Books on Writing Books

I need to make a short list of good writing books. Left to me, it will be extremely short: Seger, McKee, and Mernit. I’m talking about craft books not the Bird-by-Bird kind of books (which are also extremely valuable but not my focus at the moment). If you’ve got a minute, tell me what craft books have made a difference to your writing.

77 thoughts on “Books on Writing Books

  1. My critique partners and I absolutely adore the craft-heavy ebooks Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II, both by Alexandra Sokoloff (and available at Amazon, B&N, etc.). Fabulous content, fabulous delivery – I’ve learned SO much from her blog posts and now these books. I’m also a big fan of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure.

      1. I loved it so much that when I was weeding non-fiction at work last year I left it on the shelf even though I was the only one who ever took it out anymore. And I have my own copy.

  2. I’m assuming On Writing falls into the Bird by Bird category, so I’m going to say Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays that Sell because his story structure works for me when no others did, his bit about generating empathy for characters before showing their faults was, oh, revolutionary for me, and so forth.

  3. Techniques of the Selling Writer – Swain
    Story – Robert McKee
    Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – Brown & King
    Writing the Breakout Novel – Maass (plus the workbook)
    Save the Cat – Snyder

  4. It’s actually for technical writing, but I believe it has increased my craft overall. It’s called Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams. (There are actually 3 different levels of his book now, but I learned with this one, the one for pros.)

  5. This is off topic, but I thought given your previous academic studies it might be of interest. There is a project in the works called the Popular Romance Project It’s described as
    “The Popular Romance Project will explore the fascinating, often contradictory origins and influences of popular romance as told in novels, films, comics, advice books, songs, and internet fan fiction, taking a global perspective—while looking back across time as far as the ancient Greeks.”

    And a Crusie book cover is featured on their About page!

  6. Save the Cat was a great primer, but I actually got much more out of Save The Cat Goes To The Movies, where Snyder took his concept and broke it down in several genres. One movie [per genre] got the full treatment, and four or five got summarized using his concepts. It was quick, clear, concise.

    Lawrence Block wrote on On Character (I think it was called). An old Writer’s Digest book that encapsulated conflict/motive, etc., beautifully.

    Sadly, the rest of my books are packed, and I can’t go peruse the shelves to see what else I’m forgetting. Empty bookshelves are kinda depressing, even if it’s a good move.

  7. I’ve read a ton of them. Have a huge self-help library. : )

    There is one very slim book that I adore: The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And how to avoid them) by Jack M. Bickham. Got a lot of info out of Cheryl B. Kleins book Second Sight (an editor talks on writing revising and publishing books for children and young adults) and I write adult fiction. but it was good.

  8. I have to second the recommendation of Alex Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. I paid close attention during the year-long class you and Bob did online — I know you think I didn’t (for good reason) but really I did. Really. Even so, I never quite understood structure. Not because you didn’t explain it well, but because my brain just didn’t “get” what you were saying. Alex explains structure using movie breakdowns (in the book and in her classes) and suddenly there were light bulbs exploding all over the damn place. And I thought, “So *that’s* what Crusie was talking about. Damn.” Seriously, Alex is an awesome teacher. And writer.

    In addition to some others mentioned above, I also learned a good bit from Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing. I think the biggest revelation EVER was when he said that the purpose of non-fiction is to impart information and the purpose of fiction is to evoke emotion. Completely changed the way I think about writing. Also, he has some great advice about dialog.

  9. Oh. Also, as a very basic primer for those who are new to writing fiction and unfamiliar with the concepts (as I was not so very long ago), Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation and Conflict is a great introduction. I was a very new and extremely gauche member of RWA when she came and gave a presentation to our chapter several years ago. When it was over, I went out to my car and just sat there, for probably a half hour, just trying to absorb all the information, before I felt I was capable of focusing on driving myself to an actual place and not just wandering off. Other books might describe it as well as or better than Dixon’s, but if you’ve never heard this stuff, it’s the kind of thing that leaves you feeling like it changed your life.

    1. I’ve got GMC out of the library (inter library loan) right now. It’s really good. It breaks my heart that it is SO EXPENSIVE though. 52 dollars used 82 dollars new on amazon.

