Thursday, October 24, 2013

Question: Reader input needed!

I know I have a story to tell, but I also know I don't know how to write a novel. Any recommendations for books on craft?

Well, I'm not a writer. I'm a shark.  But the readers of this blog are writers.  I bet they've got some good suggestions.

How about it, dear readers?  Which craft book has been most useful to you in learning your craft?


Nina Niskanen said...

I'd definitely recommend the just-out Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer:

Chuck Wendig's self-published writing books are also entertaining and useful (though a content warning on them as he uses a lot of creative profanity) as well as on sale:

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is good for when you finish:

Robert McKee's Story is also pretty fantastic:

There are numerous other good ones but those are my own favorites.

Unknown said...

Stephen King's "On Writing" is a must. Even if you're not a horror lover (hard to believe there are those out there, but legend says it is so), this book is an inspiration for all.

James Scott Bell has great books on craft. Easy to read and understand, these books are wonderful for starters.

. said...

First, just start writing. And read a lot of fiction.

Otherwise, read Stephen King's "On Writing".

Chuck Wendig's books are great.

Also, check out Sol Stein's "Stein on writing". Good technical advice

french sojourn said...

Yep...I was thinking Stephen Kind's "On Writing" as well.
Good luck getting the imagery of two q-tips out of your a really bad song.

Also go through every single Query Shark post and digest them. They have been my absolute most helpful tool.
They're probably the sharpest chisel on the writing tool bench.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT by Gary Provost. Out of print but you can get a used copy for a penny on Amazon.
King's ON WRITING certainly.

Janet Reid's, HOW TO SWIM WITH THE BIG FISH. Gotta' wait for 'Shark Week' on that one...come on Janet, when are you going to put it all together for us doggy paddlers?

nightsmusic said...

Any of Lynn Viehl's list on her PaperbackWriter site under Freebies. Her Left Behind and Loving It series is excellent.

Read Kristen Lamb's blog. Then read it again. Take her class from first draft to final edit. She offers it free once or twice a year. Then read her blog again.

Eric Steinberg said...

Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat!", a screenwriting book, but one of the best for constructing a plot. Another favorite of mine is television writer Jane Espenson's blog. She's not currently posting much, but the archives are a gold mine of information.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Another vote here for King's ON WRITING.

I haven't read all of the craft/writing books by Donald Maass yet but the ones I have are excellent.

Right now I'm reading - and being blown away by - WIRED FOR STORY by Lisa Cron.

And I believe author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford is going to self pub a guide to writing novels pretty soon.

french sojourn said...

Eats Shoots & Leaves.
Lynn Truss's indignant book on grammar and punctuation.
As an afterthought.

Cindy C said...

Some of my favorites have already been mentioned-- Stephen King's "On Writing" and Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat," and "Eats Shoots & Leaves."

In addition to those, I find "Beginnings, Middles, and Ends," by Nancy Kress great for understanding structure and plot. And Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" remains a favorite.

Jerry said...

A lot of its usefulness is going to depend on your own style. That said, I second the recommendation of On Writing, and add:

Anything by Lawrence Block, but especially Writing the Novel;
Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint.

These are both sources of real nuts & bolts advice.

JoAnn said...

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. A must-read for anyone just starting out. Very easy to follow and full of useful info and encouragement.

Unknown said...

I agree with Amanda. Stephen King's "On Writing" is a definite must. I just dived into writing though, I didn't read this book beforehand. I did no thinking with my first draft, I just told the story I wanted to tell...even if the writing did suck, lol, at least I got it out and can fix it up.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

These are all books I've enjoyed reading, anyway:

Echoing King's On Writing

Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird

Natalie Goldstein's Writing Down the Bones

Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing

Stephen Parrish said...

How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey.

Unknown said...

I agree with Amanda and Clarissa. I keep Stephen King's book by my computer and refer to certain passages now and then. Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird" is another good book. I also like "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield.

Amy said...


Ashes said...

I don't really understand books about writing. I understand reading a book about, say, marine biology, because it would be time consuming and impractical to go out and study the lifecycle of a jellyfish. Particularly when you can just read the results of someone else's research.

But why read a non-fiction book about writing fiction, when you can study the real thing? At best it is only going to show you conclusions about writing drawn by the author and techniques that work for them.

