The Ten Best Books on Writing

By Paula Margulies and Michael Neff

We know that many writers will have other worthy contenders on their lists. These are ours, in reverse order:

10) 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias
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.

9) Plot Perfect by Paula Munier
One of the best books on structuring plot, regardless of genre. Packed with examples, checklists, and exercises, this book explains in plain English how to outline your novel to ensure your plot zings, you've built in layers of subplot, and your theme is expertly woven. Plot Perfect covers all aspects of writing fiction, albeit at a high level. It contains the building blocks necessary to create a plot that works with developed characters that reflect your story's theme.

8) The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham
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 on where a story should start. When Bickham speaks, it behooves all writers to listen.

7) Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury brings the same verve and detail 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 establishes himself as a king.

6)  Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
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. The original book and the workbook are essential instruments in any writer’s toolkit.

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.

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) Art of Fiction Writing by John Gardner
John Gardner was perhaps as well known (if not more so) for his instruction on writing as for his own fictional works, and his Art of Fiction: Notes on the Craft for Young Writers compiles the fullness of his teachings on what makes a great writer great. There is, on the whole, a lot to take away from Gardner’s book, but there’s also a lot to work through. The attitude of Gardner’s narrative often tends toward the stereotypical elitism of the highly-educated “serious writer” (to use his term, at other times referred to as a “true writer”), and as a result readers might be at risk of missing some of Gardner’s most crucial lessons under the weight of all his posturing. Nevertheless, it is vital!

2) Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
This one made the list because 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.

And, drum roll please…..

1) From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler
In Mr. Butler's own words: "In the nearly two decades I’ve been teaching this subject, I have read many thousands of manuscripts from aspiring writers, and virtually all of them—virtually all of them—fail to show an intuitive command of the essentials of the process of fictional art. Because of the creative writing pedagogy in this country, and because of the nature of this art form, and because of the medium you work with, and because of the rigors of artistic vision, and because of youth, and because no one has ever told you these things clearly, the great likelihood is that all of the fiction you’ve written is mortally flawed in terms of the essentials of process."

Here are some more opinions to compare with ours:

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  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.

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

  7. 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.

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

  9. I'm glad you deleted the prior post on this subject and updated it with this new post. A superior product and far more informative!

  10. The old post was deleted in favor of meaningful editorial revisions and updates. "Plot Perfect" was included because Paula Munier is a successful commercial agent, editor and author. It only makes sense to get the viewpoints of people in the commercial business as a contrast to the more literary authors.

    Another source here with a different way of approaching this subject of best books on writing: