Let’s face it, writing a good story is hard. It’s entirely different from telling your best friend the story about what happened Friday night. Face to face stories are easier, because you have tone of voice and inflections, as well as body language, to help convey your meaning. With a novel or short story, you only have the words.
I am an addict. I admit it. I have more books on the craft of writing than my local library does, I’d bet. I use these books for my writing, of course, but also for when I’m editing or teaching other writers. I learn a lot from reading the stories of authors, but there’s also a place for an educational slant — for having an explanation of why something works.
To that end, I’m listing my Top 5 craft of fiction writing books. These books sit on the shelf right beside my desk. They’re always right there.
Now, these are the top 5, but they’re not in any specific order. You can’t really say that a book about creating character is better (or worse) than a book about writing a synopsis. They’re about different things. So while this is a Top 5 post, it’s not a ranked top 5.
Also, a while back, I wrote a post about my two favorite books on revision. Since I’ve already mentioned those, I’m not going to include them here.
And with all that said, here we go!
Writing the Breakout Novel
by Donald Maass
I got this book relatively early on in my fiction writing journey and it really opened my eyes to the idea that a book can be planned. Not in an outlining sort of way (which it can, of course, and which I was highly resistant to doing at the time), but in a larger-scale sort of way. From a 30,000 foot view, so to speak.
The purpose of the book is to write a novel that pushes past the mid-list and becomes a breakout seller. Think Harry Potter, The Martian, 50 Shades of Grey. A book that captures the minds of millions of people, rather than thousands or hundreds.
Donald Maass, who is a very successful agent who owns his own agency, identifies the things that he observes as pillars of a breakout novel. With section headings like Premise, Stakes, Time and Place, Characters, etc, this is a high-level view of story creation that every author can benefit from.
Beginnings, Middles & Ends
by Nancy Kress
What author hasn’t struggling with slogging through the middle of their novel? We’ve lost the bright, shiny feeling of the beginning and we’re not yet at the exciting, climactic end. There’s a reason many novels are abandoned in the middle. Fiction writing isn’t always easy.
Nancy Kress addresses all these things — the bright, shiny, the exciting, climactic, and the slogging — in her book. She gives authors tools on how to stay on track in their fiction writing, especially in the middle, which is arguably the longest part of a novel.
Each chapter ends with exercises designed to give writers practice in implementing the author’s suggestions. Some of the exercises involve reading and identifying things she’s discussed (such as reader expectations after the beginning), some involve writing, both new and assessment of current writing.
If you have trouble finishing your stories, you might find this book especially helpful.
Writing the Fiction Synopsis: A step by step approach
by Pam McCutcheon
If you’ve ever struggled with creating a synopsis, this book will be your savior! There are actually very few books on writing a good synopsis (compared to other writing topics). Mostly, writers are just expected to figure it out, maybe from talking to other writers, maybe by osmosis. In recent years, there have been a few more books (but only a few), yet this one, written almost twenty years ago and for most of that time the only book on synopsis writing, is still the gold standard.
McCutcheon takes you through the steps of writing a synopsis using three relatively well-known movies as her test subjects. She provides a number of worksheets to help you along, but that are also useful in the writing process, as well. She focuses not just on what should be in the synopsis, but also on tone and voice, as well.
This book also has exercises at the end of each chapter, but the result, if you do them all, is that you’ll have a synopsis by the time you’ve finished the book.
Characters & Viewpoint
by Orson Scott Card
This is probably one of my most recommended books. A lot of newer writers don’t understand the difference between omniscient point of view and 3rd person limited point of view, and so I often see a lot of what is called head-hopping: jumping from different points of view within the same scene, paragraph, or even sentence. This book explains those points of view very clearly, using a camera lens as illustration. I’ve seen more than one writer have an “Ah-ha!” moment after reading the section on viewpoint.
The guidance about character creation is also valuable, especially in conjunction with the character creation advice in the other books on this page. Card gives information about where characters come from and what makes for a good fictional characters. And then goes into more in-depth things, such as how the reader should feel about the character, what the stakes are for the character within the story, and transformations.
This is one of those books that I believe should be on every writer’s shelf!
Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction
edited by Michael A. Arnzen & Heidi Ruby Miller
I’m a bit biased about this book, I admit, because I have an article in it called, “Demystifying What Editors Want.” However, even if I didn’t have work in it, I would still have this book by my desk.
It’s a collection of over eighty essays about everything about writing popular fiction, from craft topics to life balance topics to promoting and marketing. Contributors include authors from all over the genre spectrum, from smaller published authors to mid-list authors to heavy hitters like David Morrell (First Blood [Rambo] and others), Tom Monteleone (Borderland Books), Nancy Kress (her name should look familiar 😉 ), and Tess Gerritson (Harvest and others). I’ll sometimes pick it up and just choose an essay to read when I’ve got 5 minutes. There’s always something to learn.
I often joke that this is my MFA program in a $30 book (the Kindle version is only $10!). 🙂 This is a really comprehensive collection of experiences and advice from authors and editors working within the commercial fiction publishing industry.
Okay, so those are my Top 5 books for fiction writing. I’ve tried to choose books that run the gamut of information that authors need to know about, from character creation, to doing the writing, to stuff needed to get published.
What fiction writing books do you find indispensable? Drop a line down in the comments!
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