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April 05, 2006

Useful Books for Teenage Writers

Reader and blogger Kevin Marks asks this question in one of the comment threads, and it's something I think is worth throwing open to the general Whatever community (in other news: there is a Whatever community! Hello, you!):

I've just signed up to take over the local Teenage Writers group at a local big bookstore. The way it works is we meet once a month to read each others' work and talk about writing. The wrinkle is that each month I have to pick a helpful book for teenage writers to read, which the bookshop will stock specially. Obviously "Coffee Shop" is on the list for a future month when it's in print, but what else is worth suggesting?

First, while I'm flattered Kevin is thinking of Coffee Shop as a useful book, it's going to be a limited edition, and at $35 a pop I don't know if that's the right price point for teens. So don't worry about adding that one to the list (unless, you know, them kids are rich!).

Second, anyone have any suggestions for Kevin, here? My feeling is the book should be writing-oriented rather than simply a book with good writing, and it should be useful for teens. This is not to say it can't be a general audience book, but it should have something in it that your average, smart, writerly teen is going to find useful.

"Writing-oriented" I would think doesn't necessarily have be a "how to write" book -- it could be a book that looks at books, or a biography of a writer with commentary about his or her books, or even books that are useful toward writing well even if they are not specifically about writing (I've known a number of writers who have recommended Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a useful text for writers, for example, although I'm not sure I would be one of them).

So: Suggestions? Add them in the comment thread. I'll add my own in there to get things started.

Posted by john at April 5, 2006 01:58 PM

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Chris Gerrib | April 5, 2006 02:05 PM

Stephen King's "On Writing" is very good for all ages, but your teenagers will probably get a kick out of it.

John Scalzi | April 5, 2006 02:06 PM

For my recommendation, I'd suggest Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop, from Kate Wilhelm. It is useful for two reasons: One, Wilhelm uses the story of Clarion, and the stories of its writers, to impart practical advice about writing. Second, in discussing the life and times of the Clarion workshop, she brings home the point that writing is both solitary and convivial; one writes alone but one can also find one's self part of a larger writers' community. I think this is useful to teenage writers, who (if memory serves) often feel a little cutoff from others of their kind.

This book is nominated for the Best Related Book Hugo this year, incidentally, and I have a hard time imagining a scenario in which it does not win. Having three decades of Clarion graduates indebted to you is certainly a competitive advantage.

Adam Rakunas | April 5, 2006 02:13 PM

Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block is another good one. Plus, it's cheap.

jason | April 5, 2006 02:15 PM

Here's another vote for Stephen King. His voice is very much "two guys chatting over coffee," which I think would appeal to teens. (I know it appeals to 36-year-olds like me...)

Maria Y. Lima | April 5, 2006 02:17 PM

My favorite: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

It's all about the writing and the shitty first draft.

Some others:
Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne & Dave King

Most of these are available in paperback editions.

Percy | April 5, 2006 02:30 PM

I'm suffering from recommendation diarrhea, so here goes:

1) Writing Down The Bones (Natalie Goldberg) -- I think this is a good beginner's book for a writer, especially one who is getting started.

2) On Writing Well (William Zinsser) -- Deals with non-fiction writing and is one of the best books I've read on the subject.

3) Zen in the Art of Writing (Ray Bradbury) -- The book is organised into short chapters and some of the advice is priceless. Small book but worth reading.

4) Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott) -- Funny, insightful, and easy to read book about the writer's life.

I think that should be enough for now. :-)

Michael G. Richard | April 5, 2006 02:39 PM

Another vote for Stephen King's book.

JonathanMoeller | April 5, 2006 02:42 PM

Everyone else will probably say this, but Stephen King's "On Writing" would be excellent, as well as Scalzi's own "Mostly Useless Writing Advice" (too bad it's probably in the coffee sex book). They're just so practical, when lots of other writing advice is full of mushy New Age-ish "find yourself" crap-o-la.

