Books for fiction writers

While talking with a beginning fiction writer at RavenCon, Edmund Schubert and I both started suggesting books on the craft of fiction. Often more helpful than creative writing teachers and your fellow victims around the workshop table, books are an invaluable resource. Here are some I’ve found especially useful.

Aristotle. Poetics. His subject is largely drama, and it’s more a booklet than a book, but most narrative theory is a footnote to Aristotle. Especially helpful is his discussion of the relationship between character and plot.

Bernays, Anne and Pamela Painter. What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. If you want some exercises to develop particular skills or get the creative juices flowing, this is a collection of them gleaned from dozens of writers. They range from useless to brilliant, but they’re all short, and you can shop around. A good investment for the beginner.

Block, Lawrence. Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. (And other titles). Block wrote a regular column on fiction for Writer’s Digest, and he is always worth reading. His books give straightforward, practical advice from a man who’s been publishing novels since he was in his teens. Sometimes he’s a little short on specifics, and his various books (largely cribbed from his columns) recycle some of the same material.

Brande, Dorothea. Becoming a Writer. Originally published in 1934, this is still a unique and compelling book about writing. Her focus is not so much on “how to� but on developing your creativity and discipline as a writer. Some of her terminology is dated (what we would call the “right brain� she calls the “unconscious�) but that hardly matters.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. Originally, a series of lectures by the author of Howard’s End, Passage to India, and Room With a View, this is easily the single most influential book about the novel ever written. Ever hear of “flat� and “round� characters? Forster coined the terms, and his discussion is brilliant. He is very entertaining and witty as well.

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers.
____________. On Becoming a Novelist. Gardner was a famous and influential writing teacher, and Art is one of the classics of the field. His concept of “the fictional dream� has become a mainstay of fiction theory. Art is more of a “how to� book, while On Becoming a Novelist is more about the daily business of being a novelist. If you’re serious about being a novelist, you should eventually read both of these books. Be warned, however, that he can be quite the elitist and takes occasionally swipes at “lesser� fiction (like sf) even though his advice applies equally well to all manner of novels.

Guthrie, A. B. A Field Guide to Writing Fiction. In short, pithy chapters, Guthrie hands out advice on fiction. It’s rather like having a Pulitzer Prize winner at your kitchen table, sharing what he’s learned from a lifetime of writing novels. Deceptively simple and straightforward, Guthrie says more in a few sentences than many books do in a chapter.

Higgins, George V. On Writing: Advice for Those Who Write to Publish (Or Would Like To). Sometimes Higgins is so hard-boiled you feel like you’re reading a detective novel, but if you like your advice practical with no nonsense, this book may appeal to you. His favorite examples are from John O’Hara, and his advice lends itself particularly well to realistic fiction.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. A most congenial look at writing that is unpretentious and pragmatic. She demystifies the process and is especially helpful for those who find the whole business overwhelming. A consistent hit with my students in years past.

Madden, David. Revising Fiction. A very thorough handbook on every aspect of revising fiction. You can read it straight through or use it as a reference when you want to review a particular aspect of fiction, or figure out what’s going wrong and how to fix it. Madden has thoroughly researched the revisions of hundreds of famous writers, and uses frequent examples.

Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Much better than the title makes it sound. Maass is a successful fiction agent as well as a writer, and he has strong opinions on what makes for effective and successful fiction. If you feel your fiction lacks the intensity you’d like it to have, Maass could be very helpful.

Nelson, Victoria. On Writer’s Block. Whether you’ve ever suffered from the malady of the title or not, this is an insightful and inspiring book on the process of creative writing. I recommend it highly. I’m always loaning copies out, so I don’t have one at the moment. This is probably a good book for anyone who lives with a writer as well!

Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. Stern’s book is in two parts–the “shapesâ€� of the title which are common fictional patterns you can use to develop your own story ideas, and an A-Z discussion of every aspect of fiction from accuracy to zig-zag. When I want to read an intelligent, insightful discussion of an issue that’s concerning me, say flashbacks, I reach for Stern first. Especially helpful is that the entries are cross-referenced, so that Flashback refers you to Character, Episode, Immediacy, Interior Monologue, Motif, Stories within Stories. Those entries lead you to other entries. Pretty soon you’ve explored the issue from a multitude of perspectives. I warn you, it can be addictive. A short, entertaining section entitled “Don’t Do Thisâ€� wherein he warns you away from such classic groaners as ending a story with “It was all a dreamâ€� should be read by every fiction writer to avoid future embarrassment.

Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings. As Welty tells the story of her development as a writer, you not only get to read her beautiful prose, but also get the benefit of her wisdom. Even if you didn’t want to write, this book would be worth reading.

Writer’s Digest Books (publisher). Numerous titles. There’s a ton of them on every conceivable type of fiction, and the quality does vary, but if you want pragmatic advice on writing genre fiction, these books are especially helpful. There are titles specifically dealing with science fiction, mysteries, romances, thrillers, etc., written by name writers in their fields. There are even specialized titles such as Armed & Dangerous: The Writer’s Guide to Weapons.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, and a visit to the library or a bookstore with a “Writing and Publishing� section will yield many more titles. Other possibilities include biographies of writers you admire, and some critical studies of fiction, such as Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. Much criticism, however, is largely useless to the creator of fiction, however fascinating it may be to the scholars of it. Some books about writing in other genres can also be helpful to the novelist. Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, for example, while ostensibly about poetry, is especially good at exploring the relationship between ideas and the finished work.

3 thoughts on “Books for fiction writers

  1. An interesting list, Dennis. Some I have read and some I have never heard of. Damn, now I have more books I have to go find…

  2. Picked up Gardner’s “Art of Fiction” earlier this week actually, as it has been something I had been meaning to get around reading (I can’t think of a single English teacher that didn’t recommend it to me at some point).

    Wow. The Elitism! And I thought *I* was sneering. Still, you’re right. Once you get past that (admittedly, I’m still trying to, every two pages or so I get frustrated with Gardner and have to put it down) it does have a lot of great ideas about the aesthetics of writing.

  3. Yeah, Gardner can be a bit rough on the genres. When you’re done with him, the Block books are a nice contrast. He maintains quite rightly that all us fiction writers are laboring in the same thankless, wacky vineyard.

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