The Ten Best Books on Writing

By Paula Margulies

Whenever I find myself in one of those middle-of-the-novel writing funks, I turn to the experts, whose books on how to maneuver through the alternately frustrating and fulfilling maze of fiction-writing line the shelves in my office. Although I've read dozens of them over the years, a select few have made their way to a place of honor on the shelf reserved for those books I refuse to give away. I know that many writers will have other worthy contenders on their lists; these are mine, in reverse order:

10) Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
I had trouble picking a tenth book, because there are so many others that deserve to be on this list and aren’t (I considered Burroway’s Writing Fiction, Forster's Aspects of the Novel, Olen Butler's From Where You Dream, DeMarco-Barrett's Pen on Fire, etc.). But this one made the list because it has remained on my shelf for over a decade and its short and simple chapters, aimed mostly at beginning writers, speak truth. From "Beginner’s Mind" to "Rereading and Rewriting," each pithy and instructive section reminds us what we already know. We read Natalie Goldberg and, no matter where we are on our respective writing journeys, we learn.

9) 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias
I have returned to this book countless times to remind myself a) that writers have been telling stories for centuries and b) that the best stories have form. The form of a novel can be as simple as a beginning, middle, and end, or it can follow the patterns of quest, revenge, pursuit, maturation, sacrifice, and discovery. Tobias reminds us that though there are hundreds of plot variations out there, a few of those structures have become classics, loved by readers everywhere. It is to those that we aspire.

8) The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham
I loved this book from the moment I opened its cover. There’s nothing fancy in Bickham’s style - he grabs us by the neck and instructs us in each direct and wonderful chapter on what we should and shouldn’t do when writing. The chapter "Don’t Warm Up Your Engines" provides one of the best explanations I've read on where a story should start. When Bickham speaks, it behooves us to listen.

7) Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
I heard Ray Bradbury speak one year at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, and I’ll never forget the amazing zeal and spunkiness of this fiction-writing legend. Bradbury brings the same energy and outspokenness to Zen in the Art of Writing as he does to his own classic tales. He describes his early years trying to eke out a living as a young writer with a family and then urges writers to stick to it and to do it with love. "Let the world burn through you," he says. In the Zen world of fiction-writing, Bradbury is a warrior-king.

6) Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice by Laraine Herring
This is one of my most recent acquisitions, but it quickly found a home on my shelf of favorites. I took it with me on a writing residency and only allowed myself to read one chapter a day, doling them out one-by-one so I could immerse myself in each section’s quiet relevance. The book is divided into three parts: "Focusing the Mind," "The Deep Writing Process," and "Embracing What and Where You Are." Writing Begins with the Breath both illuminates and gently instructs, and the imaginative exercises called "Touchstones" at the end of each chapter make us pause, reflect, and return to this book again and again.

5) Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on the Writing Life by Anne Lamott
What hasn't been said about this book? It's a classic, and Anne Lamott has become a well-deserved fixture on the writing circuit and in composition classrooms all over the world because of this gifted text. As she says in the opening, good writing is about telling the truth and she has done that, taking us from "shitty first drafts" to publication and deftly addressing everything in-between. Honest, inspirational, and very real, Anne Lamott illuminates the writing process in a way that is both accessible and revealing, telling the truth about writing so vividly that reading her words is like coming home.

4) On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Who would have thought that a memoir by one of the world's bestselling authors could so expertly define the practical facets of the writing process? In On Writing, Stephen King not only openly and, in some cases with heart-wrenching candor, describes his own experiences as a professional writer struggling with personal demons, but he also shares his passion and knowledge about what makes writing good. My favorite section has to do with revision; in it, King tells the story about a piece of fiction he wrote in high school and submitted to a magazine editor. The editor wrote back: "Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck." King says that this piece of advice changed the way he rewrote his fiction "once and forever." Thanks to Stephen King, it has changed ours, too.

3) How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey
I lent this book to a member of my writing group, and one of his dogs got to it and chewed through half of the front cover. I have to laugh every time I lift it off the shelf (it gives a whole new meaning to the term "dog-eared"!). But I love this book for its intensity and no-nonsense focus on what makes a novel good. Frey gives the best advice I know on how to create unforgettable characters, infuse a plot with conflict, and write dialogue that sings. I come back to this book often for the solid, sensible advice that fills its pages.