Jas | April 5, 2006 03:12 PM

I've just recently finished 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias, and enjoyed it very much. But then, plot is my weakest area in writing, so it all seemed very useful to me, where others might see it as so much common sense.

Jim | April 5, 2006 03:16 PM

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card is a biggie on my list. I wish it was a book I'd owned as a teen.

John F | April 5, 2006 03:18 PM

Steering the Craft by Leguin is good for providing writing exercises and discussing process.

Marge Piercy's So You Want to Write is filled with good advice, and very little BS.

G. Jules | April 5, 2006 03:20 PM

Yet another vote for Stephen King, here. :-)

I found J. Michael Straczynski's Complete Book of Screenwriting helpful, and in more than just a here's-screenplay-format way. It gave me some very useful ways to think about story, and I'd recommend it even to people who aren't interested in writing for the screen.

Orson Scott Card's books (Characters and Viewpoint, How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy) are both useful books to introduce beginning writers to either topic, although I (to be honest) don't personally find them heads above other books out there on the topics.

Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue might work nicely for something like this. Anything that gets people really thinking about words, rather than just using them, gets my vote.

Fay Weldon's Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen is one of my favorite writing books of all time, most likely because it's not a Writing Book but rather a book which happens to be about writing, and stories. Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print. (I also learned a great deal about structure and plotting from listening to the commentary on the various Buffy DVDs -- seriously! -- which is another one that wouldn't work here.)

The other book I'd recommend as a book about stories and what they mean to people is Terry Pratchett's first Tiffany Aching book. Not because of the fairies; because of all the other stuff, which is even better than the fairies.

Steve Eley | April 5, 2006 03:26 PM

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud is the best book on writing I've ever read. Most of the commentary transfers well to prose. (The technique of masking, for example: i.e., don't paint your protagonist in more detail than the story needs.)

And because it's a comic, it's far from a dry read.

Michael Berry | April 5, 2006 03:27 PM

I recently read David Morrell's "Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft" and found it very thought-provoking. Lots of good discussion of the humdrum-yet-vital aspects of writing for a living. Plus it presents a really sensible method of generating plots.

I also recommend Alan Moore's "How to Write Comics," which is more about the creative process as a whole than a guide to fame and fortune as graphic novelist.

will shetterly | April 5, 2006 04:02 PM

Emma Bull and I keep a list of recommended books for writers here. It's not meant to be exhaustive, only dependable.

abi | April 5, 2006 04:10 PM

Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder is a good one. Classic SF short stories with analysis of what makes them work.

David Gerrold has a book out by the same title, which gets good Amazon reviews. But I haven't read that one, and can't comment on it.

Rachel | April 5, 2006 04:18 PM

"On Writing" and "Bird by Bird" aren't my favorite writing books, bu tboth seem to have a broad appeal and to be written in a style that teenagers find accessible. I expect that if I'd been exposed to them as a teen, I would have thought they were keen.

I'd also recommend something that's very exercise based. Most of my teenage creative writing students have been into that sort of thing. The one that comes to mind is "Mining for Gold in the Kitchen Sink" -- which is way too schmaltzy for my tastes, but does have a lot of exercises in it. I used to have one called "what if?" which was also exercise-heavy, I think.

If you're working on poems, there's a book called "Poem Crazy" which ahs a lot of keen exercises, and some very floaty advice on writing. I'm not particularly fond of it, but I think the people I knew who taught their high school classes from it got good results.

Alec Austin | April 5, 2006 04:23 PM

Hrm. Samuel R. Delany's recent On Writing is amazing, although it might be a bit of a stretch for teenage writers, as Delany's points can come off as a bit harsh. Likewise John Gardner's The Art of Writing and On Becoming a Novelist; he makes very good points, but his examples can be a bit opaque and technical for a beginning writer.