  10. I collect these like some people hoard bags of M & M’s – Phyllis Whitney’s book I think is long out of print, but it was inspiring – also The Weekend Novelist is helpful in regards to plotting, organizing, etc.

  11. Of the piles of books on craft I’ve collected, the one I go back to whenever I find myself stuck and not knowing why is the Workbook version of Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. I was too cheap to buy the actual book, but luckily the workbook has enough juice to light up New York city.

  12. I have no idea what you mean when you say “Bird-by-Bird”, but in my collection I also have The Novel Qriter’s Toolkit by someone called Bob Mayer, How To Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey (I guess this is not the “million little pieces”-Frey), Brenda Ueland’s If You Want To Write, Janet Evanovich’s “How I write”, and Elizabeth George’s “Write Away”. All of these were helpful to me at one point or the other.

    1. Sorry, I think Bob’s book is still about Novel Writers.

      Also, I have a book which deals exclusively with the first four pages of a novel because that’s as far as editors will read if they look ar a manuscript. It was extremely helpful because it’s funny and very critical at the same time, analyzing a lot of different manuscripts concerning those first four pages in respect to language, plot exposition, voice, etc. (By the way, didn’t we do something like that on the Forums some time?!?)

      Unfortunately, this book is in German, and while a lot of American books are translated into other languages, it rarely happens the other way around. So, tough luck for y’all.

  13. I have a few, two that stand out. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Golberg.
    Solutions for Writers, by Sol Stein — were probably the most helpful. Especially the secrets of good dialogue.

  14. I LOVE this idea, although I am not sure how the heck I missed all these post’s, I am now up to speed and I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it.
    I have only read a couple of writers books but I found them interesting and informative, they are
    Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life by Terry Brooks
    Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury

  15. seconding all those who have pointed to Save the Cat series (awesome!) and Alexandra Sokoloff. Love love these ones!

  16. I like Susie Bright’s How To Write a Dirty Story for lessons on how everything you write needs real characters, not cardboard cutouts – though I’m not sure how much it improves my tech writing 😉

  17. Loads of them over the years: Syd Field, Sol Stein, James N. Frey, McKee, Swain, Seger, Ursula K. Le Guin, Maass, Blake Snyder, Sokoloff. I’ve gotten bits out of all of them (each one offered a light bulb moment or two or ten). But my go-to plotting guide, the one that I pull out for each new book, is Michael Hauge because he covers all the bases (character arc and physical goal).

    1. I second the Ursula Le Guin – I’m not sure if Steering the Craft is still in print, but it’s a concise writing workshop in a book and it helped me understand a few things I didn’t previously.

  18. In addition to Bob’s book and McKee, I have many posts here bookmarked, and I’m not just saying that to suck up. Also things at Cherry Forums.

    Books are fine. But when someone takes a story I know and says “here and here, and see this?” THAT is when I go “ohhhhhhhhhhhh.” So I’m looking forward to Writewell.

    1. I agree about the posts from Argh. I have them bookmarked. I super-imposed Jenny’s Four Part Structure onto John Vorhaus’s Comic Throughline from The Comic Toolbox. I also like Don Maass’s books–the workbook is really amazing.

  19. Stephen King’s On Writing did it for me. Will you be adding books that aren’t necessarily craft driven? For example, though Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art was an uneven reading experience for me, but I feel he said a few stand out things. Like ego–the second I start thinking of myself as Leigh Evans, writer, I’m screwed. It’s much better to be Leigh-Ann at the keyboard who has a story to tell and the desire to tell it.

  20. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I also love his other writing-related books, but I don’t think they fit your category as well.

  21. Alicia Rasley’s The Power of Point of View is a good resource, as well as Stephen King’s On Writing. Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions has some helpful information. And I too, loved Elizabeth George’s Write Away. Not craft, but definitely a book that should be on every writer’s shelf is The Chicago Manual of Style.

    Going to attend Bob Mayer’s workshop next month–really looking forward to it!

  22. I recommend Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure a lot, mostly for the definition of a scene and conflict (not for the “sequels” discussion, which tends to confuse more than help) and the way scenes need to end with the character in a worse spot than when she started out, instead of everything going well for her. He’s got another one, Writing and Selling Your Novel, which is also a good basic overview, and covers things like how you need to sit in your chair and do the work. Most of his theories are essentialy the same as Dwight Swain’s (since Bickham was Swain’s student), but I find Bickham more accessible.

