More Cowbell Monday – Make Your Bookshelf Work for You

What do you do when you need help with your writing? I don’t mean when you can’t find the right word or phrase…my critique partner, Sharla Rae, did an excellent job of solving that issue in her post over at Writers In The Storm.

No, what I’m talking about is the books that:

  • Teach you how to create great characters and riveting scenes
  • Give you the deepest dose of Craft
  • Break down the info into concepts that writers of all abilities understand
  • Provide inspiration when you just want to quit this writing gig, lay down your pen and go work at Kinko’s

Below are the special books that I’ve found – the ones I refer to all the time, the ones I re-read every year or so and the ones that are on my bookshelf to be read as soon as I have time.

Note: I know that in this economy, you might blanch at some of these prices – remember I’ve had years to accumulate these books and most of them are available via eReader or at the library.

Books To Inspire

The first book I ever read on writing was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Though Wild Mind is also great, it was Writing Down the Bones that made me believe, for the first time, that I could actually be a writer. Goldberg believes that “trusting your own mind is essential for writing as words come out of the mind.”

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is another classic must-read. I’ve loved every non-fiction book she’s ever written and, when I saw she was speaking at UCLA with Elizabeth Gilbert a few years back, I made the trip up there. She’s what I’d call a writer’s writer – funny, informative, vulnerable and nurturing.

Not only does Lamott give you “permission to write crap,” she also gives stellar brainstorming advice such as:

  • “Keep a one inch picture frame on your desk to remind yourself that for each moment, you only have to write as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame.”
  • In other words, when a whole project is overwhelming, break it into little pieces or as she says, “don’t try to eat the elephant in one sitting.”

Especially if you are in that dark place, where you fear ever being able to write again, please pick up anything by Julia Cameron. Even though she puts you on a three week reading moratorium in The Artist’s Way, Cameron coaxes you gently out of any creative slump. Somehow she infuses the ailing artist with the courage to open that notebook or computer file that has them paralyzed. Her book, The Sound of Paper, is the reason why you are reading this blog. She’s given me (and thousands of other writers) the nerve to create again.

Pen On Fire by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett is a very helpful book for any writer who is short on time. I’ve also had the pleasure of hearing her speak twice and here are some things she said that stayed with me:

  1. No one is born published
  2. People don’t start out as writers
  3. It only takes one yes to get you started
  4. Start wherever you can.

Last but not least on the inspiration front, Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing is a lovely read. Whenever I need to read great writing, I pick up any book by Hemingway or Bradbury and read a sentence or two. It helps set the tone that I need to straighten up and stop being lazy for that session at the desk. These two are brilliant.

Informative Books on the Writing Life

There are two writers who never fail to inspire me about the brass tacks business of writing and how to set your expectations as you push your stories (which we love like our children) out into the big, bad world: Stephen King and David Morrell.

If you haven’t read King’s book, On Writing or Morrell’s titled Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, I highly recommend that you at least check them out from the library or get them on a Kindle loan. It will be an informative experience for you, whether you love them like I do or not.

Writing Craft

For sink-your-teeth-into concepts on how to get a story moving, it’s hard to do better than:

My final must-read recommendation in this category is Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval. I’ve been surprised by how little I hear her name bandied about on the OMG-you-gotta-read-this list.

Building Fiction was the first book I read that really explained internal vs. external conflict to me in a way that was easy to understand. Bob Mayer rocks this subject in his workshops but if he’s not coming to your neck of the woods with this topic anytime soon, go get some Kercheval.

Story Help

When I’m in a story and I’m having a hard time getting the dialog going, I’ve found the following books to be helpful in the idea department:

When I have an idea and need some help in fleshing out what things are called, I refer to the three books below. They are older but I use them all the time.

I have a really, REALLY difficult time writing sex and I find myself referring to the following books when I edit a first draft with steamy scenes:

Finally, my To Be Read shelf!

My reading has slowed up since I had a baby. (Stop laughing, moms!) I used to average 250-300 books a year, but now I’m lucky to finish a book in a few weeks. (Thank goodness that baby is cute!)

Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder has been on my list for more than a year now. He came to speak to our chapter and was wonderful. We were appalled to hear that he passed away so young, but what a legacy he left! His Save the Cat books are just the tip of it and is next up on my reading list.

Right now, I’m reading Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which has been waiting patiently on my writing bookshelf for a few years. I was lucky enough to attend an event with Mr. Vogler a few years back. He gave us so much in that one day seminar that it has taken me these 3-4 years to digest it. Finally, now, I’m ready to rock the The Writer’s Journey, which I’ll discuss in a future post.

Do you have a writer’s bookshelf? If so, what are some of your favorites? What books have made the biggest impact on you, as a writer or a reader?

