find it was. It has little to do with the mechanics or elements of writing. Instead, the bulk of this book is designed to be a vast source of inspirational prompts. If you find free writing helpful to your creative process but don’t know where to start, you need this book. I tend to be in the same school of thought as Stephen King when he says that story ideas are “found things” and we as writer just dig them up. It doesn’t take much for me to find inspiration for a story and run with it. However, I’ve owned it for over a decade and still haven’t read more than a few pages, simply because it’s that inspiring and gets me writing so quickly.
I feel I should mention that the books on this list focus on fiction writing. My library includes a few other titles that a bit more specific to types of writing, such as copy-writing and formal writing. Like I said, I’m a sucker for nonfiction and gobble them up!
What are your favorite nonfiction books, either on writing or other topics?