In the course of my scholarly investigation into the role of research in creative writing, I’ve spent a lot of time reading books about writing. Like, a lot. About 30 such books made it into my final study, which will be published in portal later this year. I’ve since read 7 more to include in a follow-up that I’m hoping to publish somewhere in the writing studies field. And there are about 10 or so that I’ve read that weren’t included in either study because they didn’t meet the criteria. So, in all, I’ve read 45-50 books about writing. Most of them were specifically about fiction writing, but a few were more genre agnostic while some of the more recent ones are about poetry and nonfiction.
I’ve learned a lot about creative research from these books (at least, the ones that talk about it). But what I’ve really learned is that when it comes to books about writing, most of them are kind of basically the same. If you’re someone who’s going to read 50 of them like me, that’s bad news because you’re hearing a lot of the same advice over and over again. But if you’re only going to read one or two, that’s good news because it means you can’t really go wrong in your choices. The information you learn from one book will probably be basically the same as any other book, so it’s better to pick based on the author’s approach. For example, are you looking for a how-to or more of a literary analysis? Do you want a wide survey of all of the craft elements or a deep dive into one?
Below are the five writing books I read that happened to resonate the most with me as a creative writer. (In no particular order.)
The Art of Creative Research by Philip Gerard: When I first discovered Gerard’s book, I was admittedly a little dismayed. I was more than a year into my research and seeing that this book already existed made me feel a bit scooped. It took me some time to get over that enough to actually read it. I’m glad I did. Gerard’s book is the only source I know about that’s fully dedicated to creative research for creative writers. What’s especially nice about it is that it’s a genre agnostic book—Gerard’s advice is aimed as much at fiction writers as those who write nonfiction (IIRC, he also has some stuff in there about poetry). As an information literacy instructor and scholar, I don’t agree with everything he has to say—his views on internet sources seem a little dated, for example. But Gerard makes room for that by acknowledging that everything he’s writing is based on his own approach and that there are experts who may not agree. Most valuable, though, is Gerard’s contemplation early in the book on the fact that he almost gave up writing because he didn’t think his imagination was powerful enough and didn’t understand early on that research could be used to supplement imagination. That feeling is one that I relate to a lot and, in fact, helped drive a lot of my research.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott: Look, Bird by Bird is a classic for a reason. I probably first encountered this book as required reading in college but it wasn’t until I reread it years later that it really resonated with me. I still return to it from time to time. Lamott’s take on writing is valuable for the way she subverts the tendency in a lot of writing books to take writing too seriously. It’s not that Lamott doesn’t take writing seriously, it’s just that she doesn’t treat as some kind of sacred act and she makes room for the inevitable self-doubt you experience throughout the process. Honestly, the book is just hilarious and everything in it is just so very true. It was also one of the first sources I found that at least references the role of research in fiction writing, as when Lamott tells the story of having to call a local winery to find out what the “wire thing” on a bottle of wine is called. (These days, you’d just Google it.) Honestly, this is the book I would give to any aspiring writer looking to learn more about what the experience of writing is like.
Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig: I discovered Chuck Wendig’s blog during the time when he was mostly using that space as a forum for sharing his often rather colorful writing advice. In fact, some of his writing on this topic (as well as the guest posts he features by other authors) was the original inspiration for my investigation into creative research. He’s since shifted way from writing about writing but there are a lot of great archived posts and this book also serves as a good general summation of a lot of what he originally blogged about. And it’s written just as colorfully. The one complaint I had about the book when I read it is that Wendig returns to storytelling examples like Star Wars and Die Hard to illustrate his points maybe a little too often. This might not be a problem except that Star Wars in particular is used as a go-to example of Great Storytelling in so many other books that there’s not really any new ground to cover. But, again, that might only be an issue for someone like me who’s reading way more of this type of book than the average person. I’m a big fan of Wendig’s writing about writing(1) and this book is a great source for writing in general and his style of writing in particular.
The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing by Zachary Petit: I actually read this book long before I started my study of writing books. At the time, I had a side gig as an online writing tutor that I was really hoping to ditch but I still needed the extra money and thought it might be useful to read about freelance writing as another option. I never ended up publishing (or even pitching) any freelance work but the advice in this book has been super helpful in other ways. For example, I returned to the chapters on interviewing people several times in preparation for the author interviews I’m now conducting as the next step in my research. Petit’s advice is approachable and step-by-step and it’s nice that he comes at it from the point of view of both a writer who has published his writing in various venues over the years and as an editor who has evaluated submissions from others. Unfortunately, even though the book is less than 10 years old, some of the advice has gotten a little dated. Hopefully Writer’s Digest will release a new updated edition one of these days. But even if they don’t, there’s enough here that’s still applicable that this book is highly worth it if you’re interested in learning how to come up with and pitch ideas for various publications.
Tie: Mastering the Process by Elizabeth George and Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk: These are two books I came to rather late in my research, after a peer reviewer asked me to add more recent books to my study. In both cases, I was familiar with the authors by reputation but had never read anything by either of them. I think George’s book is one of the best sources I’ve found not only on how to conduct research for a novel but also how to then actually use the information that you find. She details her own research for her novel Careless in Red and then demonstrates how she used that research in excerpts from the book. Super useful. Palahniuk’s book I was more cautious about. Like I said, I hadn’t read anything by him but I knew that he was known for writing Fight Club and similar in-your-face hypermasculine type books so I wasn’t super enthusiastic. It turns out that Consider This is a thoughtful exploration of the advice he received from a mentor as a young writer and what advice he would give aspiring writers now. There’s also some frankly haunting bits of memoir in here, including a secondhand story about Stephen King at a signing event and a separate secondhand story about a woman on a plane that have stuck with me in not entirely pleasant ways. I don’t know that this book convinces me that I need to check out any of Palahniuk’s other work(2) but I was pleasantly surprised.
- I even have one of the “Art Harder Motherfucker” mugs he sells as merchandise. It sits on my office shelf alongside my beloved Buster Keaton mug and my new Blackbeard’s Bar and Grill mug. What I’m saying is I have a lot of mugs.
- I don’t know what it is about his stuff that I find so off-putting. In high school, I devoured everything I could find by Irvine Welsh, who at the time wrote a lot of similar deliberately gross or violent or disturbing stuff that sometimes had important cultural commentary behind it and sometimes didn’t. And I liked a lot of it! So it’s not like I’m a prude. I guess now that I’m older there’s just something about this type of writing that I find more exhausting than enjoyable.