I'll second Understanding Comics, as well as the recommendations for the King and Lamott books, which have lower barriers to entry than the Delany and Gardner.

Anonymous | April 5, 2006 05:25 PM

There's a new book called The Fruit Bowl Project by Sarah Durkee that I think would be an excellent choice. The first half of the book shows an English classroom and explains a writing assignment that makes each student use common elements, names, and characters in stories written in completely different styles. The second half of the book presents each student's completed assignment. It really provides a lot of insight into viewpoint and how to piece together "standard" story elements in different ways.

Ola G. Nordhus | April 5, 2006 05:33 PM

If any of the Teenage Writers want to write SF then Borderlands of Science by Charles Sheffield could be fun:

Bill Marcy | April 5, 2006 07:18 PM


The absolute best book (actually a booklet) I have found is by Algis Budrys called "Writing to the Point". This is not a book on writing in the usual sense, this book is focused on getting one thing done - getting you published.

It presents a formula that has been rather successful, for not only myself, but many other people I have talked to in the field.

Yes, talking about selling something (Your writing) and following a formula to assure that seems rather crass, but publishing is first and foremost a business.

I highly recommend it. Get it at Amazon.

Heres a link: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1886211000/sr=8-4/qid=1144278748/ref=pd_bbs_4/104-5213033-1923153?%5Fencoding=UTF8

claire | April 5, 2006 08:24 PM

for teens i ditto:
• lamott's "bird by bird"
• goldberg's "writing down the bones"
• mccloud's "understanding comics"

i antiditto
• delany's "about writing" for teens AND for anyone who's a beginning writer. it's just too discouraging for those who haven't found their feet yet (and inspiring for those who are starting to.)
• gardner's, well anything. also too adult for teens, and you must have read and assimilated a lot of material to understand it.

more suggestions:
• for skiffy teens i recommend "the complete idiot's guide to writing and publishing science fiction" by cory doctorow and somebody else who escapes me right now, i think. actually, a lot of general fiction basics are in there.
• orwell's "politics and the english language" essay is a MUST
• primo levi's "other people's trades", in which he writes a brief essay on pretty much every other trade except writing and manages to say a lot about writing thereby. there's one piece called "the irritability of chess players" which is my favorite piece on writers and the risks of writing.

John League | April 5, 2006 08:39 PM

Creating Short Fiction, Damon Knight.
Beginnings, Middles and Ends, Nancy Kress.

John League | April 5, 2006 08:50 PM

Oh, I forgot reasons: Knight and Kress present straightforward approaches for moving from an idea to a living, breathing story. Not so much here about being, getting or staying inspired, just how to "make story."

Lanna Lee Maheux-Quinn | April 5, 2006 09:51 PM

I ditto Goldberg's Writing down the Bones

Also, a great book is "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron. I had a few writers and performers recommend that to me, and I loved it.

Michael Gelb's "How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci" is good too. (Which was first published in 1998 - "The Da Vinci Code" was first published in 2003. Just so you don't think this was another one of those books taking advantage of "The Da Vinci Code's" popularity.)

Harry Connolly | April 5, 2006 10:26 PM

A fourth vote (or is it fifth?) Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. I also recommend Stein on Writing by Sol Stein.

There's also the sff.net list of books for writers (for those who learn by analogy).

Harry Connolly | April 5, 2006 10:26 PM

A fourth vote (or is it fifth?) Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. I also recommend Stein on Writing by Sol Stein.

There's also the sff.net list of books for writers (for those who learn by analogy).

Terry Karney | April 5, 2006 11:17 PM

Hrmn... Anything by John McPhee, but especially his essay sets (say, "To Control Nature").

He doesn't write about writing, but his style is wonderful. He has wonderful turns of phrases and illuminating passages which bring the subject matter out into the light.


Dr. Matt | April 5, 2006 11:50 PM

The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars by Steven Brust, as a meditation on the creative process.

