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My Top 5 Most Useful Books About Fiction Writing

Craft of Writing, Writing

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!

Keep writing!

2 Amazing Books Teach You How to Self-Edit Your Story

Craft of Writing

What I’m Listening To: “That’s Amore!” by Dean Martin — I’m feeling old school today 😉

Something Cool: I just signed up for TSA Pre-Check. I’ll let you know how it goes when I travel on it for the first time! Pre-publication edit: I was approved for this in 3 days! I’m not sure what that says for my dangerousness. o.O

~~

I hate doing revisions.

That might seem a pretty bold statement for someone who edits for a living.

When I was in my MFA program at Seton Hill University, the thing I always dreaded was doing my own revisions. I loved helping my fellow students improve their work. But my own stuff? Hated it.

Because I dislike it so much, I spent a lot of time reading different ways to approach self-editing. Now, a thing I’ve learned about myself recently is that, for myself, I can work the hell out of a system. Seriously, I can take a system (a self-editing system or really any other) and make it work for whatever situation I need it for. I just can’t make one up from scratch. So I took bits and pieces from a bunch of different places and worked them together, which ended up with me Frankensteining my own system.

And I think that’s the way most writers need to do it. Figure out the bits that work for you and work the hell out of them.

There have been two books, among many, that have stood out as the most helpful for me.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King

I first discovered this one during my grad program. It was one of the recommended books listed in the Writing Popular Fiction handbook. It’s also the one that I consistently encourage the authors who work with me to get. It is an invaluable resource.

Pros

  • It explains, in detail, why things work or don’t work and why they’re the gold standard (or not).
  • It’s been around for a very long time and both the authors know their stuff.
  • It’s easy to find information between the Table of Contents and the detailed Index.

Cons

  • It’s a little bit dry by today’s standards.

Even with the dryness, this is still my #1 go-to for self-editing help.

This book was really the one that explained so much to me about why good writing is good writing. It has dedicated chapters on voice, internal monologue, show and tell (because that’s something we’re all familiar with!), dialogue mechanics and lots of other stuff. There’s so much good info packed between these covers!

Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell

This is a book in the Write Great Fiction series put out by Writer’s Digest Books. This one is an easier read, because it’s broken up into smaller bits with sidebars and other visual breaks that make it feel easier on the eye. And the information here is just as valuable as SEFW. There’s a bit of overlap between the two books, of course, but this also covers its own ground as well.

Pros

  • It’s an easy read with a lot of visually interesting asides.
  • It’s written in the first person, in a very conversational style, so it’s as if the author is speaking directly to you.
  • It’s a great book to read even before you get to self-editing, like while you’re working on your first draft.

Cons

  • None really.

One of the cool things about this book is that it covers a lot of general writing topics that writers struggle with, such as middles (you know, that part of the book where you want to throw your manuscript into the fire?), point of view, exposition, as well as the standards like show and tell.

I found that the first third or so of the book is very useful before you even write your first draft. There are sections on characters, theme, descriptions, dialogue, etc. This part of the book covers most aspects of what you need to know to get things pretty clean on that initial draft, which, of course, makes the revisions easier!

Both books summarize their chapters and provide exercises to practice what you’ve learned. And both books should be on your shelf! 🙂

Do you own Self Editing for Fiction Writers or Revision & Self-Editing? What do you think of them?


 

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

Venessa’s Top 5 Books on Her Shelf!

Reading

What I’m Listening To: baby birds chirping in the walls — apparently, we have a woodpecker nest in the siding of our house. I’m sure there’s a story idea in there somewhere!

Something Cool: I watched the Doctor Who spinoff show, Class, recently. I blogged about it at Speculative Chic!

Venessa’s Top 5 Books Found on Her Shelf

Okay, read this with the caveat that these choices can often changes with my mood… So I could likely do this once a month and come up with a mostly different list!

These are all books that have had a profound effect on me in some way, whether to influence my writing or my life in general. There isn’t a whole lot of genre consistency here. I have several genres that I love to read in (urban fantasy, horror, mystery/thriller).

Something they do all have in common is that they’re old (of course, I’m old, so there’s that…). If you have some great books with a more recent publication date, drop them in the comments! My TBR pile is certainly not big enough 😉

Okay, here we go!

5. Interview with the Vampire – Anne Rice

Love her or hate her, Anne Rice created a brand new subgenre protagonist: the romantic vampire. I remember this being on my mom’s bookshelf when I was about ten or so and I read it not too long after that. I was blown away by the sheer atmosphere of it. It put New Orleans on my bucket list to visit, which I finally did a couple decades later.

4. Hotel Transylvania – Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

And if Anne Rice invented the romantic vampire, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro perfected it and, in turn, helped to create another subgenre: historical paranormal romance. I fell in love with the Count Saint Germain and continued to remain in love with him throughout my life. This book, and those that followed, gave me a great appreciation for the richness of history, because Yarbro wrote with such eloquence and lush detail. I eventually ended up a history major at college.

3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

DON’T PANIC!

If you’ve read the Guide, you know why it’s on this list. If you haven’t, you should. And then you’ll know why it’s on this list. You’ll meet Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, Marvin, and, of course, Arthur Dent. All great fun! You’ll be a convert, I promise.

Also, gave me a great appreciation for towels.

2. The Stand – Stephen King

I debated between this and Different Seasons, which is the first Stephen King book I ever read. I plowed through The Stand over a family vacation in Wisconsin when I was 14. It caught my attention and kept me entranced and, of course, I had to finish it before the end of the vacation, because it was on a bookshelf in the cabin we were renting, so I couldn’t take it home with me. I spent the majority of that trip either in my room at the cabin, reading, or carting that book around with me. It was worth it. And it made me a SK fan forever.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

Truly, if you haven’t read this book, you should. It is one of the most brilliant and vivid stories of revenge ever written, in my opinion. I believe most writers can learn from his use of deceit and strategy in this book. I loved it so much, I used to read this book every single year for a couple decades, but have gotten out of that habit in recent years. I need to go back to it.

 

So there are the top 5 books on my shelves! Have you read any of them? What are your top books?