It's never been a better time to be a writer. Hold on buckaroos — I can almost hear your protests and long-held-in sobs. Now it's true that a handful of ginormous conglomerates have swallowed up many American publishing companies. In fact, five publishing conglomerates control about 80% of book sales. This means traditional channels are shrinking, few mom and pop shops exist any more, and gentlemen editors are as outdated as fins on cars. And lots of shakedowns and even more downsizing have happened in the face of our current recession. Thus, it's not easy to break into publishing. In fact, industry insiders wonder if edgy, experimental writers like Annie Proulx or Jack Kerouac would have problems breaking into print in today's corporate culture. But wouldn't the world be a dimmer, duller place without The Shipping News, Brokeback Mountain, and On the Road?
Perhaps instead of worrying about how the old publishing model is disappearing, accept that the book business is evolving and there are many more ways to deliver stories and content to readers: e-books, digital books, web books, podcasts, print on demand, iPhone apps, and cell phone novels.
It's a great time to be a writer because of all the resources available to make you a better writer and a collective interest in stories and storytellers. No matter how much the world changes, people everywhere are ready to sink into a soft pillow or airplane seat and whisper to the story gods, "Take me somewhere that I've never been before."
But on to the subject of this blog post: I receive a lot of emails from writers soliciting advice and inquiring about what they should read to make them better writers. So here's list for a writer's bookshelf, although I'm not keen on creating lists because as soon as I post this, doubtless I'll remember 10 more books I wish I'd mentioned. But you should buy these and copies for your writer friends.
- The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale. Every writer needs this book. There are no exceptions.
- Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works with Words by Bruce Ross Larson. Larson is so practical it hurts.
- Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. Hale's love of language rings through on every page and she breaks down the parts of grammar in easy-to-digest bits.
- Grammatically Correct: An Essential Guide to Punctuation, Style, Usage, and More by Ann Stillman. Every time my memory fails me, Stillman never does.
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. The irrepressible Lamott explains how to take writing seriously without taking yourself too seriously.
- Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan. Fabulous, crystalline examples and in-depth explanations. A classic.
- Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. His writing style is a bit dense, but he's such an expert on screenwriting he makes me feel like a weenie. Fiction writers need to read him, too — learning the three-act structure is a must.
- On Writing by Stephen King. The real deal.
- Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. Because this is what you need to do — read like a writer.
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser. I learned so much from this man that it would take way too much space to explain.
- Spunk and Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style and anything else written by Arthur Plotnik. He's a freaking genius-god in the writing world.
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Another classic and must-read.
- Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process by Peter Elbow. If you cannot grasp that old "show, don't tell" advice and are working on voice, this book is for you.
- Dialogue: Techniques and Exercise for Crafting Effective Dialogue by Gloria Kempton. I wish I'd written this book.
- The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. Another book that turned on the light for thousands of writers.
- Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress. She's a goddess at explaining how things work in storyland and her advice is practical and doable.
- The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Lukeman is an agent who simply knows his stuff — I've been recommending this book to writers ever since it was published.
- Creative Nonfiction by Philip Gerard. The author explains how nonfiction can go far beyond reporting.
- How to Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat. Insightful and practical guide to writing suspense and mysteries.
Okay, now I feel like I'm having a hard time slipping off the stage here, but I want to toss out a few more shards of advice to writers or want-to-be writers. I wish there was a secret handshake that would whisk you into the world of published writers, but I guess if there is one it would be called professionalism. So in everything you do, act as grown up as possible because if you behave like a jerk it will come back and bite you.
Writing is hard. Write from your heart, do your best, learn all you can. The majority of books sell fewer than 100 copies — oops, oops, is this supposed to be encouraging? If so, maybe I should erase that last sentence. The point is don't write to get rich, write because you must, because stories burn inside you. Because you'll burn up if you don't transpose them.
If you get a book published, you will somehow need to pimp it. Finding balance in life as a writer is difficult because of the pimping, the need to make a living until you break out and other factors. However, the successful authors I've met are some of the happiest, healthiest and loveliest people I've ever run into.
Cultivate your voice. Collect words. Get rid of your lame modifiers. Watch the sky and live with a lot of awareness. Write about the quality of light. Ask yourself constantly "what does this remind me of?" Drift toward your soul in all you write. If you write fiction, create outrageous people you would never invite to dinner or bed. Make your story people speak resounding truths, but don't make it obvious that they're speaking resounding truths. And of course don't give up and never stop learning and appreciating the wonderful world of stories.
Thanks to Powells.com for this opportunity — I truly enjoyed posting here and may thousands of readers and shoppers come your way.
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Jessica Page Morrell is the author of Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction and The Writer's I Ching: Wisdom for the Creative Life. She works as a developmental editor and was formerly the writing expert at an online magazine. Morrell teaches writing at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and leads a series of workshops in the Northwest.
Books mentioned in this post
Jessica Page Morrell is the author of Thanks, But This Isn't for Us: A (Sort Of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected