6 Smart How-To-Write Books

I don’t give writing advice very often, but I know good writing advice when I hear it. The following six titles are a sample of some of the best.

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On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

When I was in college in the eighties, a classmate announced that some day Stephen King would be considered a genius. Everybody scoffed but I knew she was right.  The author of Salem’s Lot, The Stand, and The Shining has forgotten more than most of us will ever know about weaving great stories. In On Writing, the master  is generous with advice, personal stories, and practical tips on getting started and writing well. This is considered by many writers to be a forever classic in books on writing and I agree.

Takeaway: Adverbs are terrible, but verbs are your friends. 

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Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See

When this book first came out in 2002, it blew my mind. Writer and teacher Carolyn See offers spirited encouragement with a Law of Attraction feel as well as concrete suggestions on plot, character and revision. Her response to rejection alone makes this book a must-read.

Takeaways: Carolyn See says to either write a thousand words or complete two hours of revision a day to keep yourself in the game. She also suggests writing handwritten notes to authors, agents and editors you appreciate with no other agenda than to say thank you for their work. I’ve done this, and they often write back. So cool.

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The Short Fuse Guide to Plotting Your Novel by Connor Goldsmith

Literary Agent Connor Goldsmith lays out the basics of building a compelling narrative in simple terms that are perfect for beginners, and a solid reminder for more veteran writers as well. At 99 cents on Amazon Kindle, it’s a title I suggest to other writers who know their plots aren’t working, but don’t know why. Goldsmith’s language is direct. He cuts to the chase. You’ll read this and finish armed with the information you need to fix your lackluster beginning, saggy middle and slushy end. This book demystifies the process of writing page-turning fiction.

Takeaways: “Every character in your story should have a core Want and Need that you can identify.” Character motivation builds conflict that a reader will turn the pages to explore. Another gem: “The inciting incident must occur in the first 100 pages of your manuscript.” Yeah. I wish I had this book of advice when I was starting out.

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The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

Reading The Art of Fiction is a rite of passage for new writers. John Gardner was a colleague of Raymond Carver, and a serious literary voice in the late twentieth century. Every page is packed with excellent literary writing advice. It’s a mini-MFA in a paperback..

Takeaways: “Failure to recognize that the central character must act, not simply be acted upon, is the single most common mistake in the fiction beginners.” Can I get a witness. Also, “. . the first business o the writer must be to make us see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel. . . we must be drawn into the characters’ world as if we were born to it.” Easier said than done, sir. Easier said than done.

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How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel that You Will Love Forever by Nathan Bransford

Another former literary agent, Nathan Bransford wrote a book that is a series of short chapters, each one containing an essential rule for novel writing. These rules include Get Perspective, which is a breakdown of point-of-view and tense. Rule #13 is Write a Killer First Page, which seems to be a recurring theme. Branford’s tone is light and encouraging, yet his information is indispensable to the novice and veteran alike.

Takeaways: Rule #11: Don’t try to imagine your whole novel all at once. Rule #8: Don’t be a cliché.  These tidbits of advice would apply to most endeavors, really. I also like Rule #16: Give your chapters drive. He shows you how to close a chapter so that the reader will be unable to resist the next one.

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Hooked: Write Fiction that Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go by Les Edgerton

My writer group goddess friend Tricia Stirling, author of When My Heart Was Wicked, lent this excellent book to me and I kept it for way longer than was polite. Edgerton just nails the tricky business of openings down for a writer. I am one of those readers who picks up a book, reads the first line, and tells from there whether or not I will continue. I know as a writer that I get one chance to make an impression that will keep my reader pulled along and turning pages. This is one of the most practical and immediately useful books I’ve ever read on writing fiction.

Takeaways: From the first lines: “Why write a book on just story beginnings? The simple truth is, if your beginning doesn’t do the job it needs to, the rest of the story most likely won’t be read by the agent or editor or publisher that you submit to.”  Despite this dose of reality, Hooked encourages writers to dust themselves off after mistakes and forge ahead with their new information about forming story beginnings that work.

Honorable Mention:

The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth by James N. Frey offers a useful perspective on character and plot using foundational archetypes. This one will open your eyes to the archetypes in fiction as a reader too.

Do you have any suggestions for great books of writing advice? I know I’ve missed some good ones. Tell me your favorites in the comments.

Maureen O’Leary Wanket is the author of the novels How to Be Manly and The Arrow.

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