No, I think it's better to read fiction you enjoy. But not just read it, reread it with a critical eye. Why did the author use that sentence construction? And look, here's a place where they neatly implied characterization with just a couple words. Put those tools in your toolbox and they'll work better because you discovered, analyzed, and ultimately understood them yourself. Which is much more effective than reading them elsewhere and trying to commit someone else's interpretation to memory.

I have read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Writing the Breakout Novel. And while they were fine, and I may have taken a few tips from them, ultimately I learn much more from reading fiction than from reading non-fiction about fiction.

jack welling said...

I don't like King's book at all for new writers. The insight into craft are buried in personal narrative. If you are not a fan of King's writing (me), then the details of his career are distracting.

Zinsser, _On Writing Well_.

Burroway, _Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft_.

Carlson, _Ron Carlson Writes a Story_.

Lamott, _Bird by Bird: Some Instruction on Writing and Life_.

I would substitute Lamott for King.

Formal instruction from your local college or community college will accelerate your early days if you've never written for publication.

Yvonne Osborne said...

Since nobody has mentioned my favorite, I will.

John Gardner's "On Becoming A Novelist."

And you'll need to read it more than once.

Stephsco said...

Re: Ashley's comment on reading good fiction over writing books. I agree to a point; like you, I take tips and snippets from books about writing, whereas reading lots of fiction gives me wider knowledge on storytelling.

I also picked up on some bad habits from fiction novels; lazy writing that I didn't know was lazy until various publishing professionals pointed them out. So, why is OK for published author X to use this lazy style and make a bestseller list, and me, debut writer with no sales, can't? I suppose the answer is you CAN do anything you want. I still needed (and need) to learn writing mechanics, along with what may technically be acceptable but is not preferable to editors, agents, readers. For me, books on craft have pointed me toward those things.

Donald Maass' Breakthrough book was pretty helpful to me early on, as are some of the Writer's Digest books on plot and character development.

Caitlin said...

ON WRITING by Stephen King, definitely!

Another book that's actually really improved my prose fiction is THE ART AND CRAFT OF PLAYWRITING by Jeffrey Hatcher. It has some of the best (and least annoying) exercises. It actually kind of reminds me of Donald Maass's WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION, which is another I'd recommend.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

I'm with the others who said LaMott's "Bird by Bird" and Stephen King's "On Writing." But I'd also offer this caveat – No book can make you a writer. The only thing that can make you a writer is sitting down and writing. And go ahead and write a crappy first draft. Every other writer does. Then you can fix it in the rewrites, but you can't fix it if you don't write it down first.

There's no magic formula, there's just hard work.

Elissa M said...

I have tons of books on craft, and I've learned something from all of them. I've found some more helpful than others, though, and I think that's because of differing personalities. I enjoyed reading King's book, but it isn't my favorite for imparting nuts and bolts writing knowledge.

If I have to pick titles, I'd say "Between the Lines" by Jessica Page Morrell, "Writing the Breakout Novel" by Donald Maass, and anything by James Scott Bell. He makes it all sound easy.

Michelle Kollar said...

Plot and Character by Jeff Gerke and any book by Nancy Lamb are great reads!

Kim Batchelor said...

I'll second Bird by Bird, but instead of books, I suggest writing, re-writing, and when you're through, re-write. Let the writing rest, then come back to it. Take it on a train, plane, bus, down to the public library and read it as if you're reading it as a reader. If you can afford it, take a course at the Iowa or Taos Summer Writers' Festivals or any of another great writing workshops. (Avoid Sewanee or other writers' conferences where you pay an application fee, unless you're independently wealthy and can afford to throw away $50 repeatedly, at least until you have developed your craft as much as you can.) Or if you're not independently wealthy or even comfortable enough to travel out of town, look for local writing workshops. Not that I have an opinion about any of this.

Colin Smith said...

Another vote for Stephen King's ON WRITING. I've read a number of craft books, and none of them match King for his no-nonsense approach, and the amount of really useful information he packs into those pages.

Noah Lukeman's books are also useful. THE FIRST FIVE PAGES and THE PLOT THICKENS are specifically about novel-writing.

