Your Favorite Writing Craft Book is?

I’ve been reading books on writing craft over the last two months. My method of procurement has been, shall we say, opportunistic. Discerning readers might conclude most were not exactly top-notch. I’ve learned stuff, some of it even helpful…but there’s been a lot of blah.

I’ve learned a bit about what NOT to do. I love double negatives. That’s how we talk back home. It’s like a special code that boggles the overly literary. Give it no nevermind…

Several useful nuggets were nested amidst a lot of pages. A loooooot…too many pages. So, in the hopes of stirring cream to the top, I’m asking for your opinions, recommendations, and suggested reading lists.

My goal is to find instruction on the craft of writing that is useful and not just another endless repetition of the same old trope. There’s nothing wrong with the familiar other than it feels like most folks read the same six books and continue to espouse the tried-and-true tired rhetoric. Trust me, I get the idea of…write, read, repeat. Got it.

*bangs head on desk*

I’m after something more meaty. Methods, practices, protocols…the strategies and tasks that people have developed for writing. Over the years I’ve figured out some of my own – now I’m interested in seeing if I can cannibalize concrete ideas from other writers.

Cue you, enter stage left.

I believe that at least one of you brilliant writers has found a different route to plotting, thematic content, rich characterization, etc. Each of you contains the potential to be the new guiding star. There are hundreds (egads, probably thousands), of how-to-be-a-better-writer books out there – tell me about some of them.

I’m especially interested in WHY you found a book useful.

As a person who enjoys workshops, I’ve begun to feel like maybe the payoff isn’t as great as once upon a time. As you likely know, sitting in a room with a published author usually costs a few pennies. I’m thinking maybe I should skip a workshop and apply the coppers toward purchasing a few new tomes. Help me choose…

I’m interested in good and bad, big and small, print and digital, old and new, trivial and complex. It helps if the guide is interesting to read but sometimes the best teachers are also the worst practictioners. If you recommend giving a book a wide berth, please explain.

I want to know…

~ How did Chanel-I’m-So-Original blow off your headphones with her insight?

~ How did Ivan-I’m-So-Existential knock you sideways with his storylines?

~ How did Raoul-I’m-So-Sexy get you to do that between the pages? 

~ How did Penelope-I’m-So-Smart convince you of that lie?

I’m open to anything on writing: plot, structure, POV, scenes, setting, atmosphere, dialogue, scaffolding, themes, symbolism, threading, subplots, tracking time, believability, etc. Duplicate entries are appreciated…I figure the more mentions, the better (or worse), the book.

Let the list-making commence. Let’s do this thing! Bring it on!

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  1. #1 by Brittney Van Sandt on March 6, 2012 - 5:08 am

    Three books I really enjoyed were Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
    Writing down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
    and my recently favorite Plot and Structure by James scott Bell

    Good luck!

    • #2 by Leslie on March 7, 2012 - 7:17 am

      Thanks for the suggestions! I’m going to make a master list and start working my way through. I didn’t expect so many great responses!

  2. #3 by Traci Kenworth on March 6, 2012 - 5:40 am

    I’m loving Writing & Selling the YA Novel by K.L. Going and Donald Maas’ The Breakout Novelist at the moment. Other favorites include the WD’s How To series.

    • #4 by Leslie on March 7, 2012 - 7:18 am

      There are so many great how-to-be-a-better-writer books out there – but finding the ones that really spark with you (me), is harder. I appreciate the suggestions. I’m adding them to my list. I’ve heard a lot of recommendations about Maas’ works but haven’t read any of them. Awesome!

