Monday, March 24, 2014

Jungle Reds' Favorite Books on Writing

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Hank and I were recently at Sleuthfest in Orlando. Not only was it wonderful fun to be on and attend panels, but it was great to mingle with fellow writers, both published and unpublished.

One of the things I was asked was, "How do you learn to write a novel?" The real answer, of course, is that you learn to write a novel by actually writing a novel — there's no shortcut to that, or guideline, or blueprint.

But books can help.

I personally can't say enough good things about Stephen King's ON WRITING: A Memoir of the Craft. Not only is it Mr. King's story of how he became, and stayed, a novelist, but it has excellent chapters on ideas, writing, editing, and critiques. It has what I think of as a bootcamp-like approach. King is tough on aspiring writers, because he wants you to get over the idea of "being a writer" to someone who shows up everyday and writes.

One of my favorite quotes is: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

I also love Anne LaMotte's Bird by Bird, John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and On Moral Fiction.

Reds, what books on writing have shaped, challenged, infuriated you?

HALLIE EPHRON: I have quite a collection of writing books - with my own WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL taking pride of place as my favorite 'how to' basics book. 

And of course I love ON WRITING and BIRD BY BIRD and Lawrence Block's TELLING LIES FOR FUN & PROFIT, all classics. Also Elizabeth Lyon's MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER and an oldie, Orson Scott Card's CHARACTER & VIEWPOINT. 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Gosh, can't do better than the Stephen King book. I was--awash with

inspiration. I mean--it was life-changing. I'm a big Save The Cat fan, the Blake Snyder book on screenwriting. And David Morrell has a terrific one, as does Chris Roerden. (Hallie's, of course! Which is dog-eared and pencil-marked and yellow highlighted.)  I love Donald Maass's Fire in Fiction.  My big confession is that except for ON WRITING and BIRD BY BIRD, which I devoured and read over and over, I never really sit down and read the whole thing I just--have them, and open them to a random page when I need inspiration. It's really a valuable thing to do!  I know I have left out many of these...I am in the airport and trying to remember titles!  But my question--what do we use these books FOR?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Susan, I LOVED John Gardner's On Moral Fiction (still have my

treasured copy.) I think it was the first book I ever read on writing, and it made a huge impression. But somehow I missed his The Art of Fiction! Love Stephen King's of the same title. Although I don't agree with all his advice, it's a fascinating story, and a great start. Two other faves--Lamott's Bird by Bird, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. These are not so much books about structure as books that help you free up the writer within.

Hallie, I wish I'd had your books when I was starting to write!!! 

Oh, and David Corbett's The Art of Character is fabulous.

LUCY BURDETTE: The two I loved the most have already been mentioned--Annie Lamott's BIRD

BY BIRD (boy does she know writers' neuroses!) and the Stephen King. But I also found Elizabeth Lyon's MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER to be enormously helpful, especially after a first draft is on the table. And Hallie's book is an excellent primer on writing a mystery. In fact, now I'm prompted to go back and reread all of those--I bet I'd learn some new things or learn some old things over again:).

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I went to my craft and reference bookcase to pull out my favorite writing books, and realized I don't have many of them - I keep giving them away! I suppose that's the sign of a really useful tome. I echo many of the great books the rest of you have mentioned here, especially my perennial favorite, TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT. 

Let me try to add to the discussion with an "If you like" list. If you've already read Stephen King's ON WRITING, try Pulitzer-prize winner Richard Rhodes' HOW TO WRITE. If you've read John Gardner's ON MORAL FICTION, try his earlier THE ART OF FICTION. If you find BIRD BY BIRD inspiring, try Monica Wood's THE POCKET MUSE: IDEAS AND INSPIRATIONS FOR WRITING (I've given away three copies of this over the years. I have to buy a new one!) And an excellent craft book that has become the foundation for much of my teaching: TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight V. Swain. It's not about marketing yourself on the internet - it was first published in 1981 - but it has some of the clearest explanations of scene and structure around. Swain taught at Oklahoma when it was the predominate writing program in the country. Many of the authors of how-to-books today were taught by his students or his students' students.

RHYS BOWEN: Many of my favorites have been mentioned: Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and David Corbett's Art of Character in

particular. I'm not really keen on reading books on writing because I always end up feeling depressed that I'm doing everything wrong... but when I've had to teach classes it's great to be reassured about what is important. Oh, and Kathy Lynn Emerson did a good book on Writing the Historical Mystery

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Readers, what books have helped you? 

