Every writer has at least a few books he keeps handy for when he needs to quickly look up how some detail or phrase was written perfectly, or refer to a guide on formatting or development (plot, character, conflict, whatever), or even just to reread a story, chapter, page, poem, play that influenced him in a particular way. We all have these books, as reading is unarguably a prerequisite to writing, and certain books or authors influence us in a way that we want to recreate (in our words and style) from time to time. Some have a stack on the edge of the desk or shoved in a corner, leaning slightly like the tower of Pisa. Others have an entire bookshelf filled to the brim within arms reach. And then there are the mad genius types who have towering stacks completely surrounding them, pages torn out and stapled to the wall with highlights and pen markings all over, bookshelves filled twice over and spilling out onto the floor, desk cluttered so much the computer or typewriter can hardly be seen, complete with a narrow path leading to the exit in case of emergency. Whatever the case may be, we all have something we keep close so that we may refer back to it from time to time.
The obvious are the dictionary and thesaurus. Those are mandatory tools that every writer should have and use on a daily basis. But there’s other essentials, as well – books, as I already said, that influence us in particular ways that we need to keep thumbing through to find those golden nuggets. Mine is kind of small at the moment, especially since I regretfully have a lot of books in electronic format (those just don’t smell and feel the same). But pictured above is my growing “shelf” of essential reading material (someday they will sit on a real shelf near my desk, instead of on said desk), and I offer an explanation of why they are essential to me:
*Note* These book are only in order of size, so that they look somewhat neat on my desk, and not in order of importance.
The Norton Shakespeare – Never mind that this is the Second Edition or that it is based on the Oxford Edition, this is the complete works of Shakespeare – every play, every sonnet, every poem, plus an introduction to each play – which includes a history, what it is based on, and an interpretation of key points – and articles on Shakespeare’s life and how he was influenced by certain events and books in history. I am so happy I took a Shakespeare class during my time in college. Even though the teacher was a little tough, he knew his Shakespeare forwards and backwards, and I learned way more from him than if I had just picked up this book on my own and started reading (which I wouldn’t have, because I had already found nearly all the plays for free through Amazon). That being said, this book has influenced me more than any other, I think. I had always been a fan of Shakespeare, but only limited to his more famous plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, etc… There were many that I had never read, and never even heard of. Reading his plays, reading what they were about and what they were based on, reading what he was going through in life when he wrote each one has, influenced me in a way I never would have imagined – they are so expertly written that even though many are based on real events, he was able to completely fictionalize them and make them unique, as if he made the stories up himself. That is what many authors (if not all) strive to accomplish, and I am no different.
The Norton Introduction to Poetry – I am not a poet. I do not wish to be a poet. I enjoy reading and writing poetry from time to time, but I certainly don’t need this book for that. And I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t even buy this book – it was left on a “Free to Take” bookshelf, and I believe it was left there for me to find (no, not by the person that left it, but by whatever or whoever controls fate and luck and karma and et cetera et cetera, if such forces exist). The reason I was compelled to pick this book up is simple: I like to write fantasy. I enjoy creating worlds and realms and civilizations. And to create them, and to make them appear authentic, I like to add the occasional song or poem. I even like to create fictional books. What is a civilization that doesn’t have these forms of entertainment. Just a taste, is all I wish to add, something that enriches and even helps advance the story. And so I plan to scan this book for any tips it might offer to make said songs or poems seem real. Who knows, maybe I will even get a little more serious in writing poetry and publish my own chapbook some day.
The Essential Tales of Chekhov – Anton Chekhov is one of those writers you either love or hate. But, honestly, I don’t know how any writer could hate Chekhov. And to be even more honest, I think the only reason people hate him is because there is so much hype surrounding him by writing teachers. I believe writers get sick of hearing about how great he is, and therefore begin to dislike everything about him, including his stories. Well I am not so narrow minded. The Essential Tales of Chekhov are essential for a reason – they show how to develop characters and how to develop short stories. Chekhov could write about anything. He is known for his blunt titles, which tell the reader exactly what the story is about (“A Misfortune,” “Enemies,” “The Kiss,” “The Lady with the Dog”), and for his expert characterization (which he likely excelled at because he had been a doctor for so many years). But besides those, Chekhov could tell a story. I was never bored while reading through this collection. I just kept turning the pages to find out what would happen, and it was never predictable. But besides that, his stories are real. Most of them could happen to anyone, and probably have. My favorite story from this collection is “Kashtanka,” which is told through the point of view of a dog, and even includes characterizations of a goose, a cat, and a pig. This story is amazing, and the actions of the dog are exactly how I percieve them, its thoughts are exactly how I imagine them. If I ever write a story that includes any of these animals, or one similar, I will be sure to refer back to that story. And I will constantly be referring to the whole book to see how a masterful story is crafted.
MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers – This was a requirement for a poetry class, only because the professor was a stickler for proper formatting (and even following the guidelines in this book was not good enough for her, she wanted perfection! But that being said, she was still one of the better professors I’ve had, and I owe her a lot for all the help she had given me). For almost two years now, I have been waiting to get rid of this book, waiting to finish college and be done with essays and research papers forever. For almost two years, I’ve been saying to myself, “I can’t wait to never have to look inside this damned book again!” I hate, hate, hate research papers and all these meticulous details and procedures that need to be followed. I knew that I would hang on to it just in case, but I would bury it as deep as possible in a box of college textbooks. But as I began typing this post, I realized that I still use it! Do YOU know whether to underline, quote, or italicize books, plays, songs, short stories, or whatever else you reference? I can never remember! Most bloggers probably don’t care, but there is a proper way to format anything that is published. Even if I don’t become a journalist (which I plan to try to get into until I make it as an author), I plan to quote books, songs, and stories in my books, and I know that I had better get the formatting right if I am to be taken seriously. I guess I’ll be hanging on to this book for a while then.
The Best American Short Stories 2013 – I believe this will change every year, as I plan on buying each new addition that comes out. Once I get a proper shelf, I may include each previous edition, but I’m not sure yet. But this is included because it shows me how the best short stories of each year are crafted. And while I work on my novels, I will continue to write short stories. I have not started reading this book yet, but I am sure it will greatly influence me.
A Visit From the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan is such a wonderful, unique writer, I had to include this. She has accomplished stories that I never could have imagined could be accomplished. I have read several of her stories from this book so far, plus a separate story that was published in The New Yorker, and I have been enthralled by everything, but especially by two very very original ideas. First is that story from The New Yorker, “Black Box,” which was written in 2nd person (a feat on its own, if you ask me and many other writers) and in tweet-sized snippets so that the magazine could put her story on Twitter. Yes, each sentence/paragraph/statement was 140 characters or less, and together they told a compelling story about a female spy. It is simply amazing. The other story I was particularly amazed by, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” – which is included in this book and is also available for free (with audio) on her website – is told in the form of a slide show presentation. How unique is that? And it’s a good story too! These stories really show how diverse of a writer she is, and I will constantly look to her for inspiration.
On Writing – When I found out my biggest influence as a writer, Stephen King, wrote a book about writing, I snatched it up immediately. And then I let it sit on a book shelf for years before I finally delved into it. When I finally came to my senses a couple years ago, I started reading it. Most of the book is more about how King got into writing and how and why he writes, rather than on how to write. But I don’t need to know how to write. I know how to write, I know the basic fundamentals of writing. What I need to know is how famous published authors write, what worked for them and what didn’t, and more importantly, what tools they used in writing to help me fill my own toolbox. It’s not that I wish to copy them, but I want to learn what worked for their success and what they learned from their mistakes, so that I may apply it to my own writing and add it to my own learnings, and that is exactly what King wrote about in this book.
On Becoming a Novelist – This book has been recommended to me by multiple professors. I just added it to my collection, and all I have read so far is the foreword by Raymond Carver. But that foreword could nearly have been written by myself, it is so true to my own life and thoughts and feelings. And if that’s the case, then I know I will find something useful in John Gardner’s guide to writing. I can’t wait to explore it.
Bird by Bird – As the subtitle suggests, this is a book of “Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” Like the others, this is not a book on how to become successful as a writer. Success is found individually, and no one can tell exactly how to do it. It is up us to find out on our own, but getting a little help along the way is always a plus. Anne Lamott has helped me significantly, mostly by making me realize that my writing is crap, or as she calls it, a “Shitty First Draft.” I think that is one of the most useful bits of advice any published writer could offer. It is important to realize that our stories are not perfect right away, no matter how much we think they are. And it is important to edit them, let them sit for awhile, then read them over and edit them again before we even consider sending them out for publication. The quicker you send that story out, the quicker it will get rejected. But also, we must not dwell on trying to perfect the story in the first draft. Getting the story on paper, no matter how crappy it is, is important, but it is just as important to go over it with a fine-toothed comb several times before we think it is complete. And even then, it’s probably not. Lamott also offers great advice and experiences on plot and setting and character development, as well as just getting into the write frame of mind. Like many other published authors, she recommends to start short, and that is why I include all the short story collections on this shelf of essentials.