Craft Reading List

I like reading about writing. I like catching up on what I didn’t take in school back when I had the chance. In 2013, I took a class from Mark Poirier at the Iowa Summer Writing Fest and he suggested I look into low residency MFA programs. Kristy and I looked into it and chose the path doing this on my own. I would go to writing conferences or summer workshops. I would find a writing community. I would read all the craft books I could find. A big part of my work would be learning. It still is. It always will be. Craft books are a required tool for this:

For those of us who are no longer in school, it is necessary, if we want to go on learning and discovering, to know how to make books teach us well. In that situation, if we want to go on learning, then we must know how to learn from books, which are absent teachers.

How to Read a Book, Adler and Van Doren, p. 114

This list has grown a lot since I started keeping it here on my blog. Making a top 5 list to keep track of my current thoughts and what I would offer first to someone asking me:

  1. My Trade is Mystery by Carl Phillips
  2. How Fiction Works by James Wood
  3. Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Allison
  4. The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber
  5. Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

For people working on novels I would push Sandra Scofield’s The Last Draft and John Garner’s On Becoming a Novelist. 

For Short Stories I would push George Saunders A Swim in the Pond in the Rain and Narrative Design by Madison Bell. 

Here is the full list of favorites in my personal syllabus so far:

Probably the top book I would recommend. Although not directly a “craft” book, I still pulled so many useful quotes out here at very profound and high level reflections about the act of writing. The life of writing. The passion of writing. Seven tight essays that are almost poems themselves. You can almost hear Carl Phillips sitting down with you and sharing the things he has learned. 

The DEFINITIVE book on novel revision. Good to read even before getting the first draft done. Such good content on novel fundamentals and approaches to construction, deconstruction, and completion. Be ready to work!

Saunders puts his Russian writers lectures from Syracuse into book form. He says its from his love of the Russian writers, but I also believe there’s some of it being public domain offerings where he could put the full short stories into his book? Either way, I agree and disagree with some of the political criticism this book got, but looking at it purely for the joy of reading and crafting short stories, it is pure gold. 

Grandiose title, but an excellent compressed spin through all the major elements of fiction with good examples and reading list.

Deep dive into structural alternatives to Aristotle’s Poetics. Another excellent generator for the reading list.

A compressed almost reference guide of the shapes narrative can take followed by an A to Z section on various components.

Sometimes known as the screenwriting teacher, McKee’s books are actually dedicated to all forms of Storytelling. This trilogy is a DIY MFA of its own. If I had to pick one favorite it would be the dialogue book for the best examples of his theories and a mixture of dialogue with story fundamental too. But if you only read one, it would have to be the original Story one. 

This is a great series published by Graywolf Press that includes even more than the ones listed here. Each one is a class of its own with in depth exploration of the topic at hand including samples and reading lists.

Crazy title, but a great essay collection. The first two chapters are worth the price alone. The first is a class on novel concepts we used in a week long novel class at Iowa Summer’s Writing fest, and the second is one of the best essays I have read on short story theory.

Another crazy title, but another great essay collection. Again, worth it alone on the strength of one essay, here a 60 pager on the “Anatomy of the Short Story.” An even better coverage than the one in Copula Spiders.

Eight “lectures” documented by his wife after his death based on material he taught at Breadloaf.

I prefer this one to Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. He sometimes runs the risks of suggesting there is only one right way to do things and he knows that one way better than anyone, but On Becoming a Novelist has good material for the elements of a novel as well as the mental approach to committing to novel writing.

Excellent scope including chapters on Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, and Gesture. Dives into specific examples to explore different ways the greats have written before. Somewhat limited in terms of writers she uses for sampling, but definitely one that has changed how I read and revise.

Great class on Design of Short Stories which encompasses , many elements in his context: Plot, Character, Design, Theme, Imagery, Point of View, Dialogue, Tone, and Time Management. Presents full short stories with notes and then discussion of each element after.

Good essay collection that covers a lot of the basics on Plot but with a few different twists and concepts. The overall main theme is similar to the title: keep it thrilling, keep it exciting, disappear as a writer and let the reader get lost inside the story. All conventional concepts possibly, forgotten or ignored concepts possibly, but Percy practices what he preaches and keeps this collection moving. Some concepts he knows lead to push back and I’m guessing he takes them too far to show that you can dial back from them, but if you start farther out, your dial back will at least be farther than it would if the standard wasn’t set as extreme. Some concepts he doesn’t quite take them from the abstract to the specific, leaving me as a reader kind of knowing what he’s talking about and kind of unsure. “Set Pieces” and “Feckless Pondering” are probably my favorite essays of the book.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s