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm ( Write on!
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20 Responses to More Cowbell Monday – Make Your Bookshelf Work for You

  1. amyshojai says:

    I’ve got most of the books mentioned and read…well, not all of them, either. I had the pleasure of hearing Anne Lamott speak at a writers con. Another book I like (my SIL gave to me years ago) is Walking On Alligators


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Oooh, I don’t have Walking On Alligators, but I like the title.

      For individual books, I find myself using very cool specific resources: books on slang, a Feng Shui guide…I have one on astral projection and auras. The above is my go-to set though. Do you have the Kercheval and Morrell books?

      And THANKS for the linkback to your site on the tech post!


  2. Laura Drake says:

    I like that you not only list the books by category, but give us a blurb on each.

    Move Save the Cat to the TOP of your TBR pile – you’re going to be SO glad you did!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I LOVE to talk books! I would have been bereft if I didn’t have room to share what I loved about each. 🙂

      I keep hearing people tell me that about Save the Cat! I’ve gotta finish The Writer’s Journey though…I’m applying it to all these Disney movies I’m watching…


  3. Lara Taylor says:

    Ah I can add one!! 🙂 The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual by Victoria Mixon. She is on twitter and is really awesome to talk to. I reviewed it here:
    I’m bookmarking this & I will be adding it to my link list of resources…eventually! lol I have 3 little ones including an 18 month old. 🙂 I feel your pain. I have about 14 books stacked up to read! lol I am psyched to look at some of your recommendations, thank you!! 🙂


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I love Victoria Mixon’s blog but I had not heard of her book. OMG, THREE little ones??! I’m sure your to be read stack is actually halfway to the ceiling.


  4. Thanks for the tip! Some of these, I’ve already read.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Awesome, Marilag. All of us writers like to read everything we can get our hands on, right? Do you have go-to books that help you?


      • Personally, I don’t go back to the books I read. I usually borrow them from the library. After a while, they all blend together and say the same thing.

        However, I like “How to be a Writer” by Barbara Baig. It’s not about writing a novel per se, but it teaches people how to persevere with writing. It’s similar to “Wild Mind”–it involves free writing but it also talks about how the second draft should clarify the one before it.

        I prefer “The Writer’s Journey” over its predecessor, “Hero With a Thousand Faces.” The former is less boring than the latter.

        Then, there’s “Writing Fiction for Dummies”. It talks about all the elements of a good fiction but it’s not as in depth. However, I like this book because it’s a cheat sheet for writing.


      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Hey, thanks for clarifying on your comment, Marilag. My books always feel like friends to me – they are very personal. I like the library for a taste but I want to own the book for the entire meal.

        I haven’t read “How to Be a Writer” OR “Writing Fiction for Dummies.” My local used book section has a huge writing section so I’ll go browse and see. Thanks!


  5. K.B. Owen says:

    What a fab collection. The only ones I’ve read are Maass, King, and Elmore Leonard (which may not be on your list, actually – oops, sorry).

    Thanks for all your great blog help the other day, too! :))



    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Ooooh…I didn’t know Elmore Leonard had a writing book! *salivating*

      You are most welcome for the blog help – did it fix the things you wanted fixed?


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  7. Do I have a writing bookshelf? HA ~ sometimes my TBR pile of writing books is too daunting! Save the Cat, Story Engineering, Are you there Blog, it’s me writer, and Write More Good to just name a few.

    So far, Kristen’s We are not Alone has benefited my career as a writer the most b/c I’m blogging now! I’m building a brand, a following, and making tons of writing friends to help support me along the way. ~Like you. 🙂


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Awwwww, you’re so sweet – that, in combo with Kristen’s book, is why you’ve to shot into the Twittersphere like you have (*dabbing at tears of pride*).

      I’m now officially adding Story Engineering and Write More Good to my list. Are you There Blog…well, that’s just a given.


  8. Robin says:

    Great list of books. I’m on week 11 of the artist’s ways. Reading deprivation week was interesting. Have read lamott’s book several times. Will have to explore many of these books. Thanks for the links.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You are most welcome, Robin! I haven’t made it all the way through the Artist’s Way program yet, which is probably why The Sound of Paper resonated more for me. The Artist’s Way will have to get in line for now. 🙂


  9. karalennox says:

    You must be looking at my bookshelf! I have almost every one of those books. For screenwriting, i also like Viki King’s HOW TO WRITE A MOVIE IN 21 DAYS.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Well, then you have a wonderful bookshelf too, Kara! I don’t know about you but it makes me happy every time I stare at my writer’s bookshelf. I don’t have that book by Viki King, I’ll have to go take a peek at it. I haunt The Script Lab blog often because the screenwriting teaches us so much about being a great writer.

      Thanks for commenting! It’s good to see you over here. Plus, now you’re entered in the Let’s Meet Up Contest hat. Do you have a topic you’re wild about learning on the technology front?


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