Exploring the Craft: Reading for better writing

Exploring the Craft
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Affiliate Disclaimer

I am an affiliate for Bookshop.org and Bookshop links are affiliate links. That said, these are books I’ve read and will attest to being genuinely helpful to me.

Can you read your way to better writing through craft books?

I’m a bit of a writing craft junkie. I started collecting books about writing a few decades ago when I was first interested in becoming an author. Natalie Goldberg and John Gardner were my go-tos. But life got in the way, and for several years I wrote little and read less about writing.

Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer

That changed when I picked up Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer. Published in 2009, it was quite prescient and covers all the avenues of publishing available today. But it wasn’t the advice on publishing that grabbed me as much as the advice on writing a novel. Much of it was both a kick in the pants and a pep-talk into adopting the mindset of a professional author.

 I was concerned much of it might be outdated for 2021. However, reading through it again for this article, most of it still applies. Booklife is not so much a craft book as it is a how-to-manual for being a professional writer. It inspired me like no other book on writing and still does.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

Another book, more craft focused but also covers all aspects of writing fiction, is Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Not only is it comprehensive, but it’s deep. There are real examples taken from all forms of fiction to illustrate the authors’ points. I refer to this book with every book I write, and I always seem to find something new that sticks with me.

The Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction

A terrific book, especially for beginners, is also by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s called The Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Aimed at Speculative and Fantasy writers, this is a rich book with explanations, illustrations, essays by prominent writers in the field, and exercises. I recommend the print edition as the illustrations don’t work as well in ebook form. If you are relatively new to the SFF field, this book is a wellspring. Even if you’ve been writing SFF for a while, it’s an outstanding reference book. I know SFF writing workshops that make this book required reading.

Writing the Other: A Practical Approach

My last suggestion this week is a book for any writer, but especially those who are white and cis-gendered. Writing the Other: A Practical Approach [ebook only Amazon link] by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. It’s the best resource for understanding how to write characters who differ from you without causing harm to those communities, and how to handle yourself if you do.

I understand from Nisi a revised edition will be released soon, but you can’t go wrong with the current edition. The book shares the experiences of both authors, one black and queer, the other white and cis. It answers if you can write identities other than your own, and spoiler: yes you can. There are ways to do it well, and ways to do it poorly. Cynthia and Nisi delve into all of it.

I recommend this for SFF writers because too often we think we’re just making up worlds and don’t need to worry about diverse identities. But nothing could be more mistaken. The worlds we create project our own real-world views intentionally or not. We should be intentional and aware of the roots of the identities we create even in secondary worlds.

Photo by Darwin Vegher on Unsplash
My list

I can’t say these are the best books for you, I just know they helped and are still helping me. Find books you can refer to again and again, and those that inspire you. Find one that covers the craft and process of writing from beginning to end. Then find books that cover something you’re weak at. If Dialogue or Description are your weak points, find books specifically on those topics.

I’ve curated a recommended list of books. I own them all so feel free to ask me questions about any of them. I’ll discuss more books and add them to the list as the series continues. Comment below to share your favorite craft books.

In the next installment, I’ll tackle ideas, where to find them and how to develop them into stories. I’ll ask, how weird is too weird?

Kevin Fellows
Kevin Fellows

I’m a poet and author of fantasy and speculative fiction. My debut novel At the End of the World is available now. You can find my poetry in the Star*Line Summer 2020 issue, and at Free Verse Revolution.


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