Skip to main content

Ten Best Books on Novel Writing

We know that many writers will have other worthy contenders on their lists. These are ours, in reverse order, and even though a few of the authors are indeed irritating, they're still worthwhile.

10) Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
The value of this work is debatable. Sol rather drips with narcissism, but if you can sidestep the puddles he forms in your neocortex, you'll get a few gems from this. Buy it for plot points, then leap the mire of his ego as every other sentence seems to focus on something brilliant Sol Stein has published or written himself, or what an f'n genius his students believed him to be. Can you imagine the grade you'd get if you weren't kissing his butt? But again, this is a worthwhile read, easy to understand and utilize. Just say to yourself, I will not be nauseated by Stein's massive, unbearable ego, I will persevere, and I will grow as a writer!

9) Plot Perfect by Paula Munier
One of the best books on structuring plot, regardless of genre. Packed with examples, checklists, and exercises, this book explains in plain English how to outline your novel to ensure your plot zings, you've built in layers of subplot, and your theme is expertly woven. Plot Perfect covers all aspects of writing fiction, albeit at a high level. It contains the building blocks necessary to create a plot that works with developed characters that reflect your story's theme.

8) Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham
Love this book! Jack is practical and effective. For example, he describes a classic structure of "scenes" with external action, followed by a "sequel" composed of character interior monologue (e.g., conflicting thought, emotional reactions and decisions) that leads to more external action in turn. How the writer manages the order affects the pace. A series of action scenes wherein your character responds to new complications quickens pace, while back-to-back internalizations slow it down. While some of his story tactics can be overused, they don't hurt serious literary work. If there's a theme that transcends mere entertainment, why not get utilize intensity and dramatic action to push the reader there?

7) The Writing Life by Ann Dillard
If you're a genre writer, you could be offended by what you perceive to be Ann's snobbery. And quite frankly, you would be right. Ann talks about the value of the reader realizing the labor an author must endure. She questions the relevance of that knowledge and prefers a place without distraction. Well, what of it? A room without a view is preferable. She does not have basic heat or cooling requirements. She will endure (as long as no one mentions the author of a famous commercial bestseller in her presence). Ann finds a room over someone's garage or a wooden shed without windows just perfect. No distractions. And perhaps there is too much of this? Too much rambling from shed to shed, too much distracting prose that makes the book stumble now and then like an old academic coot spitting on successful commercial writers. Still, for literary writers, it is a worthwhile read.

6) How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz 
Koontz takes a practical, detailed approach to the art, craft, and business of novel writing. You'll learn how to structure a story for greatest reader appeal, how to provide depth of characterization without slowing the pace, and how to recognize and use the sort of theme that is timely and appealing. Plus you'll receive thorough instruction on other writing techniques as they apply to today's novel, including background, viewpoint, scene setting, transitions, and dialogue. On the business side, Koontz gives an insider's view of how to deal profitably with editors and agents, advice on contracts, and tips on paperback and book club sales, foreign rights, and film rights. Critics note, however, that "pretty much all of his actual advice here has been said better and more entertainingly by others in the years since this book came out."

5) Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Browne and King
Renni Browne and Dave King are two of the country's best-known independent editors. In their years as president and senior editor of The Editorial Department, they have edited the work of many writers - including bestselling authors - before the manuscripts went out to agents or publishers. Over half the manuscripts worked on to completion eventually got published, and over half that number were first novels. In this book Browne and King teach you, the writer, how to apply the editing techniques they have developed to your own manuscript, in order to bring your manuscript to its fullest potential.

4) Story by Robert Mckee
When you read McKee's in-depth analysis of story structure, you feel as though every other fiction writing author has cribbed from it. Most of his ideas are applicable to novels, not just screenplays. It will help you craft a much better novel if you pay attention, as well as write a compelling character-driven story. The book will often surprise you with clarity and insight. The importance of the inciting incident, for example, the early point in the story where the protagonist is first steered towards the second act of the film. Read it all. Read it twice. And though McKee is an ego, you won't drown in a puddle of bubbling hot narcissism like you will with Sol Stein.

3) Art of Fiction Writing by John Gardner
John Gardner was perhaps as well known (if not more so) for his instruction on writing as for his own fictional works, and his Art of Fiction: Notes on the Craft for Young Writers compiles the fullness of his teachings on what makes a great writer great. There is, on the whole, a lot to take away from Gardner’s book, but there’s also a lot to work through. The attitude of Gardner’s narrative often tends toward the stereotypical elitism of the highly-educated “serious writer” (to use his term, at other times referred to as a “true writer”), and as a result readers might be at risk of missing some of Gardner’s most crucial lessons under the weight of all his posturing. Nevertheless, it is vital!

2) Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
This one made the list because its short and simple chapters, aimed mostly at beginning writers, speak truth. From "Beginner’s Mind" to "Rereading and Rewriting," each pithy and instructive section reminds us what we already know. We read Natalie Goldberg and, no matter where we are on our respective writing journeys, we learn.

And, drum roll please…..

1) From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler
In Mr. Butler's own words: "In the nearly two decades I’ve been teaching this subject, I have read many thousands of manuscripts from aspiring writers, and virtually all of them—virtually all of them—fail to show an intuitive command of the essentials of the process of fictional art. Because of the creative writing pedagogy in this country, and because of the nature of this art form, and because of the medium you work with, and because of the rigors of artistic vision, and because of youth, and because no one has ever told you these things clearly, the great likelihood is that all of the fiction you’ve written is mortally flawed in terms of the essentials of process."