  3. #5 by Natalie Hartford on March 6, 2012 - 7:01 am

    Having not written a book yet, I can’t really tell you what’s GREAT about each book but I can tell you what I think would be useful.
    I have nearly finished Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. what’s nice about this book is he give you tons of exercises and examples to do. I felt like I should have had a decent amount of words on the page and an idea well formed to apply all his concepts. He goes right from idea to revising.
    I am 1/2 through Save the Cat by Blake Snider. Enjoying it. It’s for screen plays so without having the experience of written a book behind me it’s a little tough to see how to apply the concepts to a book BUT I do like the movie examples (easier to get a visual) and the exercises he suggests.
    I read Will Write for Shoes – great how-to write chicklit novel. A little light and not a lot of meat but some great nuggets on plotting and a plot outline sheet (which I could email you my Word version if you’d like it).
    I am planning on ordering Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews but Patricia thought I’d get a lot out of it so I’m gonna give it a read.
    Hope that helps and be sure to share your list with recommendations! 🙂

    • #6 by Leslie on March 7, 2012 - 7:23 am

      I’ve enjoyed James Scott Bell’s stuff too. He’s always able to lay it out in a manner that makes me say, “yes, that’s what I was trying to do!” I definately like the idea of exercises and examples – that way I can really attempt to work out what an author recommends using my own materials. I know it’s possible to do that without their little exercises, but why make it harder, righ? I like movie examples too because so much of the storytelling is visual and easier to synopsize…maybe I should try applying that idea to my WIP?! I’ve heard many good things about Stephen King’s work too. Thanks for such great suggestions! Thanks for taking the time to illustrate each book. I’ll be sharing!!

  4. #7 by Pauline Baird Jones on March 6, 2012 - 7:29 am

    I still use Playwriting: The Structure of Action by Sam Smiley. I got it during a class a thousand years ago and it has great information on creating characters and structuring scenes.

    Ditto the Donald Maas book. When I get stuck I get him out to brainstorm.

    GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon is good.

    And I use Self Editing for Fiction Writers with every book, too.

    • #8 by Leslie on March 7, 2012 - 7:24 am

      Thanks for these! It reminded me that I need to dig through the bookcases and transfer all my writing-related books closer to my desk…not doing me any good halfway across the house. These sound like some great selections. I actually think I have a copy of self-editing now that I think about it, but I have no idea where I stuffed it…

  5. #9 by Marcia Richards on March 6, 2012 - 9:46 am

    1. James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure…he writes so clearly. Larry Brook’s books are great, but he gets mired in language that makes it harder to read, imho. Bell is east to read and understand and has, what I consider some of the best advice.
    2. Save The Cat is instruction on writing a screenplay. Applying that to writing a novel gives you an clear picture of structure. His index card idea really worked for me and made outlining a breeze.
    3. The Breakout Novelist – because Donald Maas is so brilliant. It had a lot of ‘aha!’ moments in it for me.
    4. James Frey’s Hot to Write a Damn Good Novel–another one with aha moments and I felt like he was speaking to me.
    5. Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan – uses examples from authors and poets to illustrate the advice. This is all about writing evocative descriptive phrases and getting your reader to SEE what you’re describing.
    And finally, 6. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King – They use examples and go through the easy-to-screw-up parts of a story like dialogue, exposition, inner monologue. Helps you get rid of the ‘telling’ and put in more ‘showing’.

    • #10 by Leslie on March 7, 2012 - 7:27 am

      I think James Scott Bell is high on my list. I agree about Larry Brooks – he spends a lot of time arguing his POV instead of just getting the ideas out there. I’ve never heard of Save the Cat but what a great title! I love using index cards so I’ll check that out too – see if I can add anything to my rather obscure method. This is such a great list, Marcia! Thanks for playing and taking the time to list these, I appreciate it.

  6. #11 by Laura Drake on March 6, 2012 - 10:05 am

    Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder. Amazing, easy instructions on how to use his ‘beat sheet’ to put together a tight, well crafted novel. He uses well-known movies to illustrate his points, in great detail.

    This book was a real ‘AhHa’ moment for me – I was fortunate enough to see him speak in person, the weekend before he passed away.

    If I could only keep one craft book, this would be it.

    • #12 by Leslie on March 7, 2012 - 7:28 am

      That’s quite a recommendation – I’ll definately give this one a look. There are so many books out there that it’s nice to have a personal recommendation from someone who has actually read and used it. How fortunate that you got to meet him in person. Thanks for the recommendation!

  7. #13 by Richad on March 6, 2012 - 10:30 am

    First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner is a textbook. Blow by blow process on how to create a complete roadmap from which a novel can then be efficiently written. Not for pantsers.

    Get Known Before the Book Deal by Christina Katz. Marketing for writers. Platform building.

