10 Best Books About Fiction Writing

I handpicked these favorites from over 40 books that I’ve read on the craft of fiction in the last few years. While I got a little something from each one, here are the 5 star gems that are worth sharing. Enjoy!

Best Books About the Writing Life

Bird by Bird, Anne LamottBird by Bird

It’s a classic for a reason. Lamott’s trademark humor makes for an effortless read as she shares her wisdom into the process of writing. Equal parts technical help, encouragement, and brutal honesty balance throughout the book, keeping the reader engaged and in good spirits from start to finish.

From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler

Butler’s ideas about the process of writing fiction are not necessarily unique, but I’ve found no other book that discusses the writing “trance” as thoroughly as this one. The exercises in this book teach how you to access the writing “dream state” that good stories often come from. The book can be a little esoteric at times, but it’s worth the patience it takes to understand what Butler is getting at here. Especially recommended for writers who have intrusive inner critics, and those who have strong ideas but find that their writing feels lackluster and flat.

The Writing Life, Annie Dillard

This is a short read, so I’ll just provide a titillating quote and you can go pick it up for yourself: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now… Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” -Annie Dillard


Best Books About Fiction Craft

Self Editing for Fiction WritersSelf-Editing for Fiction Writers, Rennie Browne and Dave King

Hands down, this is the best craft book on the market. It’s written for beginning writers, but is layered and subtle enough to be useful for advanced writers as well. I’ve read and re-read this book at many different stages of my learning process and taken away something new each time. Unlike the cover suggests, this is not a book about grammar. It shows you how to edit for flow and syntax, to properly tag your dialogue, the basics of show-don’t-tell, as well as providing helpful exercises where you get to try your hand at editing once you’ve learned the techniques.

Stein on Writing, Sol Stein

Make no mistake: Sol Stein is a pompous asshole. But he’s also super, duper smart. I consider this to be an advanced craft book, just because of the level of detail he goes into, but I think a beginner would get a lot out of it as well. Another classic, which means it’s almost always at the library.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway

Yes, this is a text book. Thick. Heavy. Teeny tiny print. But it’s good. And because it has a million editions, you can get an old version used on the internet for like $.04. Especially nice are the full-length short stories that are supplied as examples in the back of every chapter.


Best Book About Dialogue

Writing Dialogue, Tom Chiarella

Chiarella doesn’t bog the reader down with his own set of hard rules about dialogue, instead he skillfully and humorously persuades the reader about what works and what doesn’t. Busting such myths as “dialogue sounds like real speech,” he gives dozens of creepy-writer-stalker tips like “crowding” and “jotting,” which is basically where you eavesdrop on people and write down what they’re saying. I now carry a notebook on my person at all times specifically for this purpose. I think this book might be out of print (yet 50 Shades of Gray makes millions… is there no justice in this world?), but you can still get it on the internet for a decent price. Do it now before it’s too late!


Best Books about Plot

Plot Whisperer, Martha Alderson

Stupid title, great book. Alderson talks about the idea of the “Universal Story,” which is the process of struggle (conflict) and transformation (climax and resolution) present in most stories. These “energy markers,” she says, are so inherent in our lives, and in the very idea of story itself, that they can be found in almost every plotted novel. She then proceeds to go into insane detail describing these markers and how to incorporate them into your own writing in order to make a plot that resonates with readers. From time to time she also drops some wisdom a la The Artist’s Way (which she calls, I believe, “The Writer’s Way”), helping writers to overcome the hurdles of writing a book. While Alderson is not a writer herself, she has been studying plot and assisting writers with plot struggles for over a decade, and her knowledge and credibility shine in this book. I came away with a much deeper understanding of the purpose of plot and how to wield it, and highly recommend this book.

Wired for Story, Lisa Cron

Wired for StoryThe sensational subtitle (“The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence”) makes it sound like one of those smarmy write-a-novel-in-30-days books, but don’t be fooled. This the best book on plot I’ve read. It’s devoted to the idea of ‘story’–what makes a story, what people are ‘wired’ to look for and want in a story, and how to satisfy those cravings in your fiction. The ‘brain science’ part is presented in a very accessible way, and Cron only gives us enough information to make her point, never overloading the reader with jargon. She talks a lot about the brain’s unconscious impulse to track patterns, make connections, and look for cause-and-effect, and how to translate that into good storytelling. Her definition of ‘story’ alone is more valuable than 200 pages of most fiction craft books. There are endless gems in this book, and now my copy (that I purchased! with money! that’s saying a lot already) is completely marked up with pencil and sticky notes. I know this is a book I will refer to time and time again. Highly recommended.

Writing Fiction for Dummies, Randy Ingermanson

If you’re looking for advice about craft, the finer points of good prose, or syntax, look elsewhere. But if you want help with your plot and structure, how to organize scenes, when to cut a scene, how to analyze your characters, keeping your story focused, and what order to do it all in, Ingermanson might just blow your mind. His “Snowflake Method” of plotting is loved by thousands, and is discussed in length all over the internet for free. If it resonates with you, you might want to do what I did and buy the book.