Worthy WE Wisdom

The Six Act Two-Goal Novel

What makes for good drama is a constant. To begin, we combine Siegal's "nine act structure - two goal" screenplay (very much like the Syd Field three act except that the "reversal" from Field's structure joins "Act 5" in Siegal's version) with the Field classic three act. The Two-Goal Structure, Siegal maintains, creates more dynamic plot tension due to the insertion of PLOT REVERSAL later in the story. We concur.  NOTE:  "Plot Point" is defined here as a major occurrence that emphatically changes the course of the story. In the genre novel as a whole, we see three to five major plot points depending on various factors: a first PP that begins the rising action, second PP defined by the first major reversal, a third PP defined by a possible second major reversal, a climax PP, and a theoretical PP residing in the denouement, i.e., we think the story is going to resolve a certain way after climax, but a surprise happens that resolves

"Top Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice" (and it gets worse)

OUTSIDE OF NARCISSISM, IMPATIENCE AND BAD ADVICE ARE A WRITER'S WORST ENEMIES . If you ever attend writer events, you will never cease to hear utterances of bad writing advice, the popular kind that circulate like  ruinous viral memes through the nervous systems of America's aborning novel writers. And each time you are exposed, you either chuckle or swear, depending on your mood and the circumstance. You might make a daring attempt to kill the meme in its tracks before it can infect someone else, or you might just stare at the writer with a dumbfounded look and ask, "Where the hell did you hear that?" Yes, the primal question: WHERE THE HELL DID YOU HEAR THAT? Inevitably, many will point to their writer's group . Ahhhh, of course , you think. Why just recently at an Algonkian event , one of my faculty (a former senior editor at Random House) and I were faced with an individual who adamantly asserted to us both that using only one point of view to write a n

What Makes a Good Memoir?

By Paula Margulies As a publicist, I'm sent books of all genres by authors interested in my services, but lately I seem to be on the receiving end of a lot of memoirs. I've also spoken to a higher-than-usual number of memoir writers, who either telephone or approach me with questions at writer's conferences. The bulk of these conversations have to do with why their memoirs aren’t selling and what the authors can do to make them better. My first suggestion for all memoir writers is to take a look at their market and identify the different types of people who would want to read their book. This is tricky, for while many memoir writers have done a good job of detailing certain aspects of their personal history, a number of them have not thought about who might be interested in reading what they've written. A lot of memoirs I've seen recently are nothing more than personal recountings of an individual’s experiences – some of which are, indeed, memorable. But I

Labors, Sins, and Six Acts - Official Novel Writing Guide - All Genres

An ideal first stop... You will discover below a series of scholarly, researchable, frank and indispensable guides to conceiving and writing the commercial genre novel, as well as the plot-driven literary novel. But the cutting edge of the developmental peels and prods as presented makes an initial big assumption, namely, that you are honestly desirous of true publication either by a classic publisher or traditional literary press , and therefore, willing to birth the most dynamic and can't-put-it-down novel you possibly can. Further, you are also naturally desirous of great sets, mind-altering theme, unforgettable characters, and cinematic scenes, among other things. Does that go without saying?   Perhaps, but you must know, it won't be easy. Labors and Sins First of all, the method-based assertions and information we've gathered and elevated before your eyes below will shiver many of you like a 6.5 on the literary Richter scale because it will contr

Loglines and Hooks With Core Wounds

HOOK OR LOG WITH CORE WOUND AND CONFLICT Your hook line (also known as logline) is your first chance to get a New York or Hollywood professional interested in your novel. It can be utilized in your query to hook the agent into requesting the project. It is especially useful for those pitch sessions at conferences, lunches, in the elevator, or anywhere else. When a prospective agent or editor asks you what your book is about, your high-concept hook line is your answer. Writing one also encourages a realization of those primary elements that will make your novel into a work of powerful fiction.  The great novel, more often than not, comprises two stories: the exterior story or plot line, and an interior story focused primarily on the protagonist, one that defines and catalyzes her or his evolutionary arc throughout the novel. For example, a protagonist with a flaw or core wound that prevents her from achieving a worthwhile goal is forced to respond to a lifechanging event instigated

"High Concept"? Sufficiently Unique? - Write a Tale That Might Actually Sell

Aspire to be a great genre author? So what's your high concept?...  If you fail to grasp the vital importance of this second question, you will fail to conceive much less write a publishable genre novel - thriller, mystery, fantasy, horror, crime, SF, you name it. Just not going to happen. Don't let any writer group or self-appointed writer guru online or writer conference panel tell you otherwise. You're competing with tens of thousands of other aspiring authors in your genre. Consider. WHAT IS GOING TO MAKE YOUR NOVEL STAND OUT from the morass of throat-gulping hopefuls who don't know any better? Believe it or not, 99.5% of the writers in workshops all across the country *do not* arrive with a high-concept story. If anything, their aborning novel child is destined for still birth. They strut forward proudly waving their middle or low concept tale while noting how their hired editor from Stanford, or Iowa, or the Johns Hopkins MA program just "loves it!"