On my journey to becoming a writer, I’ve read a lot of books on the craft of fiction—some good, some not so good. Without a formal education in creative writing or a degree in English, I’ve relied on “how-to” books to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.
Like fiction novels, books on craft are a personal choice; some will resonate, while others won’t leave you feeling fulfilled. The books below are a fraction of the books available, but they are the resources I’ve returned to time and again for many years. In my opinion, these are the best books on writing you need to own:
1. Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School by Gotham Writer’s Workshop®: This book is excellent for the fundamental aspects of writing craft; it’s similar to taking a writing class or can be used as a companion to a creative writing course. What I like most about this book is that each chapter guides you through a different element of writing, such as character development, plot development, and revising, and examples from works of fiction highlight the key concepts. Each section is followed by a writing exercises so you can apply what you’ve learned. When I’m struggling with a fiction problem, I always return to this book to re-read the “rules” on craft.
2. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King: This book is a mainstay on the list of top books on craft, and for good reason. Part memoir and part practical advice on dialogue, theme, revising, etc., writers can also benefit from King’s window into the writer’s life—particularly his personal experiences with rejection and overcoming debilitating health problems after being hit by a car in 1999. It’s witty at times, poignant at others, but an all around entertaining read. If you don’t think you have the patience or attention span to read a book strictly on craft, this one is a great place to start. You’ll be surprised what you learn about writing while immersed in King’s story.
3. The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction by John Dufresne: I love this book because it is broken into three established sections—Process, Product, and Other Matters. Process focuses on the perils of being a writer and how to navigate through writer’s block, rejection, and the daily hardships of being creative. Product includes a breakdown on plot, character, dialogue, and additional elements of fiction. While other books may include both aspects of being a writer, this book has an engaging tone of voice that’s clear, simple, and matter-of-fact, while still being passionate about writing. Whether I need a refresher on the technical aspects of fiction or advice on writing life, this book provides the best of both worlds.
4. Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell: True to its title, this book really hones in on the elements of fiction and how to enhance your writing. Chock full of examples from published novels and short stories, this book functions as a practical guide that goes beyond the typical. For example, chapter titles include Imagery & Other Charms; Art & Artifice: Keeping Readers Spellbound; and Epiphanies and Revelations. If you’ve already written a piece of fiction and want to pump it up to the next level, or you need inspiration for a particularly difficult section of writing, this book is definitely a top resource to turn to.
5. The Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith, Jr.: I stumbled onto this book at the book store and have returned to it repeatedly when I’m struggling with a specific element of fiction. Broken into color-coded chapters focusing on character, dialogue, writing scenes, pacing, and more, it takes me no time to find what I’m looking for and apply the easy-to-use techniques. Many chapters feature checklists, questions to ask yourself, examples, and writing exercises. If you’re looking for a more interactive guide to writing that gets to the point quickly and effectively, this books will more than live up to its name. And it’s small size and durable hardcover makes it portable!
6. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland: A must-have for beginning (or too scared to begin) writers, this book tackles all the fears and doubts that plague creative people working in all mediums, including writers of fiction. The topic of fear that hinders artistic development is broken into two sections, including fears about ourselves and fears of the outside world. Read it, live it, go back to it when you’re plagued by doubts. To put it simply, you must own this book.
7. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield: This book has saved me more than once with its ability to break me out of a writing rut. Pressfield outlines the struggles of being an artist as a war against “Resistance”—which is a catch-all term for the emotional and practical forces that block us from doing our own creative work. With its easily devoured chapters (many are only a paragraph), you’ll find yourself flagging page after page and returning to them when you need a pick-me-up. Like fuel to a fire, this book builds you up and readies you for the battle to write.
8. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron: I never would’ve started writing fiction without this book. Set up like a weekly course, this guide focuses on creative recovery through spirituality. While the term “spirituality” may turn you off, this book doesn’t focus on any particular religion, but the basic principle that creativity is inherent in us and is good for our lives. Topics include perfectionism, jealousy, and success, as well as many other supportive chapters that aim to help you lead an artist’s life.
9. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne: I first came across The Story Grid website (storygrid.com) before realizing it was also available in book format, but both resources offer the same revolutionizing information on plot. Whether you’re beginning a novel, in the middle, or have a completed draft, the editing grids outlined in this book will help you define your genre, understand your protagonist’s wants, needs, and goals, and locate the problem areas in your plot. Organized so you can create your own personalized grid as you read along, this is the best resource on plot and making a story “work” that I’ve found.
10. Last but not least…what’s your favorite craft book? Add your favorite’s in the comments!