3 essential books on writing creative nonfiction

I’m an avowed writing book junkie. I get a thrill from checking out the latest advice at my library.  Given my habit, it’s pretty telling that I own only three writing handbooks: Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark, Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & David King.  Each book is the equivalent of a weeks-long writing course and stands the test of time.

I consider Writing Tools an excellent boot camp of basics. Dr. Clark’s motto is “you need tools not rules” and divinely delivers on the subtitle, 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. It’s difficult to pull out just a few to give you some flavor because every single one IS essential, but here’s a sampling:

#28 is “put odd and interesting things next to each other” suggesting that readers like and learn from contrast.

#16 is “seek original images” thereby rejecting clichés and using “fresh language to blow a cool breeze through the reader.”

#48 is “limit self-criticism in early drafts” which includes an explanation of why this is such a good idea, how to execute on it, and when to pull out the big guns.

#12 is “give key words their space” which instructs us to not repeat a distinctive word unless we intend a specific effect.

#39 is “write toward an ending” to close the circle of meaning.

All are accompanied by trim and useful explanations, with meaningful examples and a few easy exercises. The 50 tips are organized into four sections: Nuts & Bolts, Special Effects, Blueprints, and Useful Habits.

Next is Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories. This book helps apply the essentials of storytelling to your personal tales, and is packed with advice and exercises on scenemaking, characterization, fact finding, metaphor, working with the limits of memory, and more.

You feel as if you’re in one of Bill’s writing classes since students become characters and a foil for sharing examples of what to do and not do in your writing and for reviewing results of exercises. I still work with the personal timeline and maps I created in response to early exercises in the book.

The third handbook I recommend is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which is really for writers of all genres. The authors, Renni Brown and David King, were professional editors in the publishing industry and share many rich examples of original and edited passages to learn from. They take the mystery out of show-don’t-tell, point of view, dialog and monologue, and voice.  A gem of this handbook is the discussion of rhythm: beats in dialog, proportion in scene, and repetition.  The sophistication of the information presented is beyond useful to beginning and advanced writers alike.

I hope you’ll let me know what you think of these writing handbooks and share your favorites so we can take them for a test drive.

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Categories: reference tools

4 Comments on “3 essential books on writing creative nonfiction”

  1. December 1, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

    I like that. Tools not rules. That in itself is a good thing to keep in mind. Too many rules can be constricting but tools can help you actually make something.

  2. December 1, 2012 at 8:48 pm #

    Thanks for stopping by. Yes, there are so many rules, who can keep track?! Got a tool or personal rule that serves you particularly well?

  3. August 1, 2013 at 10:27 pm #

    I just finished reading Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction. It contains some sage advice on a wide range of topics, such as acknowledging sources, creating composite characters, fact-checking, metaphor, navel-gazing, reconstruction of events, and much more. Being an avid flash fan, I love that each chapter is flash-length and would recommend it as a quick survey of many factors in creative nonfiction.

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