This is a very fragmentary list. All the items on it have helped me personally, and I have cited most of them on this website. Each of the titles below is linked to that book's page on Amazon.com, if it's offered there. (Sadly, some are out of print.) If it sounds interesting, buy it. Over the years, I've spent the equivalent of a small country's annual budget on Amazon, and I know they come through.
I want this list to grow. If you know of something that should be on it, contact me. We'll build it together.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books on writing. Many of them are written by someone who has only written books on writing. If I'm going to turn to someone for advice, I want to know that he or she has sweated out the birth and delivery of a novel, or at least some major piece of creative work.
Lamott, Anne, Bird by Bird (Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1994)
A genuine mother lode, one of the best books about writing ever. This is an indispensable resource for writers of all kinds at all stages of development. Lamott is a first-rate novelist (Rosie, Crooked Little Heart) and the ideal combination of inspiration and writing coach: compassionate, endlessly practical, full of insight, laugh-out-loud funny. I don’t know any writer who wouldn’t get something important from this book. It can also be read just for fun.
Edgarian, Carol and Jenks, Tom, The Writer’s Life: Intimate Thoughts on Work, Love, Inspiration, and Fame from the Diaries of the World's Great Writers (Vintage Books, 1997)
The ultimate bathroom book for writers. You can open it anywhere and find something that will make you think – inspiration, humor, practical guidance. Many of the quotations that begin the pieces on this site were taken from it. The authors are due a big, loud “thank you” for the work they put into locating and organizing this material.
Higgins, George V., On Writing (Henry Holt/Owl Books; 1991)
Tough-minded, no nonsense, zero woo-woo, not a lot of help for the beginner, written primarily for people who are already writing and who can benefit from sitting at Higgins's knee, hearing him describe what he likes, and reading from other writers whose works embody what he likes. The tone is a little dark and pessimistic (like Higgins's excellent fiction) and almost always entertaining.
Hiney, Tom, Raymond Chandler (Grove Press, 1997)
Chandler is not only America's greatest mystery novelists, he is one of America's greatest novelists, period. This biography is eminently readable and full of insight into how Chandler learned, and practiced, his craft. To me, it's an indispensable book.
Chandler, Raymond, Tom Hiney, and Frank MacShane, The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959 (Grove Press, November 2002)
Chandler not only thought about writing all the time, he wrote about it. He wrote about his own process, and he wrote with enormous insight and total candor about the work of others. (He particularly disliked James M. Cain, whose work, he says, always “smells of billygoat.”) Chandler's life, especially toward the end, was sad and solitary. He drank too much, and he was married to a much older, and very ill, wife, whom he worried about constantly. He saw almost no one. But he wrote letters. He wrote them by the bundle. They're a sort of Lost Dutchman's Mine for writers.
Chandler, Raymond, The Simple Art of Murder (Vintage; Reissue edition, September 12, 1988)
The best essay ever about the American mystery novel, laugh-out-loud funny, animated by gratitude to Dashiell Hammett, who Chandler believed “gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it.” When Chandler wrote this piece, “cozies” ruled the world – books in which both victim and murderer were upper-class, the corpse was probably found in the conservatory, and the weapon was something exotic, like a poisoned peacock feather or the sharpened tusk of a unicorn. Hammett, in The Maltese Falcon, turned this world on its ear, and Chandler turned it into art. This is the essay (I think – I haven't got it with me) in which he coined the phrase “mean streets” to describe the basic setup of the private-eye novel: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.” Or something very much like that.
Dillard, Annie, The Writing Life (Harper & Row, 1989)
A Pulitzer Prize winner, Dillard is an exquisite stylist, and one of the toughest and most unsparing of all writers about writing. More a meditation on writing than a “how-to” book, this is for writers who are serious about their work, who want to improve it, and who are not afraid to question, and if necessary discard, anything they have written. It is also for anyone who wants to read American prose at its finest. It is impossible to read her without learning.
Cameron, Julia, The Right to Write (Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam, 1998)
Cameron calls her book “a cheerleader for those trying to live the writing life . . . “ Not specifically for novelists, but aimed at anybody who wants to write anything: journals, poetry, novels. It consists of very short chapters, each concluding with a writing exercise, some of which will be helpful to many and some of which (please excuse me) are a little on the silly side. Cameron’s a good and thoughtful writer and cheerful company on the page. Readers who enjoy this book should also read The Vein of Gold, Cameron's excellent book on the creative process.
King, Steven, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Scribner/Pocket Books; 2000)
One of the all-time best-sellers talks about how he came to be a writer and how he does it, day after day after day. He begins with a 90-page section he calls “CV” (for curriculum vitae) that describes how he became a writer and what happened to him afterwards, including alcoholism and cocaine addiction. King is both a generous writer and a generous man, and the book is full of helpful, practical stories, ideas and techniques that many writers will find extremely useful.
Lots and lots more to come here in the future.
National Novel Writing Month
The ultimate cure for writer's block, and one of the best ways in the world to learn something about writing a novel, is to try to write one in a month. That's the challenge posed by Nanowrimo, and tens of thousands of people have accepted it and completed, within thirty days, a story 50,000 words or longer. The great advantage of doing this, of course, is that it gives you no time whatsoever to dither. If Hamlet had entered Nanowrimo, Claudius would have been dead meat in a couple of weeks. The site also offers forums in which writers can ask questions and discuss common problems.