Writing books I read every year
Want to find the perfect writing book for your favorite writer? You could easily get overwhelmed by your choices. When searching on Amazon, 432,536 books pop up for writing. Let me narrow the field for you. There are four books I try to read every year. Each time I read them, they still offer precious pearls of wisdom and inspiration. These aren’t how-to books. These aren’t breaking-into-Hollywood books. These books share hard-earned wisdom from writers to writers. These are like old friends that any writer at any level can lean on during those cold, lonely hours of uncertainty.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” is one of the best books on writing – period. Every writer should at least check it out of the library and give it a read. The third chapter alone, titled “Shitty First Drafts,” can embolden a writer to keep pushing through whatever crappy thing he is writing right now and have hope it’ll someday be wondrous to behold. I often give this book to friends who are starting their first screenplay, novel, non-fiction book, etc. Written in a down-to-earth, inspiring, no nonsense way, “Bird by Bird” is well-received across the board. Thank you, Anne Lamott, for writing such a generous, funny, lovely book.
On Writing by Stephen King
Another old friend is Stephen King’s “On Writing.” In it, Steve describes his humble beginnings, which to me is the most interesting part of the book. Successful writers talking about struggling – color me fascinated because that’s the job. Certain aspects of the business get easier over time, but every project is its own mountain to climb. Many days the job is just you and the screen. All the trappings fall away. I could easily be typing on that student desk in the laundry room of Steve and Tabitha’s trailer praying I write something half as good as “Carrie.” “On Writing” inspires me yearly. It tells the ultimate writer’s American dream story, and that’s something no writer can resist.
101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters by Karl Iglesias
In his book “The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters,” Karl Iglesias interviews some of the top screenwriters in the business to find out when they wake up, what they eat for breakfast, if they exercise, when they take lunch, and other juicy, mundane tidbits of famous screenwriters’ daily lives. Ed Solomon likes big whiteboards. Leslie Dixon feels more clever after noon. Eric Roth likes to work in the middle of the night when he is “sort of half-asleep.”
This book sits in the first cubby of my bookshelf. I see it every day. It dares me to remember what I’m supposed to be doing. And while my habits aren’t exactly like the writers in the book (several eschew caffeine!), I’m reminded to do the things that make me productive.
There is a new edition of the book “The 101 Highly Successful Habits of Screenwriters: Insider Secrets from Hollywood Screenwriters.” However, from reading the Amazon reviews, it seems the new edition isn’t dramatically different from the original. If your writer already owns the first edition, she may already have the bulk of the new edition.
The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard and Edward Mabley
“The Tools of Screenwriting” by David Howard and Edward Mabley is a critical examination of screenwriting. There are many other helpful screenwriting books, but I continue to learn from “The Tools of Screenwriting.” There is always some nugget I’m reminded of when I go back to it or some concept that clicks because of it for my current project. The book is a treasure chest full of gems waiting for discovery.
Disclosure: I was fortunate enough to have David Howard as my thesis advisor in film school. What an honor. So I’m a bit biased. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the illustrious feature filmmaker, former artistic director of the Sundance Institute, former co-chair of the Columbia University Film School, and former dean of USC’s Film School, Frank Daniel, had to say about this book:
“What the would-be screenwriter needs most is an unbiased, non-dogmatic introduction to dramatic structural principles and an understanding of the different narrative techniques and storytelling devices that cinema has learned to use. David Howard has wisely outlined this area for himself and covered it in a concise, readable, knowledgeable, and intelligible manner. He has also been very generous with his pointers, advice, and admonitions about screenwriting and storytelling.”
What’s more, Professor Howard has broken down some of the best screenplays in the Hollywood history: “Chinatown,” “Some Like it Hot,” “Citizen Kane,” “The 400 Blows,” “Rashomon,” and more. Just like re-watching a favorite movie, I love to go back and read the analyses for these great films.