And read novels analytically. Take your favorite novel, and read it asking yourself: why do I like this story? What is it about this phrase that makes me sit up? Why do I like that character? Etc. Don't just read for pleasure; read to learn.

Rachel Schieffelbein said...

Everyone's already mentioned Stephen King's book, of course. :) It's great.
I also really enjoyed Save the Cat. Technically it's for screenwriting, but most of the advice applies to novels as well.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

Echoing some of the others:

1. On Writing by Stephen King. The zen of how and why we do this thing.

2. All the craft books by James Scott Bell. They are succinct easy to follow texts on the craft.

3. The Killzone Blog and its archives. The writers there are very generous with their time, advice, friendship, and fellowship. James Scott Bell anchors Sunday with a writing lecture.

4. Now roll with me on this one. From a used bookstore, grab a couple of Barbara Cartland romances. They will be about $1 each. This woman has sold over a billion (with a "b") books for a reason.

She wrote straightforward tales with a 3-Act Arc you could cut diamonds with. I can pick up one cold and find the act turns within a page or two.

That kind of tight clean structure is under-appreciated and worth its weight in gold-pressed latinum. They are a writing lesson you can read in one or two bubble baths.

4. And speaking of the 3-Act Arc, go read this by Stephen Cannell:

The entire essay series is gold, but this chapter is platinum.

Welcome to this whack world!


Lance said...

I'm right with Terri Lynn, and I would add Bird by Bird. I'm not a horror fan at all, but On Writing is great.

GC SMITH said...

Elmore Leonard's ten rules. They are to be taken with a grain of salt. Elmore Leonard's books. Best writing guides ever.

Gina said...

Start writing. Get a feel for what you do well or need work on. Then read On Writing. Then join a crit group and get people to read your work and tell you what you're doing wrong.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Yvonne beat me to John Gardner - my alltime fave is another of his books, The Art Of Fiction, which also bears many re-reads. I especially like the way he explores character and motivation and how to convey these.

Also good is Rita Mae Brown's Starting From Scratch. In it she emphasises the importance of learning Latin and Greek, which puts some people off. But if this advice doesn't suit you, just disregard it and keep on reading - please don't bypass the whole book because of one element that may not harmonise with you. Writers vary hugely, so that approach won't be right for everyone. But there's a lot of a value and wisdom there.

Other thing to read is YOUR GENRE. As much and as often as possible.

BP said...

Great suggestions, some of which I love, myself!

Though I'm with Ashley and the rest of the gang - reading about life and experiencing it beats the ding dang dong socks off of reading HOW TO.

R. T. Freeman said...

The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I learned the most not from reading books on the craft* but by reading others' Works In Progress.

I belonged to a very valuable crit group. (Love you, OWW!) Being able to read an unpolished piece and see, blatantly, what was wrong, taught me a lot more than reading a good novel.

Until I learned the nuances of the craft, I couldn't see what was done right, because it was done so well. Good craft becomes invisible. Bad craft sticks out like the proverbial.

I saw what others did wrong, and others saw what I did wrong. We helped each other become better writers.

*That said, books on craft did teach me the tools to use so I didn't keep making the same amateurish mistakes over and over, often on the same page.

Grace R. Pringle said...

Read a lot! That's the best advice I can give.

Liz Blocker said...

The (highly prolific and successful) author Elizabeth George has a great craft book on writing fiction, called Write Away:

I found her advice and guidance on crafting characters especially helpful, and use it myself.

Kimberly King said...

Writing a novel is tough, because it is such a huge project. My advice is to write a simple outline of what you really want to include in your book (so you don't forget!), and then to start reading books similar to what you want to write. I've found that if I find an author I really love, I can copy their style and language, and it makes writing my books a lot easier. A lot of free writes also help get ideas flowing, because chances are, you're going to find yourself stuck sometimes!

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Maria Popova's wonderful newsletter Brainpickings has a piece highlighting some aspects of the creative process as they relate to sleep and the subconscious, much of which is excerpted from Stephen King's book, already recommended here. At the end she includes a list of other helpful titles and articles which people may also find of interest. I'm not a great fan of Henry Miller, but do like his 11 Rules (link given), which rival Elmore Leonard's* in the no-nonsense department. Popova points to quite a lot of good material that's freely available online, in these and other blog entries.