2) The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers by Elizabeth Benedict
I don’t know how this became my number 2 all-time favorite, but perhaps it's because I (ahem) have trouble writing about sex. I use my Catholic upbringing as my excuse; for some reason, I imagine the nuns at my elementary and high schools peering over my shoulder every time I write a love scene. But whether it's my own modesty, or the fear that the intimacy my characters display on the page will reveal more about me than it does them, writing sex scenes - good sex scenes - is really difficult. All of that changed, however, after I found Benedict's book, which provides insight and advice on how to not only make sex scenes convincing, but also how to use them to reveal character and create and/or resolve conflict. Benedict uses wonderful examples from some of the most respected writers to illustrate the dramatic impact of a well-written sex scene. And she addresses it all – married sex, adulterous sex, illicit sex – in a way that is fresh, revealing, and inspiring. So, whenever those nuns appear, I reach for this book and let this classic guide remind me that it's okay for sex to be part of the story.

And, drum roll please…..

1) Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
My husband bought me this book for Christmas the first year I started writing fiction and it has become my all-time favorite writing guide. I've turned to it so often that the pages are covered with sticky notes, highlighted passages, fingerprints, and coffee stains. The book is designed for mid-list authors looking for a way to move ahead in the industry, but the advice packed within its pages is useful for beginners, as well. For a book to be a breakout success, Maas says, it must have the following: an original premise, high stakes, a strong sense of time and place, and larger-than-life characters. And Maas, a literary agent and author of seventeen novels, knows whereof he speaks. I was fortunate enough to attend one of his seminars, where we used some of the draft exercises that became part of his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Both the original book and the workbook are essential instruments in any writer’s toolkit, but if I was going to be sent to a desert island and could only take one book on writing with me, Writing the Breakout Novel is the one I would pack in my suitcase.
Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at paula@paulamargulies.com, or visit her website at http://www.paulamargulies.com/.


  1. Great list. There are a few books here I'm not familiar with. I'll have to check them out. thanks!

  2. Thanks! Interesting list!

    I'd have to add Dorothea Brande's 'Becoming a Writer' and Mary Wibberly's 'To Writers With Love', which is about writing romance novels but has some fantastic advice for all writers, regardless of genre.

  3. 38 Mistakes is one of the most underrated books on writing fiction. Another that I think should be on every writer's shelf is A Reader's Manifesto, by B.R. Myers. It is an indispensable weapon in the fight against the growing pretentiousness and vacuity of American literary writing.

  4. I have read all of these books and have to say that, for the most part, they have all left my shelves very quickly. With the exception of the King book (and to a lesser extent, the Tobias book) I find most of them speak to the writer of yesterday or to the idea that one cannot learn how to write well not approach writing from the standpoint of the skill of telling a story and telling it well.

    The very fanciful notion that characters "write their own story" may appeal to some, but there are those of use who look at writing as the late Alfred Hitchcock did. He said: "Some writers will tell you that characters should come with a life of their own instead of being twisted and warped and forced into position. I disagree. Decide what the characters are going to do; provide them with enough characteristics to make it seem plausible that they can do it; plant in things that will make the scenes work and out comes a credible story."

    This is the key to skillful, learned writing. As such, I would recommend books that feed such ideas on writing:

    Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish) by James Scott Bell (Write Great Fiction)
    Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints by Nancy Kress (Write Great Fiction)
    Dialogue by Gloria Kempton (Write Great Fiction)
    Description & Setting: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Believable World of People, Places, and Events by Ron Rozelle (Write Great Fiction)
    Revision And Self-Editing by James Scott Bell (Write Great Fiction)
    Keys to Great Writing by Stephen Wilbers
    Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain
    Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
    The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler
    Story by Robert McKee
    On Writing by Stephen King

    And, for mystery writers, although these are both flawed, I would recommend:

    Don't Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden
    Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron

    These have been proving invaluable as I make my way to becoming a writer.

  5. I think that soon Peggy Tabor Millin's book Women, Writing and Soul-Making will be on lists of the best. Her book is geared toward women, but most of the content applies to either gender.

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  7. Her book is geared toward women, but most of the content applies to either gender.

  8. Great novels (critically acclaimed and popular novels) are themselves the best books about writing. All you need to do is to read them like a writer. They will teach you everything you need to know about plotting, characterization, point of view etc.
    But how do you learn to read like a writer? A new book about writing has been designed to teach this art . Take a look at:
    Plot Fiction like the Masters: Ian Fleming, Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Story-Buidling.

  9. Writing the Breakout Novel was written by somebody who never managed to write a breakout novel.