Best Books on Writing

Image by Sanja Gjenero

At writers’ group tonight*, the topic of books on craft came up. Always happy to hear myself talk, I began to expound on which books had worked for me, when our group leader suggested I share the list online instead.

Okay, I get it. “Shut up, Joe.” 😉

As I got ready to type up my list, I thought, ZOMG! Blog post! So I’m putting my thoughts here in my blog, and would love to hear where you agree or disagree, and what you think I missed.

Some people downplay the value of reading about craft at all, and I can understand why. So many aspects of craft are intangible, and the majority of the books on craft I’ve read have ranged from one bad extreme to another: there are the books that want to boil those intangibles down to a formula, and the books that are so vague as to be useless. But one of the things I learned along the way–more on this in another post–is that having a solid grasp of grammar and writing conventions and a facility with language is a long way from being able to write working fiction. While language is the tool we use, storytelling is a craft and an art unto itself, with its own techniques, cadences, and “rules.” It took me a long time to learn this was so, and I spent a lot of it banging my head against a wall, writing stories that failed and not knowing why, and eventually concluding that writing salable fiction was simply beyond me. Now I know it wasn’t beyond me; I just had an incomplete set of tools.

What follows is a list of books that provided some of the tools I was missing. I wish I’d found them all sooner. I wish I’d gotten good, solid recommendations at the beginning, and not had to stumble on these books, one by one, over the course of many years. No book is an end-all and be-all, and I think guidelines are meant to be transcended. But I don’t think you can transcend what you don’t know. So here are the basics:

  • How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card. This was the first writing book that really worked for me, and in my opinion it’s just a great writing book, period, regardless of what genre you write in. The strengths of this book, I think, are in idea generation and story structure, more so than in actual wordcraft. I’ve heard varying quotes–with varying numbers–to the effect that there are only so many different plots. Card highlights four specific plot types–the Milieu Story, the Idea Story, the Character Story, and the Event Story–and talks about how to structure each kind. He also emphasized, for me, the importance of something changing, and the importance of stakes. As for ideas, I just found them firing across my brain as I read this book. This book made me feel more creative.
  • Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain. You can hardly find a published novelist who is not familiar with this book, and yet it’s incredibly hard to find. All I can guess is that the books that have mass appeal aren’t necessarily the ones that give you the facts. Some wannabe writers don’t want advice that results in hard work; they want books that are more about the dream. This book is the nitty gritty: Swain talks about how to keep the story moving by alternating between “scenes” and “sequels”: passages where a protagonist works toward a goal, usually to be thwarted, interspersed with passages in which time is constricted showing the process by which the protagonist decides what to do next. This was the first place where I saw the importance of the characters’ goals emphasized. “Show, don’t tell” can be oversimplistic advice; my take on Swain’s advice is you show the actions that drive the story forward, and fast-forward through the parts that don’t. Also, when it comes to wordcraft, Swain’s book is the first place I ever encountered the advice to root out “to be” verbs.
  • Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, by Debra Dixon. I pal around with a lot of romance writers. For one thing, no group of writers is more generous when it comes to helping out newbies who are trying to learn the craft. Write it down: nobody. Other groups talk about “paying it forward,” but romance writers actually do it. And damn near every romance writer knows about GMC, but again, it’s really hard to actually find the book anywhere. What’s up with that? GMC is about making your characters more fully fleshed out. Real characters do things because they’re trying to further their physical or emotional goals, not because it helps you the writer get from point A to point B. (I use different words for the same thing in my pre-writing because it’s too easy to get mixed up down the line otherwise. I call it Goal, Why, and But, but it’s the same thing.) Personally, I feel like I do a good enough job with my main character, but where this book really helps me is helping me avoid dropping the ball when it comes to my secondary ones. Just this week I was struggling with a character in my WIP. I didn’t know why she was helping my protagonist, other than because I wanted her to. The principles in this book helped me realize I’d created a satellite, not a character. She needed to have her own reasons for acting, and until I knew what those were, she wasn’t going to be anything but a cardboard cut-out.
  • The Dreaded Synopsis, but Elizabeth Sinclair. Think of this as a sister book to GMC. It’s definitely written with the latter book in mind, and it mainly expounds on those principles to help you write a synopsis for an agent or publisher. Now I don’t buy into the amount of stress most aspiring writers put into the whole synopsis thing. Almost none of the agents I queried asked for a synopsis, and I was never made to feel that my synopsis stood between me and the next step. Still, I found this book useful because my current writing process is to write from the big picture to the little picture. I write a logline, a pitch, and a synopsis before I write the manuscript. My reasoning is that if I can’t coherently explain my plot, that probably points to problems in the story–to a plot that’s not as tight as it could be. These tools are all about character goals and inciting incident. If I can’t find these things, I have a problem. I think this is true whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, but the reason I’m a plotter is I’d rather not waste time writing some rambly thing and then having to fix it later. I’d rather have those pieces in place. Sinclair’s book was invaluable when it came to writing that synopsis, which I think makes my novel stronger, so that’s why I include it here.
  • Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. With a title like that, it’s easy to think this is a guide to pandering to the common tastes, but really it’s about making your stories deeper and more compelling. It’s about plumbing the emotional depths until you come up with a story that resonates more with the reader. It’s a book on the art of storytelling, and I don’t think it’s for a beginner. This is for writers who already have the basic tools of the craft, and want to learn how to make their stories stick with people. But while I’m including it here, I actually found the more useful tome to be . . .
  • Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maass. The original book is the one that inspires you to make your stories deeper. This is the book that takes away your excuses not to. I’ve attended Maass’s Breakout Novel workshop in person, and if it’s possible to walk away from that without being inspired and knowing a bunch of specific ways to make your novel better, I certainly didn’t see it happen. Without exception, every single person I spoke to was blown away and inspired. We writers can be as cynical as anybody else, but I didn’t encounter cynicism after the workshop I attended. For me, it felt like somebody opened up a firehose of creativity in my brain, and the biggest challenge was keeping up. The workbook contains the specific writing exercises Maass challenged us with, collected in a book where you can take your time going through them and not feel rushed. I use this book when I already pretty much know what my story is about and what’s going to happen, to ratchet it up further.