Lady M | April 6, 2006 12:28 AM

How old are the "teens"? When I was about 12 or 13, I read, "Turn Not Pale, Beloved Snail; A Book about Writing Among Other Things" by Jacqueline Jackson and loved it! It had lots of encouraging ideas for young people to write. I think you can only get used copies these days, but it's a nice addition to a library if you're often working with middle schoolers.

John - Will your writing book be coming out in paperback? I will happily purchase the hardback . . . but I am trying to be disciplined about shelf space, so it'd be great to know whether I should wait. :)

Dave Smith | April 6, 2006 12:36 AM

I wish that Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method had been around when I was a teenager. I'd have been a lot better prepared for a life that includes a lot of non-fiction writing. The "this is how you write a paper/report/thesis" schooling that was shoveled my direction never fit very well.

Thinking on Paper is another good read for budding non-fiction writers, though it's out of print now.

Jess | April 6, 2006 12:43 AM

I'm not a teenager (I'm 22) but I really really liked "bird by bird" by Annie Lammott. Lots of great advice and I think that it's more flexible to a variety of kinds of writing, while King's book (which is also pretty good) assumes you are writing fiction.

I think it wouldn't hurt to show them a copy of the most recent writer's handbook so they can get an idea of all the oppertunities out there.

Bruce Arthurs | April 6, 2006 01:10 AM

This may be a stretch since it's fiction (almost everyone uptopic has suggested non-fiction), but it's not only a book about a teenager, it's about a teenager trying to write a book. And I think it says interesting things about viewpoint, narrative voice, and telling much with just a few details:

Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time

Naomi | April 6, 2006 01:19 AM

As a teenager, I really liked Orson Scott Card's book on writing SF. I also got a lot out of some of his essays in The Changed Man (which is a collection of short stories, with little essays about the writing of each story. Not all the stories are good, but the writing discussion is interesting.)

Tom Nixon | April 6, 2006 01:27 AM

Yes, what everyone has said. Also, should you have any would-be nonfiction writers who are career-oriented, I highly recommend Guerrilla Marketing for Writers by Jay Conrad Levinson. Gets into the specifics about what to do to make yourself successful at writing.

Soni | April 6, 2006 01:42 AM

I second (or tenth or whatever it is at this point) King and Block.

On a totally different topic, just as a caveat - do NOT...I repeat NOT...read Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance during a long-term, low-level disassociative reaction to an overprescription of Floxin antibiotics. By the time I finished the book, I felt like I had literally stepped into an entirely new and terrifying dimension and was having nightmares about Socrates and the infrastructure of reality.

Not fun.

Tyler | April 6, 2006 02:22 AM

The first book that came to mind was Zinsser's "On Writing Well," so I was happy to see that someone else had already mentioned it. It's a pleasure to read, a necessary prerequisite for me taking a writing book seriously, and the advice is practical and straight-forward. Even if it's not geared towards fiction, I found it useful for writing in all forms.

Djscman | April 6, 2006 03:41 AM

I'll fifth, sixth and seventh the recommendation for Understanding Comics. When I was a teenager, I gamed the public library check-out rules for months to keep this book for myself. What Michael Berry wrote about Moore's book and the creative process applies to McCloud's UC as well.

His followup, Reinventing Comics, can't quite be recommended for an audience wholly uninterested in making comics or the "digital revolution", but I liked it. It's also fun calling that book the New Testament to UC's Old Testament, which would make McCloud's forthcoming Making Comics the Koran or possibly the Book of Mormon.

For teens interested in screenwriting, William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade and What Lie Did I Tell? have great anecdotes and insights into the mindset of the writer. "The writer" refers both to Goldman and the impersonal Person Who Writes. The books are teetering on the brink of out-of-printness, though. Joe Straczynski's previously-pimped Complete Guide to Scriptwriting is also filled with good practical advice. I knew people who've liked and used it even though they weren't huge Babylon 5 fans.

