Summer Reading for Writers
Inspiring Books about Words, Reading, and Writing
Sometimes you want a big fat popular beach book, the novel everyone is reading this summer.
But ... sometimes only you and the seagulls are awake, the breeze smells of salt and solitude, you cradle a mug of pre-breakfast coffee...
You want a book to remind you why you write.
The following books are ones I read when I need inspiration or wise advice, motivation or a thoughtful, considered, writerly, kick to that part of the writer that first hits the hammock. Summer or winter, these are books that inspire... and in that hammock, maybe you'll find time to ponder their words.
On Writing - Stephen King
Part autobiography, part writer's instruction manual, this book by the best-selling horror writer is inspirational, instructional, and, at times, a dire warning. There is a great description of how to do description and a useful explanation of a Writer's Tool Kit that needs to be read - often. King passes on lessons he's learned while writing and good advice given to him... like:
"I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: "Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%. Good luck."
(My personal ratio is closer to 15%, but then, I'm not Stephen King.)
My sentimental favorite is King's description of the phone call from his agent to say that Carrie had sold. Then again, his account of his hit-and-sit-around-chatting-to-the-victim accident (King doing the bleeding) is... like something out of his own novels. Unforgetable.
You'll want to re-read Carrie, Misery, and probably several other of King's books immediately afterwards. (Misery has a lot to say about writing too.)
On Writing is a really useful book and a favorite inspiration and advice book for working writers.
"...When you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head." - Stephen King
More on Stephen King
Stephen King (1947- ), is an American writer best known for his best-selling horror fiction.
Born in Maine, that region remains important as the setting of many of his stories... often in the fictional town of Castle Rock. King studied at the University of Maine and, like many writers, worked a series of jobs until the success of his book Carrie. He is married to novelist Tabitha King.
Stephen King has received many awards, including the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Why listen to his writing advice? Roger Ebert may have put it best (in his review of the film Secret Window): "A lot of people were outraged that [King] was honored at the National Book Awards, as if a popular writer could not be taken seriously. But after finding that his book On Writing had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, I have gotten over my own snobbery."
Stephen King Links
I'm an occasional Stephen King reader - horror isn't my "thing" really - but I can highly recommend his Misery. Salem's Lot, The Shining, the Dark Tower series... he's written a lot of interesting and, I think, well-written novels and certainly had enough popular success to add weight to his writing suggestions. On Writing is a good guidebook.
King's Advice to Young Writers on YouTube
Read! And Write. Listen to the man...
Stephen King on Writing Short Stories
Interesting discussion of the knack of writing short stories versus novels.
Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen - Fay Weldon
For anyone who enjoys Jane Austen this book is a treat - a lucid explanation of her life and times, putting her novels into context. The writer, Fay Weldon, has a deep appreciation and understanding of Austen's work, with an amusing and unsentimental point of view. But besides these Jane-ite joys, this book is a passionate defense of the art of fiction writing. Weldon, a novelist herself, really "gets" what fiction writers do and how they do it. (She's also amusing to read.)
Great stuff. But the real reason I LOVE this book and find myself re-reading it, is Weldon's riff on what she calls "The City of Invention" - the imaginary city that writers build through their writing.
(Don't type, Alice, if you persist in your insane literary plan: use a pen. Develop the manual techniques of writing, so that as the mind works the hand moves. If God had meant us to type, we'd have had a keyboard instead of fingers, etc.) - Fay Weldon
More on Fay Weldon
Fay Weldon CBE (born Franklin Birkinshaw, 1931- ), is an English writer known for novels where contemporary women are trapped by the patriarchal structure of society. Her novels get labeled "feminist" but Weldon herself claims her novels are merely factual... men just don't like those facts.
She was born into an English literary family, studied at St. Andrews, worked in advertising, and taught writing at Brunel University. No doubt Weldon's private life - marriages, divorces, motherhood - has, as with any other writer, given her material for her novels. She has also written for film and TV, including the show Upstairs, Downstairs.
Why listen to her writing advice? As Steve Dixon, head of the School of Arts at Brunel, put it: "Not only is she a legendary writer, she has always been an inspiring and generous mentor of new writers."
Fay Weldon Links
A confession, I haven't read any of Fay Weldon's novels (I have seen the movie version of her She-Devil... does that count?). But I absolutely love her Letters To Alice. Her novels are in my bedside must-read-'em stack.
Aspects of the Novel - E. M. Forster
The book, Aspects of the Novel, was published in 1927 and grew out of a series of Clark Lectures that Forster gave at the University of Cambridge. This is old-school, exquisitely written, a master-of-English writing ON writing. A classic.
Read it for the lovely flow of language, for the scholarship, and for the shrewd workman's understanding of what makes a novel tick. Among other pearls, Forester gives a great explanation of "Story" and "Plot."
One section I love talks about how writers are less products of their times (as high school English teachers teach us with all those schools-of and influence discussions) and more a result of their in-born temperaments: "We are to visualize the English novelists not as floating down the stream [of time] ... but as seated together in a room, a circular room, a sort of British museum reading room, all writing their novels simultaneously." From here Forster compares like-minded authors, regardless of their historical period. Fascinating.
"The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, of anything else which we cannot define."
- E.M. Forster
More on E. M. Forster
Edward Morgan Forster, E.M. (1879-1970), was an English writer best known for subtle, ironic (well-plotted!) novels. These examine the class differences and hypocrisies of his early 20th-century British society, stressing the need for human sympathy and understanding; as his character in Howards End pleaded: "Only connect".
He was born into an Anglo-Irish and Welsh middle-class family and studied at Cambridge, later, Forster was on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group. During World War I he was a conscientious objector so volunteered for the Red Cross. He traveled in Europe and lived for a while in India.
