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Best Books on Writing - The new classics

Updated on June 20, 2014

Great books on writing

Did you know Aristotle wrote one of the first books on writing? His book Poetics discusses the necessary ingredients for a good tragedy. Even then plot and character were in play. Over the last two decades how-to-write books, workshops, conferences, organizations, and even MFA programs have grown at an accelerated rate. In the old days writers studied the work of other writers and it was in that conversation with the text that they gained their insights and instruction. Not so today.

I swear, there's a how-to-write stand on every corner. Niche magazines such as The Writer and Writer's Digest land in mailboxes across the country. Conferences and writer's retreats are pretty much available every month here in the United States and in most parts of the world. The sheer number of how-to books published is staggering. I confess I don't have an exact figure but from the look of my sagging eighteen bookshelves it's pretty high. But over time there have been a few books that have risen to the top. These books are often cited by authors for their value, their instruction, their inspiration. They have proven their worth time and time again. Here are several that immediately come to mind for a variety of reasons.

Writing the Breakout Novel

"Make it worse," that's the mantra that shouts from the pages of Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel. If you want to know what it takes to write a novel that has bestseller potential, read and listen to Donald Maass. He's a wicked combination of writer and New York agent, so he knows what it takes to pull off a winning novel. He was a writer before he was an agent. He is a novelist. He understands the writer's perspective but he also knows the needs and wants of agents and publishers.

The book is a detailed analysis of what it takes to create a bestseller. How many writers talk about the value of reading published works to see what others have done? How many have actually done it? Of those, how many have spent the time to dissect 100 novels? Donald Maass has and his book is the result of that reading.

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook" is a detailed book of exercises designed to help you apply the lessons Maass learned from his analysis of bestseller books. Here is a practical approach developed by Maass to apply to your own novel. I've heard him say more than once that the majority of novels that come into his office don't have enough going on. If you want to ramp up your story, give these books a try.

Stein On Writing:

A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies

The subtitle for Stein's book pretty much says it all: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies. Novelist, editor and teacher, Sol Stein is very much focused on text. Words on the page. If you want to see how a working writer learns from the written word, read Sol Stein. Although Stein does cover nonfiction, the main focus of this book is definitely on fiction. .

Sometimes it's best to just let the author explain their work: As Sol Stein says, "This is a not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions; how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place."

Bird by Bird:

Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Published in the early 90s, Lamont's gift to the writing community was the permission to write an imperfect first draft. Known for her .... she urges writers to start small and "take it bird by bird." Lamont's book is less on specific craft issues and more on the release of creativity, finding your voice, and living a writer's life. It is Lamont who gave a generation of writers permission to write "the shitty first drafts." Apparently it was quite liberating because it was the one phrase cited from all those pages whenever her name came up. As Lamont said:

"All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts."

Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling
Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling

Check out this latest book from bestselling agent Donald Maass. As with all writing books by Maass, this one is crammed with insight and exercises to help you take your writing to the next level and be relevant to today.

 

Writing Down the Bones:

Freeing the Writer Within

(Shambhala Library)

Writers have been inspired by Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones for decades. When the book first came out it caused a real stir. Goldberg's book is a unique combination of philosophy and craft, a sort of zen book on writing. She is a big advocate of freewriting but puts her on twist on the process and urges writers to make use of it as often as possible. What I remember most, though, was the sudden influx of writers to cafes and restaurants and the resulting camaraderie engendered by her work. Gone was the idea of the writer in isolation. Instead writers were getting together to write in the company of other writers. Goldberg's book is an interesting work and a good way to open up your mind, especially if you're stuck.

Telling Lies for Fun & Profit:

A Manual for Fiction Writers

Me and Larry Block go way back, back to my newbie days when I first discovered Writer's Digest Magazine. Back then Lawrence Block had a monthly column where, as he so eloquently put it, "nattered on about writing." For four years I grabbed the magazine and thumbed to Larry's column where I sat in class with the rest of his readers and read his sage advice. I was devastated when his column stopped. And so I turned to his books on writing. .