The 10 Shittiest Sentences I Have Ever Written

Kurt Vonnegut said there are two kinds of writers–Swoopers and Bashers. Swoopers get the basics of the story down in a quick draft, then go back later and refine the prose. Bashers (or, as I like to call us, Bleeders) attack every sentence one at a time until it’s perfect, then move on to the next one.

Personally, I’ve always been a Basher-Bleeder, but in my quest to plot an entire novel I decided to give the other side a try. I set a strict time limit and set upon my very first Swooping session, keeping my sights set on plot structure, believable characters, and overall consistency in the storyline, while ignoring the beauty of the words altogether. This is what Anne Lamott calls writing “Shitty First Drafts” and despite years of reading and re-reading that chapter in Bird by Bird, I’d never tried it.

My shitty first draft.

Overall, the experiment was a success. Bashing-Bleeding is a fine technique for flash fictions, but for an entire novel I’m officially on the side of Swooping. It was faster, easier, and kept me from wasting time polishing my metaphors in what I will no doubt later realize was a dingy rabbit hole, impenetrable dead-end, or pointless detour.

And, of course, as is the nature of Swooping, I wrote some of the shittiest sentences I have ever written in my life. Each and every one of my draft’s 200 pages are full of poor word choices, cliches, lackluster dialogue, crappy metaphors, narrative summary that goes on and on and on… You get the picture. It’s impossible to capture the full extent of the horror without seeing the actual draft (no), but I have specially hand-selected the following for your enjoyment:

The 10 Shittiest Sentences I Have Ever Written

10. The best I could do sucked.

9. The sun was going down, which was weird, because it was noon.

8. It looked like a sea sick flower garden–kind of like my mom’s house.

7. I felt so many emotions.

6. When he stepped out on stage, everyone suddenly got very quiet. Either that or really loud.

5. We traveled on the train, like you do, and I had feelings related to it, although I was unclear about the role it played in the larger scheme of things.

4. “Maybe tomorrow,” he said. Tomorrow. Time meant nothing to me.

3. The surprise took him just as much as the surprise of being surprised. I hung in wait at what kind of surprise it would be.

2. I knew I would have to move quickly. From the corner of my eye I saw his purple coat, his pocket, the red handkerchief. That traitor, I thought. That liar. That evil piece of poop.

1. I continued to struggle in this way that only someone who doesn’t know how to drive can.

Fiction Recommendations, 2012

Here are some books that have given me pause, blown my mind, or otherwise inspired the hell out of me in the last year or so:

The Orange Eats Creeps, by Grace Krilanovich

What it lacks in plot it makes up for in killer prose. Imagine this: William S. Burrough’s creepy stepdaughter grows up to be a vampire punk who hops trains through Oregon while having one esp/drug-induced fever dream after the other, then writes a book about it. Curious?

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, by Aimee Bender

I found this while browsing in the “B” section of the fiction room at my local library. Short stories about reverse evolution and cement backpacks. Aimee Bender is definitely one of my literary heroes. If you like the weird, magical stories in my zines I Have a Song For You and Further Distractions, you should check her out.

1/3 1/3 1/3 (in Revenge of the Lawn), by Richard Brautigan

I could take or leave everything else that Richard Brautigan wrote, but this short story makes me cry my eyes out. Just find it and read it already.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver

I’m a big fan of Carver’s style–spare, delicate, to the point. But what really made me fall in love with his stories is his subject matter. He writes primarily about working class people from the Pacific Northwest. Yes, it’s depressing. And I wouldn’t exactly call him a feminist. But his stories have a subtle emotional power that I haven’t found in anyone else’s writing.  “Why Don’t You Dance?” alone instantly made this one of my favorite short story collections.

Swallow Me Whole, Nate Powell

Every time I read this graphic novel I’m sure that this will be the time I get to the last page without crying. Listen to me, people! I’m not a crier! Swallow Me Whole is on the shortlist for a reason. This book handles the complexity of mental illness with a kind of delicacy that creeps up on you in the final pages, settling into a tender spot you didn’t even know you had, then (if you’re anything like me) leaving you with a serious craving for some watered-down cranberry juice and a bowl of cereal. Super recommended.

No One Belongs Here More Than You, by Miranda July

Jesus. Do I even need to say it? Is there some way you don’t know about this book? “This Person” is by far my favorite, followed by “Something That Needs Nothing.” Miranda July is who I would be if I were eaten by a pod person from a cooler, artsier, more curlier-haired intergalactic dimension. Or maybe moving to Oakland and wearing more light pink would be enough to do the trick. Hmm…

The Beautifully Worthless, by Ali Liebegott

I usually don’t get into poetry, but Liebegott is an exception. She writes about moving boxes of pennies and paper clips across the country, Idaho, and crazy, directionless road trips. I believe this little gem is technically out of print, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for.