Another book which is very helpful on plotting and structure is Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story, by John Yorke. It's about screenwriting but is also very useful to novelists, for working within tight disciplines, which will pare away any flab or fluff.

All these books are not so much instructions-to-follow as perspectives and insights from successful practitioners of the craft, which can widen one's own viewpoint. No single approach is ever going to fit all, nor should it; but I find explorations of how other artists work fascinating and rewarding. As well as energising. Just take as little or as much from them as you need.

Colin said...

For great tips for modern novel writing any book by Donald Maass (plus he is an agent so he knows what he wants to see). But his Writing the Breakout Novel is a must for new writers.
Probably very little known outside of Canada, but a good one also is "A Passion for Narrative" by Jack Hodgins, who was a Creative Writing teacher for many years as well as an award winning Canadian writer, so his book comes with excellent exercises, although I will say his methods probably cater more to someone who wants to write literary fiction as opposed to a popular novel.

Unknown said...

I've read every book, blogpost and article I could get my hands on. There are five how-to books on my little writing shelf of advice, which I leaf through from time to time, just to refresh myself on the moving parts we writers have to keep in mind. These three are the cream of the crop for kicking your writing to a higher level:

The First Fifty Pages, Jeff Gerke
Don't Murder Your Mystery, Chris Roerden
The Fire In Fiction, Donald Maass

The Magic Violinist said...

If you're looking for craft books, I suggest Let's Write a Short Story by Joe Bunting (but it's extremely useful for any kind of story, not just the short ones), Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine, and Go Teen Writers by Stephanie Morrill and Jill Williamson.

But really the best thing you can do right now is write, write, write. Most writers learn best by doing, not by reading about it (though you need to do both)!

Also, try checking out some blogs on writing. They're completely free and have all the knowledge of a writing book.

Good luck! :D

Kate Higgins said...

Writing craft can not be taught from a book. You cannot find it in any one book that tells you how to write. Technical writing stuff, yes, but to be a writer:
A) Know your language
B) Trust your imagination and your heart
C) Read every kind of every book that takes your fancy
D) Realize that there are no new ideas, just new ways of expressing them
E) Cleverly disguise where your creative ideas come from
F) Practice

Writing is like drawing. The subject is right in front of you all you have to do is put on paper (or digitize) what you see, touch, hear then observe and interpret.

That's all.
Oh, and one more thing;

Let your brain be directly attached to your fingers and bypass all that extraneous crap your psyche throws in the way...all those 'shoulds' and 'rules' and that little voice that says 'who am I kidding, I can't write'

And then just do it.

My house is full of books of all kinds and they are ALL bricks in my personal yellow brick road,


Bonnie Shaljean said...

As a lot of folks have pointed out, it's vital to read - which makes Reading Like A Writer, by the wonderfully-named Francine Prose, a must-have. On a more general front, I also found Christopher Beha's The Whole Five Feet: What The Great Books Taught Me... very rewarding. (So is his fiction.) Beha & Prose have also edited The Writer's Notebook [vol. 2]: Craft Essays From Tin House.

Gotta get offline... thunderstorm coming...

SciFrac said...

These are great recommendations everyone. Thank you.

LynnRodz said...

I've read a number of the books already mentioned and more, and I've taken small pearls of wisdom from each of them. I agree with many who have said that you need to be an avid reader to become a writer, they go hand in hand. Still, the best advice I've gotten is what Janet has mentioned numerous times. You have to read your work out loud. Only then can you see whether your words flow or need fixing.

This summer I was on a long train ride and I turned on my tablet to watch something on YouTube. By chance I saw Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist there as an audio book. For four hours I listened to Jeremy Irons read this wonderful story. I had read the book, but listening to the story was a great learning experience. We don't need to pontificate or polemicize to tell a tale. Coelho shows us how the use of simple words can be turned into beautiful writing. Since then I've listened to other audio books and it's been a great lesson in writing - as much as reading, or reading one's own words out loud.

All the best to you!

LynnRodz said...

Another great Shark advice I forgot to mention - be able to read your sentences in one breath. The period (.) is your friend. I'd noticed that right away when Jeremy Irons was reading The Alchemist.

I'm getting toward the end of my final rewrite and all these gems have made a world of difference in my writing. (Thanks Janet!)