It’s long gone now, lost to some damnable garage sale or other, but my father once had a wooden shoeshine box that sat at the back of the bedroom closet beneath a rack full of awful ties. The box was a real showpiece: furniture-quality American poplar with dovetailed joints and an elevated footrest. As a kid who liked to dig through his parent’s stuff, I’d get the box out from time to time, flip open the brass latch at the front, and play around with the contents.
The shoeshine box held two horsehair shining brushes, a dauber brush, a bottle of cleaning cream, tins of Kiwi brand shoe polish (black and brown), and a soft shining cloth. There was no polishing glove. In all the times I watched my father shine his shoes before going off to work, he’d first pull an old sweat sock over his hand to prevent the dark polish from staining his fingers.
I mention the shoeshine box because I’m a big fan of toolkits. I’m fascinated by the things professionals collect to do their jobs – the stranger the better. Ever see a professional piano builder’s kit? It’s a sexy assortment of lathes, chisels, and auger bits. Have you ever heard of a tobacco smoke enema kit? Oh, they’re very real, I assure you. In the 1800s, they were the indispensable piece of medical equipment for assisting drowning victims – until they were debunked. Once, on a research trip to a medical history library, I got my hands on a Civil War-era surgeon’s battlefield kit. Although most of the implements were of the cutting and sawing variety, everything was stainless steel – still gleaming – and very lightweight. Nasty little cutters. Take an arm here, take a leg there…
Every professional has their toolkit. As writers, we’re no different from the rest. It can be easily assumed that anyone reading the BookLifeNow.com site on a regular basis has stacks of books on every flat surface in their home. But there’s always room for more, eh?
Recently, I was at a conference during which a panel attempted to come up with a list of essential books for any writer to devour before picking up the pen. The panel moderator called it a “writer’s toolkit.” I listened, made notes. I didn’t agree on a number of the titles mentioned – some were irrelevant to my chosen genre, others didn’t interest me. But the mention of the toolkit held my interest. When I returned home to the paperback-and-empty-whiskey-bottle nest I call an office, I walked the stacks and hunted down every title that had been helpful to me in all my efforts. My writer’s toolkit (abridged):
Dialog gives definition to your characters, reveals motivations, aids in setting, and propels the story forward. No two characters should speak alike.
Dialogue (Write Great Fiction Series) by Gloria Kempton
Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella
Characters in fiction should be treated like real, live human beings. With history, motives, and reputation – they are believable and worth caring about to the last page.
Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda Edelstein
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Writing Your First Novel is damn difficult work. Ask any professional and they’ll tell you the same. It’s hours and hours of dedication to the craft, but it beats working.
Your First Novel by Rittenberg and Whitcomb
How NOT to Write a Novel by Mittelmark and Newman
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
Writing Great Horror is a topic near and dear to my heart. Horror has its own language and rules and pitfalls. Whether a slasher or a morality tale, horror stories are part of a genre that is continually reinventing itself.
On Writing Horror by the Horror Writers Association, Ed. by Mort Castle
The Philosophy of Horror by Noel Carroll
Writers Workshop of Horror by Michael Knost
Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick
Story is the realities, not the mysteries of writing. Story is the essential element to any successful product of the craft. A bad story does not excite readers and turn pages.
Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
The Hero With 1000 Faces by Joseph Campbell
20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald Tobias
I’ve always thought that books on writing are invaluable, due to the fact that they are a resource available at any time of day or night. I can’t count how many times I’ve left the bed at three in the morning and picked up one of these books to sit at the kitchen table until I’d worked out some plot turn or character aspect. If nothing more, a writer’s toolkit is a preparation – waiting for that moment when you’re struggling to hammer something together.
In the title, I suggested that this toolkit was almost everything you need to get the story started. Every toolkit is personal. None is ever complete. What is your essential writer’s resource? What books do you lean on in times of trouble? Let us know in the comments section below.
You've got a great list of books there! I love 20 Master Plots, Writer's Guide to Character Traits & Characters & Viewpoint (the entire Elements of Fiction Writing series from Writers Digest is fantastic).
My other go-to books are First Draft in 30 Days, Story Engineering and I also use the Enneagram as a jumping-off point for building characters. And of course On Writing and Zen in the Art of Writing for a little inspiration.