    On Writing by Stephen King. More memoir about his writing life than instructions, but very enjoyable.

    Character & Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card. Elements that go into a good character, the foundation that feeds into their dialogue and actions. Last third explores first and third person POV with examples.

    • #14 by Leslie on March 7, 2012 - 7:31 am

      Thanks for the ideas, Richard! I received a copy of the Wiesner book as a gift and when I opened it and saw all the worksheets I thought “Good grief, that’s a lot of work!” …but I did get some really great ideas about how to track different aspects of a story. I found the idea of charts and timelines to be really helpful. I’ll look at the others too, many people have urged me toward King’s book so I know that’s probably a good read, even if I get nothing else from it. I haven’t heard of the Orson Scott Card but I could use some clarification on the trickier points of POV. Awesome list, thanks!

  8. #15 by Ali Dent on March 6, 2012 - 1:34 pm

    My first craft book is probably my favorite because it gave me the courage to proceed. It’s called Write Now, by Elizabeth George. UNtil now, I’ve only written non-fiction. I live by my left brained skills. For a whole year, I pushed back the notion of writing fiction because I couldn’t imagine my right brain cooperating.

    Elizabeth is a left brainy like me. She maximizes her left brain skills in order to write fiction. She shows how she does this. The content is excellent but I love it because she made me a believer that someone like me can write stories that entertain others. *feeling mushy now*

    • #16 by Leslie on March 7, 2012 - 7:34 am

      This sounds really interesting. I think I may have seen a copy at a bookstore because it really strikes a memory chord. I love that you felt all mushy sharing your choice! (*awww*)

  9. #17 by Veronika Walker on March 6, 2012 - 2:26 pm

    One of my absolute favorites? Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted. I could not put this book down. The prompts were great, but just her drive and ambition to help me succeed were so inspiring; I got the chills reading it. I highly recommend that one, no matter your preferred genre.
    Also, William Zissner’s On Writing Well. The man’s phenomenal at breaking down the whys and wherefores of how writing works and why you should be doing it his way.

    • #18 by Leslie on March 7, 2012 - 7:35 am

      Thanks Veronica! I’m putting both of those on my list to check out. I know each person responds differently to suggestion, but I’m so impressed with the offerings people have suggested.

  10. #19 by Julie Glover on March 6, 2012 - 3:29 pm

    Here’s what I’ve read:
    1. Save the Cat, Blake Snyder – The first half was great. When he gets more into the beat sheet of screenwriting, I lost some of my interest.
    2. Story Engineering, Larry Brooks – The part on story structure is excellent. Throughout the book, however, he spends way too much time convincing you that plotting is a good thing. (I wouldn’t pick up a book called “Story Engineering” if I wasn’t interested in plotting to begin with.)
    3. On Writing, Stephen King – I found some gems in here, but much of it was about King himself which wasn’t writing advice so much as “here’s how I’m a bestseller.” Admittedly, I’m not a fan of King’s books; I don’t typically read horror.
    4. The Novel Writer’s Toolkit, Bob Mayer – This is a useful breakdown of the craft and business of writing. Covers a lot of ground.
    5. Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg – I read this one so long ago, I can’t remember anything but feeling inspired.
    5. Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell – So far, my favorite of the writing craft books I’ve read. In fact, I intend to read it again this year and do more of the exercises.
    Great idea to poll people on this topic!

    • #20 by Leslie on March 7, 2012 - 7:39 am

      Thanks for all the suggestions Julie! There are definately some group favorites here and I’ll be adding them to my Amazon cart. I also read WRiting Down the Bones so many years ago I don’t recall it, but also have a warm spot for it…now I must go read it again! I can’t wait to get started with all these! Thanks again, I’m going to compile a list and post them for review.

  11. #21 by Patricia Sands on March 7, 2012 - 7:50 am

    No question – Stephen King’s “On Writing:A Memoir Of The Craft” – some may think the first half of the book is simply an autobiography but think again, dear readers!

    • #22 by Leslie on March 7, 2012 - 8:00 am

      Thanks Patricia! This one is definately going in the to-be-read pile because so many people have recommended the King. *groans and laughs at self*

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