Five of his novels were published during his lifetime; his fifth, Maurice, with gay themes, was published after his death.
Why listen to Forster's writing advice? Any writer who could say: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” was by-golly putting words first! That's how writers think.
E. M. Forster Links
A little information on this distinguished novelist follows at the sites below.
Read his novels Howards End, A Passage to India, or A Room With a View. (All inspired beautiful Merchant/Ivory films.) In Aspects of the Novel Forster explains the workings of novel-writing.
Bird by Bird - Anne Lamott
A modern classic on the writer's life and on fiction writing itself. Full of good advice. And very wise and funny about the emotional games we play with ourselves - the way we get in the way of our own work.
"Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere."
— Anne Lamott
More on Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott (1954- ) is an American writer known for both novels and non-fiction, both highly autobiographical. She is also an activist and a writing teacher. She was born into a literary family and lives in San Francisco. In her novels and non-fiction, Lamott's usually serious-minded, sometimes tragic, subjects are treated with empathy and humor.
Why listen to her writing advice? For one thing, she has a tight grip on the best aspect of the gig: "Seeing yourself in print is such an amazing concept: you can get so much attention without having to actually show up somewhere . . .You don't have to dress up, for instance, and you can't hear them boo you right away."
Anne Lamott Links
Anne Lamott has written a number of other books which have sat high on my I-gotta-read-this! list for ages. In fact, where is my library card...?
Okay, I finally did get to read some of her other non-fiction: Operating Instructions and Traveling Mercies. Both are lively, funny, sad, and full of quirky faith. This first book is about the first year of her son's life - life and death and faith - the second is explicitly about her journey to Christian faith. These are not the types of books I usually read... but they're wickedly funny and real and well worth reading.
The Unstrung Harp: Or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel - Edward Gorey
This little illustrated story - by the terrific Edward Gorey - REALLY understands writers. Read it after you finish your own novel! (Or before hand, so you won't think you've gone nuts... or not nuts all by yourself anyway.)
“My mission in life is to make everyone as uneasy as possible.”
- Edward Gorey
More on Edward Gorey
Edward St. John Gorey (1925-2000) was an American writer and illustrator best known for his visual art and macabre illustrated books.
Born in Chicago, he studied at Harvard and, briefly, the Art Instutute of Chicago, though he always said his art training was "negligible." He worked for a while in New York, but the latter part of his life was in Cape Cod and rather reclusive, never marrying.
Why listen to his writing advice? Well, The Unstrung Harp doesn't really give any... just the comfort of complete understanding of the writer/creator's state of mind.
Edward Gorey Links
An eccentric writer and illustrator with a bent towards the macabre... and the darkly funny.
Here (courtesy of You Tube) is Edward Gorey's terrific animated into to the PBS series "Mystery":
So... A Little Beach Reading
All of these books are perfectly suited to those quiet moments on vacation when the kids are busy digging sand or the whole gang is off playing mini-golf... and you can savor a thoughtful book. Read. Enjoy. Become inspired and enlightened.
As Anne Lamott puts it in Bird by Bird:
"You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won't really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we'll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won't wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be."
A Few Other Writer-y Books
A few more good books for writers on writing. I suggest paperbacks, so you don't have to care much if you accidentally drop 'em in the sea.
More Books from These Writers
Or try some other writing by these writers whose writing advice is so good.
Another Author on Reading and Writing
In case you've missed his (Pulitzer Prize winning) work, Michael Chabon is one of the best American writers working today.
This book is a collection of his essays on the ways reading, writing, and a writer's life inform his work. Fascinating.(But it'll make more sense if you read at least his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay first.)
More Summer Reading Suggestions?
Lists of good books for writers to read... other folks' suggestions:
- Fiction Writing - Summer Reading
Some excellent selections.
Books at the Beach
(Not a Photoshop Moment, honest! I Googled "books beach public domain" and HAD to use it. Please let me know if it's your photo and want it removed or, alternately, Thanks!)
From 2pep.com: "The shelves, which were in place for just one day, offered bookworms thousands of books to choose from and beachgoers were invited to swap one of their own books or make a gold coin donation, with money raised going to The Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation."
A Well-Written Read
Okay, this book is not overtly ABOUT writing, though full of the atmosphere of writing and reading. These essays are so well-written that just browsing through the book is inspiring.
My Favorite Summer Reads?
Settle in for a long, cozy read
I love a looooong series.
If you like historical novels, then summer is a great time to start something like Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series of novels about the Napoleonic era British navy. Or the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell - land-based military novels of the same period. If you like more romance in your history, start Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. A terrific time travel / history series.
If it's fantasy you prefer, there's always the classic The Lord of the Rings by Tolkein (not a series, just a long book in three separate covers). I love the Chalion series by Lois McMaster Bujold.
Or her space-based Vorkosign series, starting with Cordelia's Honor.
Roll Your Desk Outside
Here's a small, light-weight, MOBILE desk that you can roll outside to hold your notes (flat) and laptop or legal pad (sloped)... as you sit all comfy in your Adirondack chair or on your porch glider.
Possibly the perfect write-where-you-want desk indoors or out. This adjustable dual surface desk ought to serve you whether you're sitting in a straight-backed chair with the light over your left shoulder - as your fourth grade teacher insisted - or lounging in bed. Perfect on porch or patio too.
Just bring it in out of the rain though, huh?
(A note: I haven't used this exact model. From reading customer reviews it seems to be a good-value product and easy to assemble - as these things go - but I can't vouch for that personally. I do love the design though! I don't know about you, but for me, laptops just don't really seem to be designed to used comfortably on a, um, LAP.)
Perfect Mystery Writer's Beach Towel - Take Douglas Adams's Advice
You should always have your towel. (Read The Salmon of Doubt for an explanation and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe for examples of the towel's usefulness.)
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