  23. I like the Donald Maass books. The Breakout Novelist combines the Writing the Breakout Novel books and the Fire In Fiction. My only complaint is the type is too small.

    I liked Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card for years, but now I think for POV Alicia Rasley’s The Power of Point of View is better. I’m working through her ebook The Story Within Plot Guide for Novelists now and that’s pretty good, too. I’ve become a fan of Rasley through her blog (Edittorrent) with Theresa Stevens. There’s plenty of thought-provoking writing posts there like a recent one on Three or Four Acts? .

  24. I have a tendency to buy books on writing. Then I’m too busy actually writing to read them :-)

    I think I’ve learned more from things you’ve said here and in workshops than anything I’ve ever read in a book.

  25. Two are tied for me: anything by Michael Hauge and Blake Snyder, although I still review Dwight Swain’s TECHNIQUES OF THE BESTSELLING WRITER, esp. why readers read. The original SAVE THE CAT breaks Blake’s story concepts into genres, and he does a great job of explaining each (“Monster in the House,” “Dude with a Problem,” etc.). He’s also extremely helpful with log lines. GOES TO THE MOVIES gives you more examples of genre scripts for those wanting more practice beating out stories. But his best book is STRIKES BACK, published posthumously. He goes over his 5-point finale, for one. And he includes his “Transformation Machine” chart. If you want to get a feeling for his 15-beat structure, his website breaks down current movies into beats. They just put out the beat sheet for HUNGER GAMES. It’s fun to follow along.

  26. My top three are: Dwight Swain’s Techniques of a Selling Writer, Deb Dixon’s GMC, and Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure or The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And how to avoid them).

    At the risk of sounding like a total suck up, I really got a lot out of the blog you and Bob did on writing. I printed it all out and still look at it. I also got a lot out of Elizabeth George’s book on writing and Maas’s Writing the Breakout Novel.

    They weren’t books – but I also learned a lot from online writing courses taught by Virgina Kantra (deep POV), Buckham (intimacy), Sabrina Jeffries (character for plotters) and Margie Lawson’s stuff.

  27. The artful edit: on the practice of editing yourself, by Susan Bell. This is the one writing book I would want on my desert island with me.

    I also found Novel Shortcuts by Laura Whitcomb very useful, and I’d echo comments about Maas and the Breakout Novel Workbook.

    Currently also enjoying Pocket Muse by Monica Wood for daily writing exercises.

  28. There are a lot of writing books I like, but the ones that spring to mind are:

    Dorothy Dixon’s GOAL, MOTIVATION & CONFLICT – Read after Jenny recommended it here.

    Janet Evanovich’s HOW I WRITE – My favorite writing book. Very informal, but organized, with lots of useful information. Reading this makes me want to head right for my desk. (Probably helps that I’m very fond of the Plum books.)

    G. Miki Hayden’s WRITING THE MYSTERY – just very useful.

    Sol Stein’s STEIN ON WRITING – Read this three years ago (the first book on writing I’d ever read) and was impressed and inspired. Then a family illness meant I had to put writing on hold for three years. Now that I have time to really focus again, I’ve read several other writing books and perhaps Stein’s book wouldn’t impress me as much now – or maybe it would.

    The comments are great! I’ve added several books to my must-read-soon list.

  29. Syd Field and Stephen King are probably at the top of my list. But also Hallie Ephron’s book on writing mysteries. And because I believe grammar and English skills are part of craft, I’d include The Chicago Manual of Style, Grammar for Grownups by Val Dumond, and good old Strunk & White. And my Oxfords–can’t live without my Oxfords:)

  30. The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success by Stanley D. Williams (It’s for screenwriters but it works for novelists too.)
    Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
    The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell

    I have two shelves of writing books, many unread, plus more on my Kindle. My goal is to read 12 books on the craft of writing in 2012. It’s the end of March and I’m already behind schedule.

  31. Deb Dixon’s “GMC” was most helpful to me when I was first getting started — really the building blocks of writing. And I love Donald Maass. But the book I turn to again and again is Stephen King’s “On Writing” — it manages to be inspirational and informative at the same time.

