Books That Help

These are a few books on the craft of writing that I have found helpful. If you want more suggestions, you can take a look in the NiFtY Author Interview archives, because I always ask NiFtY authors to share their favorites.

Bird by Bird, by Ann Lamott

This was one of my very first books on writing. I love Lamott’s self-effacing humor, as well as the how she urges writers to just get it out, even if it means a “shitty first draft.” I can totally identify with how she expresses fear that she’ll die before revising a shitty first draft, and then people will read it and think all kinds of horrible things about her.


Cover of "The Practical Writer: From Insp...

Cover via Amazon

The Practical Writer, edited by Therese Eiben and Mary Gannon

All kinds of helpful essays in this one. It was my first introduction to literary agent Noah Lukeman, who has lots of solid advice to give on finding and landing a literary agent. It hasn’t worked for me yet, but I’ll keep trying and writing in the meantime.

Nicholas Weinstock’s “The Trouble with Titles” was something I could fully identify with on my first two manuscripts. His exploration of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s difficulties in titling The Great Gatsby made me feel better.


Scene & Structure, by Jack M. Bickham

I learn best by reading and trying things out, and Scene & Structure really spelled out how scenes work in fiction. With my first manuscript, I was just writing, and I got some things right but totally missed others.

Bickham is almost scientific in his analysis of action-reaction, scene and sequel, and the overall structure of a plot. He’s got an engaging way of writing to the audience that miraculously did not annoy me.

Writing and Selling Your Novel, by Jack Bickham

Okay, Jack’s voice got a little annoying here. He kinda nags you to do the exercises. I haven’t done all of them yet (but I’ve done some). Maybe other writers have this issue: finite amounts of time. I’d rather spend that time working on my current manuscript, not writing unrelated bits of prose.

I guess that’s why they’re “exercises.” If you want exercises that can be directly applied to your current WIP, see Maass’s workbook below.

Otherwise, Writing and Selling Your Novel has some really great points and ideas. I especially liked his discussion of character tags.

Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyon

Lyon’s book includes quite a bit of technical things in the beginning (varying sentence structure, power positions on the word/sentence/paragraph/chapter/whole book level), and at the end (how to write a synopsis, formatting your manuscript, query letters). In the middle you’ll find other great advice.

Most helpful for me was her discussion of the character arc and the Backstory Wound (which she doesn’t capitalize, but it happens that way in my head. It’s like a title to me now).

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass

I thought the title sounded gimmicky, so I avoided it. Then I started seeing it recommended on every literary agent’s website and blog. Fine, I thought with a sigh.

This book is amazing. It totally changed how I work with a plot. It also woke me up to some of the flaws in my past manuscripts.


Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maass

A critique partner loaned this to me. When I started raving about it, she very kindly told me to keep it and that she was buying another copy for herself.

The exercises in here can be applied to the Novel You Are Writing Right Now. Whatever point you’re at, whether you’ve written a draft or you’re just brainstorming. I’m using it right now after completing my first draft. For me this is good, because I’m not too attached to anything in the story yet and have room to change things around.

Characters & Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card

I bought this during the writing of my first manuscript, when I foolishly decided to write from multiple points of view. There’s nothing wrong with that for most people, but for a first-time novelist I don’t think it was the wisest choice.

Chapter 5, “What Kind of Story Are You Telling?” and Chapter 6, “The Hierarchy,” were both extremely informative, but really, the whole book is full of solid advice. It’s been years since I read it, but now that I’m thumbing through it, I think I’ll give it another read.

There are so many more on my to-read list, and I’ll add them as I go. Is there a book that has helped you? I’d love to hear about it! I’m always looking for more recommendations.