Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What are the Best Books on Writing? Add Your Favorites to my list...

I’ve run into several forum posts about whether or not writers need to read books on writing. I used to think that the only thing necessary is practice. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book the Outliers, you know his basic thought is that in order to become an expert all you need to do is practice 10,000 hours. But I’d add a caveat: practice with knowledge and make sure your effort is aimed at getting better.

I wrote a couple of drafts of Saint Peter Killed God and no one was interested. My thought was, I’ve written two other books that weren’t published – I have experience writing a complete novel – so why is no one interested? I found a writing coach on line and he suggested I read a lot of books similar to my one and ones on writing. I resisted. I didn’t need any help, but slowly I began to read one, and then another. I have to admit, they’ve helped me tremendously. Here are some of my favorites (and please, add your favorites on writing – I’m always looking for good books):
The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers   Myth & the Movies: Discovering the Myth Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films

1. The Writer’s Journey by Vogler and Myth and the Movies by Voytilla. When I taught creative writing, one of my students asked how can authors write an entire novel? The answer is in the Writer’s Journey, written by a Hollywood guy who often had to “touch-up” scripts to make them more in line with the hero’s journey. What I also found interesting is the section on characters. There are seven types that all have a purpose. If my characters didn’t have a role, I either gave him one or cut him.

There is some debate that creativity is sacrificed by following a formula. I can see that point. But when I read Myth and the Movies, I saw how it’s repeated in countless movies in unique and original ways. A writer doesn’t have to follow every sequence in the writer’s journey. I’ve skipped steps and didn’t go through the entire process in my book. But when I conformed to the structure a bit, it became much better. And when I watch a movie that doesn’t follow the hero’s pattern at all, I don’t enjoy the movie as much. It feels like it’s missing something.

Characters and Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing)

2. Characters and Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card – The first part of this book focuses on character. It’s interesting an interesting read, but what helped me the most was viewpoints. I didn’t know when to use first or third person. After reading it, I decided it’s better to do a third person deep penetration (I believe that’s what he called it – it doesn’t sound right) instead of the first person.
Beginnings, Middles & Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing)
3. Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Cress – It’s interesting to see what she views as necessary in each section of a book. Love the examples. It was fun to read.
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes: (And How to Avoid Them)
4. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes – this is short writings that take just a few minutes to read. Some of obvious. Some helped. I may have disagreed with some of what he said, but it’s a good read and helps when thinking about editing.

The Art and Craft of Novel Writing
5. The Art and Craft of Novel Writing by Hall– I’d recommend this to teachers as well as writers. It goes in depth with all sorts of pieces of fiction you might not have considered before. It helps expand one’s knowledge and gives good examples. The only knock is that it informs more than directs.
On Writing
6. On Writing – Stephen King – many people site this one as inspirational. I’ve just named five books that I’ve found more helpful. But I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t like this book or if it didn’t help. In short, I suggest reading about writing if you are a writer or plan on becoming one. It helps shape the direction I was going in and helped.  As my coach told me, doctors, lawyers, et al go to school to study and get special degrees for their craft.  Why is writing any different?  Shouldn't writers become experts by at least reading about their craft?  Of course he also taught in the master of fiction department.


  1. On Writing is actually the only book on writing that I've ever read and I did find it illuminating, in bits. I find that many blogs on the subject also help. I will be looking up some of the books you've listed here. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I read writing books by the dozens. And while I agree with Gladwell in theory, most of the people he used as examples in that book created their own market. He did mention a few authors, but most were computer guys starting with the technology. When I used to run a small literary rag and worked with a bunch of poets they all said they didn't read that much poetry and I would laugh and ask how do you write poetry without reading other poets. Do you really think you know what your doing? You don't learn a trade without knowing the tools. Most of the writers we see that have put in the 10,000 hours are English majors who have spent countless hours getting instruction on theme, grammar, and much practice at writing papers. I have a business major with a concentration in law, so I have to pick up my writing degree on my own.

    I liked the King book on writing, but it doesn't really give any great hints. I found it funny how he dedicated a whole section about not using adverbs, and as soon as his point across he plops one down in the next sentence.

    My favorite writing books are the Clinic series by Holly Leslie

    Hooked by Les Edgarton

    and all of the write great fiction series

    I reread one every few months

  3. KJ

    I also read On Writing, a fine book. Then I read, Art of punctuation by Noah Lukeman, Fire in fiction Donald Maass. Another one on Self editing. One of the brilliant books on craft i read is the Make a Scene...Jordan E Rosenfield.

    Some learn easily by reading others books but these books help a lot as they present the craft in coherent ways.

    As i belong to India using English as second or third language I also read so many books on English grammar.

    Writers would deny but i'm sure at some point of time they read. Or they have got good editor friends.