  32. I tend to “zone out” when writing. I end up with 20,000 words here or there and have no idea how to arrange them for maximum impact… I understand plot, subplot, theme and wasn’t sure what I was missing… I read every craft book I can get my hands on and I ended up reading – Outling Your Novel – Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland. I have to say – it has been a HUGE help. Although I will never outline BEFORE I write (I just can’t – I get an idea – I write the idea out and then I write the scenes that come to me – in no particular order) – using this book with the story that is already developing = awesome results.

    I also like Write a Novel and Get It Published by Nigel Watts, Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and Writers Workshop of Horror edited by Michael Knost.

    Since so many people recommended it – I am going to read Dorothy Dixon’s GOAL, MOTIVATION & CONFLICT. Thanks! =)

  33. The Moral Premise by Stan Williams
    Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
    How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein
    Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
    Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
    Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan
    Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

    Love your blog, btw. Fabulous!

  34. My faves are:
    Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
    Conflict & Suspense by James Scott Bell
    The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass + Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook

  35. I think all my favorites have already been mentioned. Although I have a niggling feeling in the back of my head that I’m missing something. Rats. I hate that feeling.

  36. Dorothy Parker. Not even so much her stories but her poems. I know this isn’t exactly what you were thinking but it works for me.

  37. How to write the breakout novel workbook / Maas (didn’t find the non-workbook anywhere near as helpful)
    The writer’s journey / Vogel omg, I read this book over and over to help develop the characters and character’s journey
    Scene and structure / Jack Bickham a must read for understanding the underlying structure of a book (how did I get published without reading this? I have no idea)
    The war of art / Stephen Pressfield. No doubt, have to read this EVERY day to continue to accomplish anything
    I carry these books with me on every trip.

  38. “Writing the Character Centered Screenplay” by Andrew Horton (I am a screenwriter, but I think this would be equally helpful to novelists.

  39. There’s a CD of a lecture that Chris Vogler and Michael Hauge gave together that I listen to over and over…it’s about the character’s inner and outer journeys. It’s one of the best writing instruction lectures I’ve ever heard.

  40. 1.) Story Structure Architect
    2.) Outlining Your Novel (K.M. Weiland)–my favorite craft book right now
    3.) Write-a-thon (I’m still hopeful for this one, I haven’t read it straight through yet.)

    I also have the Comedy Writing by Billy Merritt book, which I’ve read off and on and sometimes helps. A lot of the books I tend to buy are about character or creating the key scenes that make up a story structure (learning to identify them). I like books I can use in conjunction of creating my storyboard with post-its.

    I honestly pick and choose among about a dozen books until I get my storyboard or rough draft outline created to work from.

    There was a screenwriting book I found VERY VALUABLE–Emotional Structure. Importance of character and creating the emotional layer. Brilliant.

  41. SAVE THE CAT by Snyder and also John Truby’s ELEMENTS OF STORY. He has a great chapter that breaks down what a character wants versus what a character needs and how readers “get on the story train” based on what the character wants. They want to know the destination of the story. This story is about if Jane Doe will be asked to the big dance by Dreamy Boy John. The story will be over when she either gets asks to the dance or doesn’t. However, satisfaction for the reader is about if the character gets what they need. If Jane doesn’t get asked to the dance that’s okay if she got what she needed (to learn to like herself etc). I think about that a lot when writing.

  42. I also love the Alexandra Sokoloff books, as well as Donald Maas, The Fire in fiction and Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays that Sell.Just got GMC and am eager to get into it. And I agree thet Scene & Structure by Jack Bickman was very useful too.

  43. How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N Frey
    Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King
    Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham
    Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon
    Selling your Story in 60 Seconds by Michael Hauge
    Fiction is Folks by Robert Newton Peck

    1. The one I like is Making A Good Script Great.

      I have not forgotten this, really, it’s just that everything came due at the end of the month. New post with book list coming shortly.

  44. I found Jim Butcher’s blog posts on his blog the best novel writing guide I’ve ever read. And since you love Buffy the Vampire slayer, you’ll love Jim Butcher’s novels.

  45. I found Jim Butcher’s blog posts on his blog the best novel writing guide I’ve ever read. And since you love Buffy the Vampire slayer, you’ll love Jim Butcher’s novels.

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