Neil Gaiman's "The Tempest" issue of Sandman gets an honorable mention for showing how chance encounters, casual conversations and long hours of working at a desk can produce a pretty good piece of writing.

G. Jules | April 6, 2006 07:16 AM

Oh! And Strunk and White, Elements of Style. Yes, it's stuffy. It is still the standard up to which all others must live.

alex | April 6, 2006 09:19 AM

I will also recommend Orson Scott Card's books, mostly because he has lots of examples where he dissects a paragraph. This strikes me as useful for the younger writer. Gardner will be exactly the right book for maybe one out of fifty young writers--but they should all know that it exists.

Anne Lamont and King have both written wonderful books about being writers. They do actually contain some writing advice, but your friend will have to judge if they have enough.

People for whom 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance' is useful will find it on their own. Everyone else subjected to it, especially teenagers, will be bored stiff.

For some fantastic wordsmithing, in manageable chunks, I am going to recommend Margaret Atwood's short-story collections: 'Bluebeard's Egg' and 'Good Bones and Simple Murders'. A compare & contrast with a deliberately plain writer (Azimov, Hemingway) would be a great exercise to get folks thinking about how they want to write their stories.

Dermott McSorley | April 6, 2006 11:03 AM

Umpeenth recomendation for Sthephen King,his book is readable in of itself,and when he is "on" he is a very good writer.The other recomendation is Robert Heinlein.I don't have the specific cite,but he wrote on writing many times,and has remained in my mind since I was a teen.

lynd | April 6, 2006 11:31 AM

Everyone's making great suggestions for the "how to write" books, but I hope you'll also point the kids towards well-written stories and novels -- like Bradbury's October Country, Garcia-Marquez's Leaf Storm, etc.

John Scalzi | April 6, 2006 11:49 AM

Well, I've been asking people to focus on books talking about the craft of writing, which is probably why they are in abundance here. Agreed, however, that Bradbury and Garcia-Marquez are fine writers.

Diana | April 6, 2006 01:49 PM

I read William Zinsser's ON WRITING WELL in highschool and I treasure it to this day. It's not necessarily about fiction, but it works on EVERYTHING. Two thumbs and all toes up.

Also, Ursula Le Guin's STEERING THE CRAFT, which is good also because the teens are likely to have read at least one of her books for younger readers. So they have already seen her in action.

Johanna Rothman | April 7, 2006 08:39 AM

I ran a writing workshop last year and used exercises from Weinberg's writing workshops (now in his Weinberg on Writing). The nine-year-old and twelve-year-old, as well as the two sixteen-year-olds enjoyed the exercises. (The rest of the participants were in their 40's and 50's.)

I have been inspired by King, Lamott, and Goldberg. I've found their advice useful, but not sufficiently specific. So if inspiration is what you're looking for, certainly start with those. But if you're looking for inspiration and more specific exercises to help a teen (or anyone) move into writing and make their writing sing, I also recommend Weinberg.

Ian Restil | April 7, 2006 10:25 AM

I've also found a valuable resource in _Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method_, and wish it had been around earlier (OTOH, perhaps when the student is ready, the teacher will appear...)

Besides the solid method and other advice, I was struck by the use of his use of illustrative photographs, which were visual (and evocative) fieldstones in themselves.

Casey | April 7, 2006 08:26 PM

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." Have them read it repeatedly. Then make them promise that they'll never try to write that way, because they are simply incapable of doing so. That right there will make them much better writers.
As for POSITIVE reinforcement, I would actually recommend a couple books that have nothing to do with writing, per se: "Friday Night Lights" by H.G. Bissinger and "Black Hawk Down" by Mark Bowden.
Why these books? Because they're both great examples of how doing your homework can lead you to a really great story. Obviously, it's not likely that they'll be able to immerse themselves in their stories like Bissinger and Bowden did, but both of these show just how much better a story is when the author can speak with great authority.

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