The Ten Best Books on Writing

by Michael Neff

We know that many writers will have other worthy contenders on their lists. These are ours, in reverse order, and even though a few of the authors are indeed irritating, they're still worthwhile.

10) Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
The value of this work is debatable. Sol rather drips with narcissism, but if you can sidestep the puddles he forms in your neocortex, you'll get a few gems from this. Buy it for plot points, then leap the mire of his ego as every other sentence seems to focus on something brilliant Sol Stein has published or written himself, or what an f'n genius his students believed him to be. Can you imagine the grade you'd get if you weren't kissing his butt? But again, this is a worthwhile read, easy to understand and utilize. Just say to yourself, I will not be nauseated by Stein's massive, unbearable ego, I will persevere, and I will grow as a writer!

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) Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham
Love this book! Jack is practical and effective. For example, he describes a classic structure of "scenes" with external action, followed by a "sequel" composed of character interior monologue (e.g., conflicting thought, emotional reactions and decisions) that leads to more external action in turn. How the writer manages the order affects the pace. A series of action scenes wherein your character responds to new complications quickens pace, while back-to-back internalizations slow it down. While some of his story tactics can be overused, they don't hurt serious literary work. If there's a theme that transcends mere entertainment, why not get utilize intensity and dramatic action to push the reader there?

7) The Writing Life by Ann Dillard
If you're a genre writer, you could be offended by what you perceive to be Ann's snobbery. And quite frankly, you would be right. Ann talks about the value of the reader realizing the labor an author must endure. She questions the relevance of that knowledge and prefers a place without distraction. Well, what of it? A room without a view is preferable. She does not have basic heat or cooling requirements. She will endure (as long as no one mentions the author of a famous commercial bestseller in her presence). Ann finds a room over someone's garage or a wooden shed without windows just perfect. No distractions. And perhaps there is too much of this? Too much rambling from shed to shed, too much distracting prose that makes the book stumble now and then like an old academic coot spitting on successful commercial writers. Still, for literary writers, it is a worthwhile read.

6) How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz 
Koontz takes a practical, detailed approach to the art, craft, and business of novel writing. You'll learn how to structure a story for greatest reader appeal, how to provide depth of characterization without slowing the pace, and how to recognize and use the sort of theme that is timely and appealing. Plus you'll receive thorough instruction on other writing techniques as they apply to today's novel, including background, viewpoint, scene setting, transitions, and dialogue. On the business side, Koontz gives an insider's view of how to deal profitably with editors and agents, advice on contracts, and tips on paperback and book club sales, foreign rights, and film rights. Critics note, however, that "pretty much all of his actual advice here has been said better and more entertainingly by others in the years since this book came out."

5) Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Browne and King
Renni Browne and Dave King are two of the country's best-known independent editors. In their years as president and senior editor of The Editorial Department, they have edited the work of many writers - including bestselling authors - before the manuscripts went out to agents or publishers. Over half the manuscripts worked on to completion eventually got published, and over half that number were first novels. In this book Browne and King teach you, the writer, how to apply the editing techniques they have developed to your own manuscript, in order to bring your manuscript to its fullest potential.

4) Story by Robert Mckee
When you read McKee's in-depth analysis of story structure, you feel as though every other fiction writing author has cribbed from it. Most of his ideas are applicable to novels, not just screenplays. It will help you craft a much better novel if you pay attention, as well as write a compelling character-driven story. The book will often surprise you with clarity and insight. The importance of the inciting incident, for example, the early point in the story where the protagonist is first steered towards the second act of the film. Read it all. Read it twice. And though McKee is an ego, you won't drown in a puddle of bubbling hot narcissism like you will with Sol Stein.

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."

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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: