Great Books About Writing

About four or so years ago, I read a large number of “how to” books about creative writing. I read them because I was a new writer wanting to hone my craft, but also because I was writing my master’s thesis at the time. It involved analysing existing writing advice about world-building… in short, seeing what other writers had to say about inventing and describing fictional settings. Some of the books I read were very useful, others not so much.

Online and in person, I’ve often seen people asking for good ‘writing advice’ or ‘writing craft’ book recommendations. So I thought I’d dust off my notes, take stock of all the writing books I’ve read, and make a list of the ones I found to be most useful and insightful.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

AUTHORS: Renni Browne and Dave King
MAIN FOCUS: writing craft, storytelling, self-editing

Book Cover: Self-Editing For Fiction WritersIf you really want to get to the nitty-gritty of how to edit your writing and hone your craft, this is my number one suggestion. Unlike many writing books, it doesn’t mess around with motivational advice, advice on making a living as a writer or on navigating the world of publishing (that kind of information can be very useful too, but sometimes you just want to get to the heart of things and focus on the writing itself). Written by two editors, the book gives solid advice, extensive examples and exercises to work with. If you read only one book about writing as a new writer, read this.

On Writing

AUTHOR: Stephen King
MAIN FOCUS: being a writer, writing craft

Book Cover: On WritingThis book is a mixture of autobiography and writing advice. It explores both the inspiring and trialling moments in Stephen King’s writing life, giving you a glimpse into his development as a young writer and how he eventually got published. The book also dishes out useful writing tips and advice of all kinds.

It’s structured more like a novel, so if you’re looking for a simple list of “how to write” advice this isn’t it – but it’s a fascinating, touching, inspiring and useful book about writing.

500 Ways to Tell a Better Story

AUTHOR: Chuck Wendig
MAIN FOCUS: storytelling, being a writer

Book Cover: 500 Ways to Tell a Better StoryThis book is a collection of amusing, irreverent, no-nonsense writing advice from a successful full-time speculative fiction author who writes everything from novels and comic books to screenplays and games. It’s made up of lists of tips on various topics, ranging from “25 reasons I hate your main character” to “25 things you should know about writing sex”.  If you like your writing advice with a hefty dose of humour, profanity and the absurd (because there’s a lot of all three!) this book is well worth a read. In addition to storytelling tips, it also gives helpful advice about earning a living as a writer, staying motivated, and a variety of other writing-related topics.

Alternatively, if you want a more in-depth Chuck Wendig book about writing that also includes publishing and promotional advice, you could try The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience. Or you can just check-out his blog.

Story

AUTHOR: Robert McKee
MAIN FOCUS: storytelling, story structure

Book Cover: StoryThis is a screenwriting book, but I’m including it because I think much of its advice is relevant to novel writers, and particularly fantasy and sci-fi writers. As the title suggests, it’s about how to shape and tell a story, not about the crafting of sentences and paragraphs. So if you’re looking for tips on how to brainstorm, come up with good premises, tell original and engaging stories, and to shape and structure those stories, this is a great read. Do remember, however, that the rigid structure required of film scripts doesn’t always apply easily to the novel format, so take the advice with a grain of salt.

The Elements of Style

AUTHORS: William Strunk and E.B. White
MAIN FOCUS: writing craft, grammar, and expression

Book Cover: The Elements of StyleThis little book is a classic. It’s not going to tell you how to structure your epic fantasy story or how to build your dragon folklore, but it is going to give you useful suggestions for ironing out errors and clumsiness in your writing style and expression. Yes, it gets down to the level of grammar, word use and sentence structure, and it’s worth a look.

In fact, I think I’m due to have another read of it soon… I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of the tips, and there’s a good chance I’ve lapsed into making some old errors again.

Everything I Know About Writing

AUTHOR: John Marsden
MAIN FOCUS: writing craft, storytelling

Book Cover: Everything I Know About WritingThis is a concise, well-structured book of writing advice that would be particularly useful to young beginning writers. John Marsden has worked as a high school teacher and is also a successful author of young adult fiction. Thus the book reads more like it is aimed at school-age students, but gives sound advice for beginning writers of any age.

I know the floppy disk cover looks makes it look dated, but the content is still good. Chapter topics include things like ‘Using Language Effectively’, ‘Detail, Detail, Detail; ‘Names’, ‘The Senses’ and ‘Cheating to Get Experience’.

Where Are the Fantasy & Science Fiction Books?

You’ll have noticed that most of these books are not exclusively about writing fantasy and science fiction.

I have read several books specifically focussed on writing fantasy and science fiction, but I personally find that if you love these genres and read widely in them, “how to write fantasy and science fiction” style books will often tell you things you already know. Thus I find general writing books, like the ones I’ve mentioned above, more useful to me as a fantasy writer.

However, if you’re determined to get your hands on some specifically fantasy and sci-fi writing advice, I’d suggest trying out these Fantasy Faction recommendations. You could also check out these Terrible Minds blog posts, as they have several good points to make about writing fantasy: 25 Things You Should Know About Fantasy & 25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding.

If you think I’ve missed a good book about writing, feel free to mention it in the comments!

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17 thoughts on “Great Books About Writing

  1. Great post Nicola. I have a huge collection of writing books which includes some of these but I’ll be adding some of your suggestions to my library. I’ve heard of the Robert McGee one before and have meant to get it and i like the sound of the editing one. Love Chuck Wendig and On Writing is a must read for all writers. Hope all is well with you and your writing.

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  2. It strikes me that the most important time for writing advice is when switching to a new genre. You have your habits down, but they just might not suit the new genre. Or have mistaken ideas of what the genre requires.

    As you mentioned, just reading the new genre is really the best way to take in reader expectations and learn the tropes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes true, when you embark on a new genre or format you can’t always rely on old methods. I also find writing advice useful when I’m about to start editing the first draft of my manuscript (often after a few months of not looking at it) – gets me thinking about what I should be looking for when revising and how I could improve it.

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  3. If you want to laugh till you pee your pants read “How Not to Write a Novel” by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. A few lines from the introduction:

    “Unpublished authors often cite the case of John Kennedy Toole, who, unable to find a publisher for his novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, took his own life. Thereafter, his mother relentlessly championed the book, which was eventually published to great acclaim and earned him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Yes, we say, that is a strategy, but it is a strategy that demands a remarkable level of commitment from the author’s mother, and an even greater commitment from the author.”

    Mittelmark, Howard; Newman, Sandra (2009-03-17). How Not to Write a Novel . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. “

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  4. Pingback: Best Fiction And Writing Blogs | M.C. Tuggle, Writer

      • I enjoyed On Writing as an auto-biography of sorts but as an aide for budding authors I found it a bit lacking apart from its primary message that to be a writer you have to sit down and write…which I guess is the best an most obvious piece of advice you can give.

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        • I liked the auto-biography aspects, but I also liked the writing advice section. Of course, it’s not as thorough and meticulously laid out as something like ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’, but it still had lots of key tips re. writing style/technique that I found useful.

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