6 Helpful Writing Craft Books

6 Helpful Writing Craft BooksI just completed an inspiring 5 month course at the Victorian Writer’s Centre under the assured tutelage of veteran Melbourne crime writer PD Martin. During our sessions, she referred us to several excellent texts on the craft of writing. The following grew out of an email I sent to the rest of the class listing some of the writing craft books I’ve found most helpful in my journey.

The Elements of Style - Strunk & WhiteThe first book on writing I ever came across was The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White. I was at university, and I had a comment come back from my supervisor: “However is not a coordinating conjunction.” A what? I realised then I needed to get a better grip on the nuts and bolts of writing. Over the years I’ve had four or five copies of Strunk & White, each of which I’ve given away to students of my own at some point or other. Its most recent incarnation on my shelf is a black hardback copy of the 50th Anniversary Edition. For brevity and clarity, this little book has yet to be beaten.

Stein on Writing - Sol SteinAnother excellent book for writing technique is Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein. I find him an insufferable literature snob, and his attitude towards what he calls transient fiction rubs me the wrong way, but his advice is generally superb. Chapter 32, on manuscript revision, is particularly excellent. It’s probably worth getting the book for that chapter alone. It made me realise why my first manuscript never really got any better even though I sweated over it for two years. I’ll certainly revise my current manuscripts differently in light of Stein’s advice. (He also has a previous book called How to Grow a Novel, which is on my shelf awaiting my attention. I’ll let you know if it is any good when I get to it.)

Plot and Structure - James Scott BellThe book that had the biggest impact on how I think about plotting is called Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell. He is a suspense writer, so his advice is aimed squarely at genre fiction. He covers the general principals of plot, the three act structure, the hero’s journey, and even how to balance the intensity of a scene. He also has a book on Revision and Self-Editing that has some good stuff, but he covers a lot of the same material without a lot of added value. I’d stick with Plot and Structure unless you are desperate for another editing and revision text. I’ve also just discovered a new book, published a couple of months ago, called Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth, which I bought for my Kindle on the strength of his previous two books. Stay tuned for a review.

Self Editing for Fiction Writers - Browne and KingI found Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King, to be tremendously valuable. I was half-way through reading this book when PD Martin came to talk about editing. I was chuffed to find she quoted frequently from Browne & King. I’m sure that my revisions will be better for my having read this as well as Stein’s book.

Characters and Viewpoint - Orson Scott CardAnother useful book is Characters & Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card. I enjoy reading stories with  well-developed characters, and I hope to write stories with well-developed characters. But this book helped me to understand that the level of characterisation you should go into depends on the importance of a character’s role in the story. (If you spend three pages describing the facial ticks and marital difficulties of a New York cabbie, the reader may  feel ripped off when he fails to make another appearance in the story.)

I have read many others, but these are the ones I found most helpful. They presented information in a way that spoke to me, and they made me see what I was doing wrong (even if that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to know how to do it right). They have also helped me understand that publishing follows fads and fashions like any other industry. The fashions may last years or decades, rather than seasons, but they are there nonetheless, and writers have to adapt.

If anybody has any other recommendations, please leave them in the comments.

4 thoughts on “6 Helpful Writing Craft Books”

  1. Thanks for sharing your recommendations, Alisdair. Another two I would add to the list are K M Weiland’s books ‘Structuring your novel’ and ‘Outling your novel.’ She gives us a really good insight into her thought process when planning a book.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I don’t have any of hers, though I have seen them. I will have to get one and add it to my next batch review.

  2. On structure – Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s ‘Story Architect’ gives snapshots of a range of different story structures. It doesn’t go into much detail – but – it helped me understand why I’d been struggling with applying the Hero’s Journey. Turns out there are story structures that are better suited to the type of genre romances I’m interested in reading and telling. For anyone having a similar issue with the Hero’s Journey, Story Architect could be helpful.

    Also – I’ve recently I’ve read a great (short) book on using dialogue to strengthen story – Rayne Hall’s Writing Vivid Dialogue. Lots of practical, pithy examples.

    1. Great recommendations – Thanks! I will check both of those out. I’ve got a shelf more to review at some stage, but I haven’t read either of those. Vivid dialogue in particular sounds useful. I think most of us could use more vivid dialogue!

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