A Few Favorite Writing Books

I’m going to be open about the fact that I’ll be sharing a lot of recs, random trivia, and assorted oddities here. I really don’t feel compelled to talk much about my personal life, not because I’m guarding any deep, dark secrets but because doing so simply does not interest me, and probably would not interest that many people reading this, either. Right now, I want to keep the focus on the writing life, and there’s only so much to say about my writing life at any given point. So…have some books.

Robert’s Rules of Writing: 101 unconventional lessons every writer needs to know by Robert Masello

First of all, there are actually 102 lessons. The last one is “break the rules.”  Masello’s guide is witty, refreshing, and often hilarious. It’s unashamedly self-contradictory (Rule 30: “Pile it on!” Rule 31: “Reduce clutter.” It’s great to be told that in some circumstances it is totally fine to tell rather than show. It’s also great to be to be told to “Stop reading” while deep in a writing project, or at least to stop reading things that are too similar to what you’re writing. Most of all, it’s incredibly fun to read. Apparently, Masello has written several thrillers, too, which I have not yet read, which you can see on his author page.

Plot Perfect: How to Build Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene by Paula Munier

A fantastic read with lots of great examples to support its points. (You may want to read The Maltese Falcon before this book to avoid spoilers, if you have any interest in reading it at all. The author really likes The Maltese Falcon). There are some great tips here for starting or structuring a novel, from building a complex character through their contradictions to plotting a novel based on its pivotal points.  I’m particularly fond of the index card trick for plotting discussed on page 94, and even if you don’t find some of the techniques here especially useful, the book will at least help make you more aware of the sort of story you’re trying to tell.

Steal This Plot: A Writer’s Guide to Story Structure and Plagiarism (Classic Wisdom on Writing) by William and June Noble

Yes, please. Actually, I think I’ll steal two or three and then throw them in a blender together. And then maybe add a shot or two of tequila, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I often find that books and articles discussing the “29 basic plot templates” leave me cold, and not because I particularly disagree. Almost all stories do tend to be about one of those 29 things (revenge, transformation, the riddle, etc.), but I do not think that stories are or should be only about one of 29 things. In fact, as I sit here writing this I can readily invent one in which there is an underdog main character involved in a bitter rivalry with another character, but then the rivals have to team up to rescue a third character. In the process, they develop some sort of love, romantic or otherwise, for one another. Except it’s a forbidden love. One of the two (probably the original underdog) goes through a process of maturation, while the other heads down the road of wretched excess. Meanwhile, what about the character in need of rescue, whom we have sadly neglected up to this point? Would it be too much to suggest she is trying to escape while this horse hockey plays itself out? And nothing about what I just wrote sounds terribly original or unusual, so you see my point.

But the approach that William and June Noble take here is fantastic. Instead of attempting to reduce plots to one of 29 templates, they celebrate the diversity that any one of these basic ideas can render. They draw on numerous literary examples (really, this book could do the job of several Cliff Notes books), and provide some great inspiration regarding just how much can be done with a single plot as a starting point.

So go ahead. Steal a plot. Just, you know, add some stuff.

Your First Bestseller: How to Self-Publish a Successful Book on Amazon by Mike Fishbein

I found this at the exact moment I needed it. While not as entertaining of a read as some of the others on this list, it is incredibly useful for anyone trying to self-publish. Fishbein has written an easy to follow guide that covers just about everything the would-be author needs to know, from book covers to marketing to the actual process of self-publishing. Since the whole process can be very intimidating, I find it very reassuring to have this concise, straightforward booklet at my side.

MASTER LISTS FOR WRITERS: Thesauruses, Plots, Character Traits, Names, and More  by Bryn Donovan

This one doubles as a prompt collection if one is desperate—I can go through the lists and choose one from column A, one from Column B, a few from Column C and it’s enough for the root of a story. All of the lists are long and highly specific (Ways to describe eyes! 100 interesting settings for scenes! Motives for murder!). The only problem is that you may find yourself spending more time reading through the lists than on the actual writing. Enjoy, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!

On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King

Most people are familiar with this one, but it’s worth recommending again here. I’ve actually only read a handful of Stephen King novels, and while I don’t dislike the author, none of his work has stuck with me enough for me to really consider myself a fan (note to self: I still really must read The Stand at some point). But this memoir is pure gold for any aspiring writer. His “finding the fossil” analogy for developing a story is as good as any I have come across to describe the writing process. I say this as someone who has chased a lot of false fossils in the past months. Enough to construct an entire false fossil Diplodocus, to be honest.

Please feel free to share your own favorites. And yes, I know I should have read Bird by Bird by now. I just haven’t yet.