4 Must-Read Books for Aspiring Writers

If there's one thing writers love talking (and complaining) about, it's writing. Lots of authors have put out books about their writing processes -- some better than others. Here are four of my favorites. (And please use the comments to suggest more books on writing that deserve to be featured!)

1. Telling Lies for Fun & Profit

Telling Lies for Fun & Profit is easy to read, as it's actually a collection of magazine pieces -- each chapter is designed to grab a magazine reader, and this style actually makes it easy to put down in between chapters. As a whole, the book is more about the business and specifics of working as a writer than about the writing itself -- if you're looking for specifics on plotting and structure, go elsewhere. But if you want to read helpful, fun stories about how Block made his living writing fiction -- and how you can, too -- have a look, over at Amazon.

2. The War of Art

The War of ArtThe War of Art (subtitled: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles) by Steven Pressfield is a clever twist on the classic "Art of War" by Sun Tzu. But this time, the enemy is "Resistance" -- an inner demon that seeks to divert and destroy the writer (or businessperson, or whatever) from his or her goal. Pressfield draws on his own experience "going pro" (he wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance after many unsuccessful novels and screenplays) to make a compelling statement to aspiring writers: treat writing like a job. Get up in the morning and do it; the Muse will come, if you stick it out. But more than just telling you to do it, he dissects a series of arguments and issues that get in the way. By two-thirds of the way trhough the book, I was ready to leap from my chair and go write something -- it's that compelling.

The last part of The War of Art goes slightly off the rails (in my humble opinion), as Pressfield describes his belief in angels who are actively interceding to help with his writing process (but only after being properly beseeched via prayer). But whether you believe in angels or not, the bulk of the book is genuinely useful in guiding a beginning writer from amateur to pro -- and it's organized in very short, bite-sized chapters. Check it out at Amazon.

3. On Writing

On WritingOn Writing by Stephen King is a modern classic that tells King's story of becoming a writer, and gives details of his current process. I'm always curious about the specifics of a writer's daily life (what time does he wake up? Does he work at home or out in the world? And so on...) and King gives up all this information -- he describes his daily schedule, daily word counts, and what reference books he actually uses (okay, I'll just tell you here: Strunk and White). King's book is interesting both as autobiography (it was written around the time of his life-threatening encounter with a van) and as guidance for writers. He gives plenty of details and exercises on writing, with a major focus on dialogue -- one of his great strengths.

On Writing is a quick read, but there's material in the book for later study, should you be so inclined. If you're curious about Stephen King's early years typing in the laundry room of his trailer, this is the book to read. As usual, it's available at Amazon.

4. The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers

The Believer Book of Writers Talking to WritersThe Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers is a compilation of interviews from The Believer, an excellent literary magazine. A few of the twenty-three interviews are previously unpublished, but the bulk are standard Believer fare -- smart, beautifully typeset discussions between creative people. I enjoyed this because it's so casual -- in general, it's just a lot of talking, and often the people talking are way smart. Warning for haters of The Believer/McSweeney's: you might find the discussion between Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace a little crazy-making, but then again, what did you expect?

The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers is available...wait for it...from Amazon.

Now, I know there are more great books on writing out there in the wild. What are your favorites?

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16 Tips From Famous Authors for Writing Better Poetry
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The elusive art of poetry isn’t so hard to master if you know how to set the stage. In honor of World Poetry Day, here are a few handy rituals from some of history’s greatest poets.


Samuel Johnson once said of himself: "[I am a] hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has, for 20 years, diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes the morning.” The end result was that he reportedly drank 25 cups in a single sitting.


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Tea isn’t strong enough for everyone. W.H. Auden took more aggressive stimulants: amphetamines. Auden took a dose of Benzedrine every single morning, though his affinity for the chemicals is likely to blame for his heart failure at age 66.


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Dame Edith Sitwell was known for delivering dramatics, the most notable of which might be her practice of lying in an open coffin to prep for writing.


A photo of Agatha Christie
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... is best eaten in the tub. Agatha Christie would chow down on the fruit while taking a bath and dreaming up ideas. If fresh apples aren’t your thing, Friedrich Schiller had an alternative use: letting them rot under the lid of your writing desk. Whenever he needed a hit of inspiration, Schiller would lift the lid and let the putrid stench lead him to brilliance.


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Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Lowell famously chain-smoked cigars, which she claimed were preferable to cigarettes because they lasted longer and therefore allowed her to keep her focus on writing.


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James Whitcomb Riley—known as the “Hoosier Poet”—would rent a hotel room and strip down to do his writing. Counterintuitively, this was actually a means of self-preservation, as the nakedness kept Riley from going to the bar.


