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4 Must-Read Books for Aspiring Writers

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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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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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literature
25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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History
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said. He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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