Some fiction writing teachers try to steer their students clear of books about writing. While it’s true that there’s a lot of bad or dubious writing advice out there, my philosophy is that more information is always better. Over the years, I’ve read voraciously about fiction writing–upwards of 70 books about the writing life, plot, fiction craft, dialogue, character development, you name it. 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 Lamott
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 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
The 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.
Want one more for the list? Check out my book The Complete Guide to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It’s a one-stop-shop for DIY editing, covering story, scene, and stylistic editing all in one thick volume.