Edmond Rostand
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While Riley fought to keep himself out of the world in order to write, Edmond Rostand fought to keep the world out of his writing space. He became so frustrated by interruptions that he ended up sitting naked in the bathtub to work.


D. H. Lawrence
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While we’re on a nudity kick, D. H. Lawrence liked to climb mulberry trees in the buff because it tickled his imagination.


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Maya Angelou holed up in hotel rooms like Riley, but stayed clothed (as far as we know). The author would rent a room in her hometown by the month as a dedicated place to do her writing. Angelou had all the decorations removed and requested that housekeeping refrain from cleaning, for fear that a valuable scrap of paper might get discarded.


Sometimes environmental stimulants are as good as liquid ones: Hart Crane was known to take leave during parties to tap away at his typewriter with records spinning nearby. Later on he’d return with pages, saying, “‘Read that. Isn’t that the grrreatest poem ever written!’”


A photo of George Sand, a.k.a. Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin
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The verdict is out about whether it helped George Sand’s (a.k.a. Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin) writing, but her lover, fellow author Alfred de Musset, found it exciting when Sand would waste no time between lovemaking and writing. That’s probably for the best, since Sand often wrote between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.


Edgar Allan Poe
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Edgar Allan Poe wrote works “Annabel Lee” and “Ulalume” with his beloved cat—named Catarina—sitting on his shoulder. While she wasn’t black, Catarina is also believed to be the inspiration for the 1843 story, “The Black Cat.”


William Wordsworth
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William Wordsworth famously loved to set out on foot at all hours of the day to clear his mind, and even went on a walking tour of France in 1790.


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If the comfort of home is just not confining enough, get in your car and stay parked. Gertrude Stein used to do it, writing on scraps of paper in the automotive quiet.


An illustration of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
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It’s not one to try at home: Samuel Taylor Coleridge wasn’t shy about his use of opium and even said that Kubla Khan was inspired by an opium dream. Coleridge was interrupted while writing the poem and ended up forgetting the lines he needed to complete the structure as originally intended. It wasn’t published until some 20 years later, and only then because Lord Byron encouraged it.


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It might serve you well to escape within yourself, just as T.S. Eliot did after the success of The Waste Land. Eliot started renting rooms in London’s Charing Cross Road and became “Captain Eliot” or “The Captain.” If that’s not enough, incorporate makeup into the mix. Captain Eliot was also fond of wearing green face powder and lipstick to look like a cadaver.

Why a Major Error in 'A Wrinkle in Time' Was Never Corrected

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962, and thanks to the recent release of a big-budget Disney adaptation, the book is just as popular as ever. The book has earned its status as a modern classic, but according to the Daily Beast, there's something hiding in the text of every copy that is rarely seen in titles that have enjoyed such a long print run. The book features an error that's been reprinted millions of times, and unless you read Greek, you would likely never notice it.

The mistake falls on page 59 of the new Square Fish edition that was published to tie in with the new film. On that page you'll find a quote from Mrs Who, one of the three mystical beings that guide the protagonist Meg and her companions across the universe. Because verbalizing in her own words takes a lot of energy, Mrs Who communicates strictly by quoting great writers and thinkers from history. In this case, she's quoting the playwright Euripides in his original ancient Greek. She follows it with the English translation, "Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything," but Greek speakers will notice that the two quotes don't match up. The original line in Greek includes words that don't make sense together or don't exist at all.

How was such a glaring error able to go unnoticed in a major work for so long? The answer is that it didn't: L'Engle was made aware of it by a friend of Greek heritage in the 1990s. According to L'Engle's granddaughter, the writer could trace the typo back to the Dictionary of Foreign Phrases and Classical Quotations, the book she pulled all of Mrs Who's quotes from. While transcribing the Euripides quote by hand she must have omitted a letter by accident. The quote was further removed from the original when the typesetter chose the Greek characters from her manuscript.

Even after hearing about the mistake, L'Engle didn't make fixing it her top priority. Instead she invested her energy into tackling other copyediting issues for the 1993 reprint, like removing all the periods from Mrs Who's, Mrs Which's, and Mrs Whatsit's names. When L'Engle died in 2007, the mangled quote was still standard in new copies of A Wrinkle in Time.

To date, only one English-language edition of the book contains the corrected quotation: the 1994 audiobook narrated by L'Engle herself. But the publishers of A Wrinkle in Time at Macmillan are apparently aware of the error, so the next printing may finally be the one that gets it right.

[h/t Daily Beast]


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