The autodidact’s reading list

I’ve written previously about how I have an MBA, not an MFA. And how that didn’t work out so great for me. So when I was unemployed and stuck in a tiny apartment while raising a newborn baby, it wasn’t a great time to contemplate going back to school for yet another masters degree. Plus, I reasoned, I’d always been told I was a great writer. How hard could it be to write a novel?

Cue laughter from literally everyone.

So when I was starting out I bought a copy of On Writing by Stephen King, which I think is the writing book that pretty much everyone reads when they think they might have caught the writing bug. And it’s a good first book in that respect. I think it definitely lays out the landscape for the novice writer:

  1. What you write when you’re just starting out will be bad,
  2. but you can get better with practice,
  3. which you should do. Everyday. Even Christmas.
  4. Also adverbs = BAD

But it’s not a book I’ve ever returned to, since I need way more specific and practicable advice now that I’m 11 years into writing.

I think the second writing book I picked up was The Art and Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall. This book was supposedly used by Michael Chabon and Amy Tan, so you can’t argue with those results. I find it a bit all over the place in terms of organization – it’s definitely not a book you have to read in order – but he explains very clearly a lot of different writing concepts like the macguffin, the two-shoe contract, and the subtle differences between the many POV options.

Then we come to my absolute favorite of favorites, the book I tell everyone to buy – BUT ONLY AFTER YOU’VE FINISHED YOUR FIRST DRAFT!

The Art of Subtext is part of Greywolf Press’s The Art of series, all of which explore an element of writing that often gets overlooked by traditional texts (ie, The Art of Intimacy, The Art of Description, etc.) In The Art of Subtext, Charles Baxter, who I think is a gosh-darn genius, takes you through all the ways you can imbue your writing with subtext – things unsaid, mood, the way physical details can signal character, and people who can’t stop making scenes. It’s basically a guide on how to take your writing from blah to HOLY CRAP ON A CRACKER! All of Charles Baxter’s writing is great, honestly, but this is such a simple-to-understand book, and can totally help transform a manuscript.

The reason I don’t recommend reading this book while you’re on the first draft, however, is that if everything is subtext in the first draft it’s going to feel forced. What’s beautiful about subtext is that it’s quiet and inevitable, so it’s better to work in during revisions rather than right at the beginning.

And finally I want to talk about Save the Cat, which is intended for screenwriters, but is really applicable to novelists too. Save the Cat is a step-by-step guide to writing a tight script that you could potentially sell for bazillions of dollars, with advice on writing a logline, choosing a genre, making sure your story keeps moving, and structuring your story around the basic Hero’s Journey. This might all sound formulaic, and maybe it is, but I think most people need to learn the rules before they break them. Both Pablo Picasso and Vasily Kandinsky started out painting representational art before they were able to experiment with form and abstraction.

Yup, this is an early Picasso.

So even if you want to write the most avant-garde novel of ideas that’s ever been written, something that’s just a dog walking in circles for 500 pages, I still think it’s a good idea if you start out with an attempt at a narrative arc. And the great thing about learning writing from a screenwriter is that the rules for screenplays are unforgiving and demand that Things! Happen! All! The! Time! Thats not to say that a novel shouldn’t be quiet and introspective, but things – even revelations or epiphanies – still need to be happening. Otherwise you’ve just got a dog walking in a circle for 500 pages.

I could go on forever about my favorite craft books, but part of the journey as a writer is discovering the books that resonate with you and not someone else. And learning from your friends and mentors which writing books they love and why. But for what my opinion is worth, I’ve put together a list of some of my favorites below. Consider it an autodidact’s reading list. And I’m also always looking to learn more about writing. How does auto-fiction work? How do you make a prose-poem? How can I make my writing weirder? So if you have recommendations I’d love for you to leave me a comment and tell me your recommendations!

  1. Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular by Rust Hills: This is a must-read for any short story writer. Structuring short stories and figuring out what goes in and what gets left out has always been tricky for me, and Rust Hills uses great examples to illustrate the different elements of great stories. His book made me excited to get back to the page again.
  2. The Anatomy of Story by John Truby: My writing mentor, Janis Cooke Newman, absolutely swears by this book, and she’s an outstanding writing teacher, so I trust her. I find his methods a little constraining, but they will absolutely force you to clarify your thinking, so I think it’s a good read before you get to the page.
  3. Story by Robert McKee: This is a very technical screenwriting book but his sections on crafting scenes are the best I’ve yet read.
  4. Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman: Goldman was an absolute legend. This isn’t really a writing book, but it’s a great read nonetheless, and from whence we get the gem: In Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.”
  5. Naming the World by Bret Anthony Johnston: Broken into the different elements of craft, this is a collection of writing exercises and tips from some of modern fiction’s brightest stars.
  6. The Art of Intimacy by Stacey D’Erasmo: Also in the “Art of” series, I didn’t like this one as much as The Art of Subtext, but it certainly gave me a lot of think about regarding how my characters interact with each other.
  7. Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight: This book might be a little outdated but he has some great advice nonetheless about short stories, and especially POV.
  8. To Show and to Tell by Phillip Lopate: An essential book if you’re planning on writing essays – personal, critical, or whatever.
  9. Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter: Like I said, Baxter’s a freaking genius. This is a 24-year-old book of literary criticism that’s as relevant today as it was when it was written.
  10. Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico: And this is just a fun one for getting unstuck if you find yourself caught in a corner. Rico lays out a method for word association that she’s used with children, inmates, and serious writers alike.

Author: Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Before becoming a writer Elizabeth was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares Blog, The Idaho Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Her debut novel, MONA AT SEA, was a finalist in the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards judged by Carmen Maria Machado, and is forthcoming, Summer 2021, from Santa Fe Writers Project. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Oakland, California.