This edition of Telling Lies for Fun & Profit" has an introduction by Sue Grafton and is a collection of the columns he wrote way back when. Block has such an easy, casual style. You just know he's talking directly to you. And when it comes to his subject, there's not much about writing that he doesn't address. He's been a popular, bestselling writer for decades and his books on the craft of writing have been worn thin from use by many now-famous writers. In fact, bestselling writer Harlan Coben has been known to cite Lawrence Block as one of his major inspirations and Sue Grafton says that "Telling Lies for Fun & Profit should be a permanent part of every writer's library."

On Writing:

10th Anniversary Edition:

A Memoir of the Craft

It's an autobiography. No, it's a book on how to write. Not exactly, it's Stephen King's highly praised book on writing that tops the gotta-have lists of most writers. By most accounts, King is considered a master writer and one of the most gifted writers of our time. His output is prodigious. He writers every day of the year except for Christmas. The man knows his craft. Is there anything we have in common with this whirlwind of words? I think so. We share a fear of the blank page: "The scariest moment is always just before you start."

What's it like to be Stephen King? If you want to get into his heart and mind, then this memoir is for you. Stephen King lets you peer into the workings of his mind as he discusses his writing life, his craft, and his books. Where does he get his ideas? Read his book to find out.

Be a first-rate version of yourself, and not a second-rate version of another writer.

The Successful Novelist

With more than fifty years of writing and publishing under his belt, bestselling author David Morrell has a few things to say about the craft and business of writing. His advice to writers? "Be a first-rate version of yourself, and not a second-rate version of another writer."

The Successful Novelist is the new edition of his previously published and highly popular book on writing, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at his Craft. This volume has an additional chapter on marketing but otherwise is the same book.

Morrell doesn't pull any punches and he's quite at home talking about all the various genres. Still not sure who Morrell is? Think Rambo. Morrell talks from deep personal experience with the craft of writing. He's definitely mastered the butt-in-chair method and offers solid advice and insights into writing good fiction that draws a wide audience.

Zen in the Art of Writing:

Essays on Creativity

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, like reading Ray Bradbury's work. His words sing, his sentences zip across the page, and a well-spring of joy is the response.

"Great writers are children of the gods," writes Bradbury in his famous essay. "Think of Shakespeare and Melville and you think of thunder, lightning, wind." These writers lived their work, they had fun, knew joy. "When was the last time you dared release a cherished prejudice so it slammed the page like lightning bolt?" he yells. "This afternoon burn down the house. Tomorrow pour cold critical water upon the simmering coals. But today - explode - fly apart - disintegrate!"

Bradbury demands writers to write with passion. Easy enough for him, his loves are visible. They saturate his being and illuminate his soul. He doesn't tap into his passions - they explode from within and scatter across the page. He loves life. His ardor knows no bounds. Writing about his passions is second nature; he cannot help but do so. His exuberance for life and his unexcused love for writing is a siren's song. "Find your twins," he urges, no matter where in life they reside. Where do your passions intersect? That's the point where the spark will fire and illuminate your soul.

Bradbury unabashedly scrolls across the genres from playwright to screenwriter, storyteller to short story writer, essayist to novelist. Writing is his playground. Like a joyful Johnny Appleseed, the age-old Bradbury skips across cultural landscapes planting seeds within the fertile grounds of his essays and shorts stories and moves on. He trusts good fruit will follow. Every day Ray Bradbury pushes me to unabashedly grab my pen or pull the keyboard forward excited, even trembling, ready to create the next story, essay, or novel. I must embrace work that moves and invigorates me.

You Decide. Rate these books

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

A step-by-step guide to writing and managing the writer's life covers each portion of a written project, addresses such concerns as writer's block and getting published, and offers awareness and survival tips. Reprint. Tour. K. NYT.

 
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library)
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library)

With insight, humor, and practicality, Natalie Goldberg inspires writers and would-be writers to take the leap into writing skillfully and creatively. She offers suggestions, encouragement, and solid advice on many aspects of the writer’s craft: on writing from “first thoughts” (keep your hand moving, don’t cross out, just get it on paper), on listening (writing is ninety percent listening; the deeper you listen, the better you write), on using verbs (verbs provide the energy of the sentence), on overcoming doubts (doubt is torture; don’t listen to it)—even on choosing a restaurant in which to write.  Goldberg sees writing as a practice that helps writers comprehend the value of their lives. The advice in her book, provided in short, easy-to-read chapters with titles that reflect the author’s witty approach (“Writing Is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger,” “Man Eats Car,” “Be an Animal”), will inspire anyone who writes—or who longs to.

