15 Top Writing Guides for Novelists
There comes a time when you have to put down other people’s books and start writing your own. But if you don’t feel you’ve gotten to that point yet, or you’d just like a shot in the arm (or a more definitive blow to another part of your anatomy), explore these excellent writing workshops in print:
1. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises
Author and writing instructor James Scott Bell mirrors the ancient strategic guide The Art of War in this 2009 book, discussing reconnaissance (preparing to write), tactics (writing advice), and strategy (how to get published) in short, sharp bursts of wisdom and example.
2. Becoming a Writer
Dorothea Brande was far ahead of her time when she wrote this book in 1934. Instead of writing a nuts-and-bolts guide, she focused on the qualitative aspects: artistry, self-actualization, the role of the unconscious mind, and more.
3. Elements of Fiction Writing: Beginnings, Middles & Ends
Nancy Kress’s 2011 book is more suited for aspiring writers than more seasoned ones, but it is full of suggestions and techniques for hooking the reader from the first sentence and sustaining interest from scene to scene all the way through to the end.
4. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Anne Lamott’s autobiographical writing guide from 1995 isn’t for everyone, but it’s full of honest, humorous reflections about the writing life, with frank, funny admissions that give you permission to be human, too.
5. How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make
Longtime novelist and fiction editor Sol Stein’s 1999 guide is predicated on his belief that writers must focus not on themselves but on their readers. Despite the apparently self-aggrandizing title, his 2000 follow-up, Stein on Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies, is also highly recommended.
6. Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time
Jordan Rosenfeld’s 2007 guide to constructing a great story scene by scene analyzes examples representing a wide variety of styles and types of scenes, demonstrating how the narrative arc, character development, and other elements of fiction writing are all dependent on well-constructed vignettes.
7. Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes
Novelist and writing instructor Raymond Obstfeld, like Rosenfeld, emphasizes how skillfully crafted scenes are the heart of a successful story. This comprehensive guide from 2000 is suitable for novices and experienced writers alike.
8. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Though much of Stephen King’s 2000 tome is autobiographical, it also contains many useful tips for writers, from technical matters such as grammar to thoughts about character and plot. A valuable element is a section that includes a rough draft and an edited draft of one of his stories. Even if you consider King a middlebrow writer, you can’t deny that he is a master of his craft, and we should be so fortunate.
9. On Writing Well
Veteran journalist, nonfiction writer, and writing instructor William Zinsser, a champion of word economy, writes, “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it.” This book, first published in 1974 but timeless, reinforces that credo; also check out his more recent guide, Writing to Learn.
10. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print
Unlike most guides on this list, Renni Browne and Dave King’s 1993 work focuses not on the craft of writing but on the next step: editing your own work. The authors discuss dialogue, interior monologue, exposition, point of view, and other elements of story, with examples, exercises, and checklists.
11. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing
Based on a writing workshop offered by legendary science fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin, this 1998 collection of discussions and writing exercises includes such tasks as eschewing punctuation or adjectives and adverbs, or halving a story’s word count.
12. The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction
The exercises in Brian Kitely’s therapeutic 2005 book are designed to help writers overcome emotional obstacles to productivity and get out of writing ruts.
13. Word Painting: A Guide to Write More Descriptively
Poet Rebecca McClanahan, in this 1999 publication, provides writing instruction and writing exercises along with excerpts and advice from greater writers to help others develop their observational skills and descriptive powers.
14. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
In this 1986 book, Natalie Goldberg suggests taking a Zen approach to writing, expanding on the concept of free writing to suggest what she calls writing practice. Like free writing, writing practice involves unstructured, uninhibited writing exercises, but is also about self-reflection.
15. Your First Novel: A Published Author and a Top Agent Share the Keys to Achieving Your Dream
Writer Ann Rittenberg and agent Laura Whitcomb team up to teach you all you need to know about the writing process and the publishing business. Their 2006 guide offers lots of useful advice about how to prepare your story even before you begin to write, and how to submit proposals, decipher submission guidelines, and more.
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