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Books for Writers and Poets

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Dear Writer,

In attempting to perfect my knowledge of the trades of writing and, more specifically, writing poetry, I have read dozens of books on writing, on markets, on poetic forms, and miscellaneous other related works. Not all of them were good. Many are more useful as reference works than true guides to help a young writer develop. A writer should have certain types of books on his reference shelf: dictionaries, including at least one good unabridged dictionary; a thesaurus; a rhyming dictionary for a formalist poet; perhaps a dictionary of allusions; a symbol interpretation/dream interpretation book; and a guide to synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms. These are all useful tools. But, let me also list some specific books a writer might find useful on his shelf and in his hands:

General Writing

Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual -- This book is good for poets, but also for any other writers. Ted Kooser was Poet Laurate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress for a few years, and is certainly one I believe deserved the honor. Most of what he says in this book applies to writing in general, not just poetry. It is well-written, with the feel of having a favorite uncle teach you how to write well through stories and anecdotes from his own experience. Mr. Kooser also practices the good writing habits he is preaching to such an extent that I would recommend this book as general reading to non-writers, too. You can read a much fuller review here.

Ben Bova’s The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells -- As with Mr. Kooser’s book, this book has a much broader audience than the title might suggest. Most of what Mr. Bova writes about could either apply to any writing or any fictional writing. In many cases, it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a song with characters you make up, a science-fiction novel, a novel or short story in some other genre, or any other fictional work, because the same rules apply. Now, there are a few tips that do apply most obviously to writing science fiction, such as not needing to get down into the deep and dirty technical details of every technological improvement that may have occurred in your future universe. But for the most part, any fiction writer can use this book.

David R. Williams Sin Boldly! -- I must admit that the name alone would and did attract me to the book. But, once inside, I found it to be very well-written, presenting various writing concepts in an understandable manner. The attitude displayed in the title also permeates the work.

Writer’s Digest Books Market books -- Writer’s Digest Books puts out several compendia of possible markets for a writer. Some examples include: Poet’s Market, Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, etc. These books are lists of magazines and publishing houses interspersed with articles about the writing craft and about working with publishers. The publisher listings generally have very complete information and categorizations.

For Poets and Songwriters

Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms (Third Edition) -- First caveat on this book is that the second edition was called The New Book of Forms, so if you’re in a purchasing mood and see that one listed, it is not newer than The Book of Forms, Third Edition. This is the most comprehensive forms book available that I know of. It has a few quirks and flaws, but the amount of data is at least twice that of the nearest competing book I’ve seen. While you can find a lot of form information on-line, it’s not the same as a book you can hold. This book also has good content on general writing and writing poetry.

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics -- This book has just about everything you could possibly want to know about poetry, if you just know what you want to look up and under what entry it might be listed. It is also fun to just flip through and find miscellaneous entries.

Steve Gillette’s Songwriting and the Creative Process -- Steve is an acquaintance of mine who has been kind enough to grant interviews for my various projects, such as the Tips compendium. He’s a sterling gentleman who has been writing songs for many years, and he knows whereof he writes.

Human Nature

Before listing some of these books, let me say that the most important thing a writer can do is to create believable characters and scenarios. To do that, it is best to understand human nature. Understanding human nature will also stand a writer in very good stead in dealing with publishers and selling themselves and their works.

Machiavelli’s The Prince -- This is a very old and very famous book for many reasons, and anyone aspiring to political leadership has likely read it. It has general principles of leadership that Machiavelli formulated based on his experience in Renaissance Italy, and those principles still hold true today. Studying this book can help a writer create characters who are credible leaders.

Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power -- Greene has distilled and built upon the previous entry. He has codified 48 laws for obtaining and holding power, whether in politics, romance, or some other endeavor. If I may be allowed the presumption, I suspect that Mr. Greene has a mind that works very similarly to my own. Thus, he studies a subject thoroughly, analyzes it, then distills it down to easy-to-understand chunks. His books have the sort of discrete particality and organization that I have endeavored to create in this Website’s sections. Ergo, it should be no surpise that the next two entries are also his and of a similar sort of book.

Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction -- Greene has taken his previous concept and focused it on seduction in all of its forms. Going to write a romance novel? Going to have a romance as part of your story? Then first you should know more about romance and seduction, and this book can lead you there.

Robert Greene’s The 33 Strategies of War -- Not only have I not read this book, but I only discovered it on Amazon while looking a proper title up for the previous entry. But knowing Greene’s other works, I assume that he has distilled Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War and Carl von Clausewitz’s On War in a similar manner to what his previous books have done with other subjects. But war is not just what happens on the battlefields with bloodied bodies and battered psyches. It happens on chess boards and corporate boards, in political campaigns and marketing campaigns. Knowing the ins and outs of war, strategy, and general gamesmanship can, as with the last two entries, help create more full-bodied, realistic characters and plots.


A. D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker -- I haven’t finished this book yet, since it’s my airport book, and I haven’t been flying out much lately. However, from the half I have read, it is a book that any English-language writer would benefit from. Mr. Nuttall concentrates on eliciting or divining Shakespeare’s philosophy from his plays. In so doing, he discusses these plays and characters to a depth that allows as many insights into how to write and create characters and plots as one has into Shakespeare’s philosophy.

Victor Gischler’s works -- Victor Gischler may well be considered just another crazy, hack novelist by some because of his genre, but to me, he is the epitome of everything a writer should be. In fact, he may demonstrate Ben Bova’s rules from his aforementioned book better than Bova does himself. And he certainly takes himself less seriously. His genre tends toward what I would call comedy adventure. As Nuttall says about Shakespeare’s plays, the difference between comedy and tragedy is one of pace. Comedy moves much more quickly, and Gischler’s books are always a whirlwind of laughter for me. In reading Gischler’s books, I see what Dumas or Twain might have been had the art of writing comedy and adventure been as well-understood at that time as it is today. Being a poet, I would primarily recommend Gischler’s The Pistol Poets, but I have enjoyed all three of his books I have read thus far. A small caveat on Gischler’s work, though. His characters are very human and have flaws. In fact, many of them are crooked or even outright criminals, thugs, and murderers. If you have found that you need your protagonists to wear white hats, Gischler will not be for you.

Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History -- A civilization can be a character in itself, as such writers as H. Beam Piper or Isaac Asimov have proven. And no author has better defined the lifecycle of civilizations than Arnold Toynbee. I would advise the two-volume abridged edition over the original ten or twelve-volume work. You’ll thank me for this suggestion.

Alvin Toffler’s works -- Alvin and Heidi Toffler take off where Arnold Toynbee left off and bring ideas a thousand times more powerful about how civilization has changed over the last ten thousand years and how it continues to change. PowerShift is his latest comprehensive work, but he also has more focused works that cover segments of our developing civilization, such as: War and Anti-War, Creating a New Civilization (politics), and Revolutionary Wealth.

So, these are the books I recommend any young writer should read and keep for future perusal and reference. For those that I do not have more lengthy reviews, I plan to write those reviews in the near future. I hope that you will find these books as enjoyable as I have, informative, and useful in your writing.


The Gnostic Poet

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