 
Telling Lies for Fun & Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers
Telling Lies for Fun & Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers

"I would urge other writers, at whatever point in their careers, to take the time to read this indispensable handbook....Telling Lies for Fun & Profit should be a permanent part of every writer's library."-- From the Introduction by Sue Grafton Characters refusing to talk? Plot plodding along? Where do good ideas come from anyway? In this wonderfully practical volume, two-time Edgar Award-winning novelist Lawrence Block takes an inside look at writing as a craft and as a career.From studying the market, to mastering self-discipline and "creative procrastination," through coping with rejections, Telling Lies for Fun & Profit is an invaluable sourcebook of information. It is a must read for anyone serious about writing or understanding how the process works.

 
On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft
On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft

"Long live the King" hailed Entertainment Weekly upon publication of Stephen King’s On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.

 
Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies
Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies

Stein on Writing provides immediately useful advice for all writers of fiction and nonfiction, whether they are newcomers or old hands, students or instructors, amateurs or professionals. As the always clear and direct Stein explains here, "This is not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions×how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place." With examples from bestsellers as well as from students' drafts, Stein offers detailed sections on characterization, dialogue, pacing, flashbacks, trimming away flabby wording, the so-called "triage" method of revision, using the techniques of fiction to enliven nonfiction, and more.

 
The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing
The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing

"Like listening to a beloved brother. I found the acute observations and his narrative philosophy more valuable for the new writer than the contents of any 100 other texts."-Dean Koontz"The Successful Novelist is the vehicle you want if you plan to drive your way to successful fiction."-Joe R. LansdaleDavid Morrell, bestselling author of First Blood, The Brotherhood of the Rose and The Fifth Profession, distills more than fifty years of writing and publishing experience into this single masterwork of advice and instruction.Morrell covers:-Plot-Character-Research-Structure-Viewpoint-Description-Dialogue-Succeeding in publishing-And much moreThe Successful Novelist reveals the truth about writing, providing the perspective authors need to write successful fiction that sells.

 
Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level
Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level

A breakout novel is one that rises out if its category - such as literary fiction, mystery, romance, or thriller - and hits the bestseller charts. Maass explains the elements that all breakout novels share and shows readers how to use these elements to write a novel that has a good chance of succeeding in a crowded marketplace. They'll learn to: - Create a powerful and sweeping sense of time and place - Develop larger-than-life characters - Sustain a high degree of narrative tension from start to finish - Weave sub-plots into the main action - Explore universal themes that will interest a large audience

 
Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity
Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity

The third edition of Bradbury's much-loved classic adds three new exuberant essays on the pleasures of writing from one of the most creative, imaginative, and prolific artists of the 20th century--an author who truly enjoys his craft and tells you why and how.

 

More Resources on Writing and Writers

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    • justholidays profile image

      justholidays 6 years ago

      Whatever we think about books about writing, when something is greatly presented, clear, readable, understandable, and done with the writer's personality, we can seriously wonder if writing is a question that comes from the heart of the writer or... from an outside entity. And from what I can see through your excellent webpages, I think it comes from your heart.

    • TheresaMarkham profile image

      TheresaMarkham 6 years ago

      Another great writing lens from a great writing resource!

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      kimmanleyort 6 years ago

      Writing books are like Bibles to writers and we often have our favorites. Some of the ones one your list are favorites of mine. Great list idea.

    • JanieceTobey profile image

      JanieceTobey 6 years ago

      I have a book on writing, but haven't found (made) time to read it yet. One of these days... :-)

    • Vikk Simmons profile image
      Author

      'Vikk Simmons 6 years ago from Houston

      @tssfacts: Wow, thank you very much. I'm glad you're enjoying these articles. Stay tuned as this is part of a series. :)

    • profile image

      tssfacts 6 years ago

      Your articles always gives me a good feeling. I like book. I like to read books. I like to read books that I can hold in my hands. I have to be honest I haven't read a whole lot of books about writing. One day I will and I will have you to thank for it.

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