So there you have it. If you think a book on writing will help you and you’re looking around for the right one, give some healthy consideration to these six choices.

Having said that, it’s worth noting that there is a ton of amazing writing advice available online, for free. I had thought to talk about some of my favorite writer sites, but this rundown is long enough, which makes that topic good fodder for another post, another day.

What are your favorite writing books? Do you second any of mine? Are there others I missed?



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7 Responses to Best Books on Writing

  1. christy says:

    This is a great overview! I am looking forward to checking these out. Appreciate hearing how each looks at things from a different angle.

  2. Marlana says:

    Ha! Definitely not a shut up moment, just a too lazy to write them all down moment. — LOVE that you provided the titles and content descriptions. Very helpful!

  3. MG Tinley says:

    Great list. I haven’t read any of these– I definitely want to now.

  4. I’m not a fan of how-to books, but I loved reading A Writer’s Tale by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook. It’s more of a how-I-do-it rather than a how-you-should-do-it book. And it’s all about behind the scenes stuff of Doctor Who. 😉

  5. Joe Iriarte says:

    Sounds cool.

    I think how-I-do-it is all anybody can tell you.

    I probably should have mentioned Stephen King’s On Writing. For my money, though, that’s not really a “how to” book at all–it’s more of a motivational pep talk.

  6. Tom Emmons says:

    I should really read something on writing again, I suppose. It seems that if I study an art too closely, I lose interest in doing it.

    Maybe I shouldn’t read about writing.

  7. Joe Iriarte says:

    I get that, but I have always been a junkie for good how-to-write books. That can be a bad thing, but it doesn’t seem to be hurting me. 🙂

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