11 Essential Writing Guides

I am always reluctant to provide writing advice. I'm happy to share anecdotes, revelations, or techniques that help me, but actually advise people? No. I'm not published, and even if I were, there are many more qualified writers out there that you should listen to.

However I think that on this particular topic, I am qualified. In the past 2 weeks alone, I've read 4 writing craft books, which brings my all time total to somewhere between thirty and forty.

I read exhaustively in any area I happen to be interested in (this includes user manuals, btw), but not everyone is like me. And besides, not every book is full of unique information. If you want basics, go to the writing guide section of the bookstore or library, close your eyes, and grab something. If you want more than that, read everything and then retrospectively decide what you could have skipped. Or... read on and trust me.

What follows is a list of books I've found particularly invaluable. Put together, they cover all of the information contained in the many books I've read that I did not list. These are the books that I keep on my reference shelf. I'll add more as time passes, but I think what follows is enough to be getting on with.

Basic Plot & Characters

Plot vs Character by Jeff Gerke or Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
Both cover three-act structure and how to tie a character's arc to the plot.  Plot vs Character includes an extensive section on building a multidimensional character, while Plot & Structure discusses some techniques that add flexibility to traditional three-act.

Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
So far, the best character book I've come across.  Others cover the basics, but Card has a unique way of breaking things down.

Prose Techniques

Description by Monica Wood
So much more than "just" description, Wood believes that relating a story IS description.  Her discussion is thorough, applicable, and interesting.  One of my favorite craft books, period.

Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
Grammar.  Word choice.  A unique discussion of voice.  Absolutely not boring.

Advanced Story Techniques

The Fire in Fiction or Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
Maass makes really important points about big ideas like stakes, tension, and theme.  I read both, you probably don't have to, as their content overlaps significantly.  I liked Fire in Fiction better, but that might just be because I read it first.

Between the Lines by Jessica Page Morrell
Filled with advanced and subtle techniques that really aren't covered adequately anywhere else - things like foreshadowing, flashbacks, pacing, suspense, epiphanies, and cliffhangers.


Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King
Exactly what it claims to be.  A classic for a reason. 

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
Invaluable for identifying specific areas to work on - if you're getting rejections and don't know why, read this.  But beware - it's a book of extremes.  All the flaws in your manuscript will suddenly jump out at you, which will either be a sledgehammer to your motivation or trigger an adjective-killing spree that could ultimately cause just as much damage to your prose as the adjectives did.  So I suggest waiting to read this one until you've done enough writing to know who you are on the page.

Mushy Stuff

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
Ms. Lerner is an editor, and though this book does talk about the publishing industry and "what editors want," I found it more valuable for her insights regarding the psychology of writers.  There's real wisdom in those pages.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Want someone to make you feel warm and fuzzy and special?  That's this book.

The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell
Closer to a rally or a challenge, Bell uses fewer warm fuzzies than Lamott, but manages to be equally motivational.   More so if you're goal-oriented like me.

There are three additional books I want to bring up, because although they aren't for reading cover to cover, they are useful references for plot/character archetypes. There are many options, but my favorites include Character Traits by Linda Edelstein, Story Structure Architect and 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt.

So there you have it.  My list.  I hope you find it useful.

Still, it's one thing to collect information, and an entirely different thing to use it. So stop by again next week, and I'll share some of my tips for sorting, choosing, and implementing writing advice without losing your mind.

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