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But I’ve spent my career learning how to tell stories not only as a fiction writer, but as a screenwriter, director, editor, painter, actor… So, I wanted to share a few books from these various pursuits — books that aren’t so standard on “great books for writers” lists. These texts have helped me see storytelling in new ways:
The Writers’ Journey by Christopher Vogler. If I could only have one book on writing, this would be it. Based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, Vogler makes Campbell’s complex text relatable. It lays out an unbeatable story structure. Yes, Vogler and many of his fans are Hollywood types, but I use this text to help me solve problems in everything I write. I never take any writing book as gospel — you always have to apply your own voice — but Vogler is the best guide through the murky water of story.
True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor by David Mamet. Yes, this is a book for actors, but it asks deep questions about story, authenticity, finding your voice as an artist. It’s also filled with great advice on how to approach the LIFE of an actor (or artist, for our purposes). If you consider yourself an artist, this one will not disappoint. (Oh and while you’re at it, read Mamet’s On Directing Film — you’ll want to use his advice on editing in everything you write).
Ways of Seeing by John Berger. This is a book about ART — painting, sculpture, visual storytelling. But in order to write good stories, your reader must picture the scene in their minds; therefore, you must become great visual storytellers. This book is key to understanding how we see, why we see, what art does to us. It has bled over into my writing in more ways than I can count. Read it. Let it soak into your artistic life. It might just change you forever.
Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe. Billy Wilder is arguably the greatest storyteller in film, but even if you aren’t a fan of The Apartment or Sunset Boulevard, there is so much to learn from this man’s brain. In this unique book, director Cameron Crowe interviews the brilliant director. Their conversations about film, storytelling, editing, directing, fame will change the way you see story. Even if you aren’t a film buff, read it. Thank me later.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. This book promises to teach you how to read like a writer — and it does not disappoint. It shows you how — with every new book you pick up — to push your own writing to the next level. Don’t just sit back and let the text wash over you, but you sit up, lean in, and learn how the greats craft their stories. This book profoundly changed the way I write by changing the way I read.
Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno. Of course I also recommend reading the original classic Aristotle’s Poetics, but in case that ancient text is too dense, Tierno does a great job of translating Aristotle’s masterpiece into modern-day language. Yes, it was written primarily for screenwriters, but novelists can easily use the story structure tips to tell an exciting, page-turner of their own. An easy way to make a connection back to Aristotle’s treatise on art.
Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall. Maybe you’ll call me a hack for recommending a book that tries to break bestsellers down into some formula, but I loved this little book. It looks at everything from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Godfather and The Da Vinci Code to try to understand what makes a story popular. I don’t think it’s a full-proof formula for writing a bestseller — every classic has a bit of magic involved, doesn’t it? — but it made me think about what creates broad appeal — and what doesn’t.
If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die by Patti Bellantoni. This book is meant for filmmakers, but I learned so much about the subconscious effect of color — and I use these lessons in my fiction writing. The power of color is stronger than we know and this book lays out some interesting thoughts and ideas on its use. If nothing else, this book will force you to think about how you use color in your stories, and that is a gift to any writer.
Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood. I’ll admit a bias: Margaret Atwood is my favorite living writer, but regardless of whether you love her fiction, this book is a haunting conversation about what it means to be a writer and why we do what we do. It’s not your typical “how to” writing book, but a thought-provoking exploration of the craft. A beautiful read for any serious writer.
Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord. This book changed the way I saw the way we — as a modern day society — consume stories. What enthralls us? What enraptures us? — for better and for worse. Yes, it will make you question whether our society is moving in a deeper direction or if we are becoming dangerously shallow, but it might also teach you how to Razzle Dazzle your audience and keep them leaning in.
These are some of my favorite books on writing. What are yours?
(I’m always looking for suggestions for new readings in this area!)