Are you like me, who reads cover-to-cover and takes notes? Are you like Hank, who dips in when she needs inspiration? Or like Rhys, who "ends up feeling depressed"? 

What books did we miss? 

Please tell us in the comments!


  1. The ones you’ve mentioned are generally the ones that come to mind first. How about adding Writer’s Digest’s “Crafting Novels and Short Stories” and Elizabeth Lyon’s “Writing Subtext” to the list?
    I’m a cover-to-cover reader myself . . . .

  2. I second everything you said about Stephen King's "ON WRITING." When I teach writing seminars I make it required reading. To any writer who talks of writer's block, I quote the line about the "boys in the basement." Except in my case it's the girls in the basement. Oh yeah, and the kitchen, den, and kids' rooms.

  3. Joan, great suggestions!

    Eileen, lovely to see you here! You probably don't remember me, but I used to work for Pam Dorman during the 90s and hand-delivered manuscripts to your home from the office!

  4. First, I agree about all of the above! Believe it or not, reading King's MISERY right after ON WRITING is insightful as well as trippy. I also have a battered copy Robert McKee's STORY along with Chris Vogler's THE WRITER'S JOURNEY. Another good one is Mary Buckham's WRITING ACTIVE SETTING about an often over-looked and tricky aspect of storytelling, especially when we work so hard to "leave out parts people skip."

  5. For inspiration, I still dip into May Sarton's journals. For story creation, John Truby's THE ANATOMY OF STORY.

    For beginning writers, I would add two by Jessica Page Morrell: BETWEEN THE LINES and THANKS, BUT THIS ISN'T FOR US. The latter has a section called "Train Wreck on Page 1" that makes me laugh and cringe at the same time, but very useful. These are both nuts and bolts guides, practical and easily accessible if you are new to publishing.

  6. Oh yes! Rhonda Lane, how could I forget, Robert McKee's STORY -- how I learned about plotting.

    I get the 'what happens next' kind of writer's block, and dipping into STORY often gets me unstuck.

  7. Can't believe I forgot http:THE WRITER'S JOURNEY — but I think it's worth a future post. This is where I go when I don't know what happens next... Draws on Jung's "the hero's journey."


  8. Hallie Ephron's book was the very first book I bought on writing, when I was plotting my first mystery! (I was able to thank Hallie for that at Bouchercon in Albany last year.) I still recommend it to anyone who asks.I also love anything by Donald Maass or James Scott Bell, and have really enjoyed seeing them at writing conferences.

  9. There's a large place in my heart for Elizabeth Lyon's MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER because it's a great place to turn for help, plus I'm quoted. :)

    A book not mentioned that I love is Carolyn Wheat's HOW TO WRITE KILLER FICTION. Best explanations and examples of writing a thriller or suspenser as opposed to a real mystery. Her advice on characters also helped me create Austin Carr.

  10. Keeping a running list of all the book suggestions....

  11. Thumbs up to all the suggestions, especially Hallie's guide and David Corbett's book on character.

    I'd add to the list Method and Madness: The Making of a Story: A Guide to Writing Fiction by Alice LaPlante, who teaches creative writing at Stanford. A long volume and expensive, but a worthwhile investment, I think. Her first novel, Turn of Mind, models much of her good advice.

  12. I now have a new reading challenge, to read some books on writing. I already have On Writing, and I'm not sure why I haven't already read it. Bird by Bird is one I've wondered about for a while. I will be adding to the TBR writing books Hallie's mystery one and the one about characters. The best recommendations for these types of books have to be from my favorite authors, so thank you favorite authors.

  13. Interesting that you should mention Carolyn Wheat's book Jack. When I was living in San Diego, I took a semester course taught by Carolyn and that book was the textbook. I really thought it was a great book AND a great class.

    Similarly, I love Elizabeth George's Write Away. I think this book is most useful to those that have read her work, as she gives solid examples from her work to illustrate various points. And I love her advice about taking pictures.

    The Stephen King book is a great read, regardless of whether one intends to write a book. It really is a memoir.

    Finally, I will say that I also love our dear Hallie's How-To book. I picked that one up at the MWA University course I took in DC. Read it the same night.

    I suspect that we will one day see such a book from Hank as well. Her section during the MWA University was so incredibly enjoyable.

    Will I ever stop reviewing and focus on fiction writing? Of that I am not sure. But I will continue to learn about the craft of writing for as long as I am breathing.

  14. I have a whole shelf full including Hallie Ephron's and Jessica Morrell. Then I added to it with four of my own: Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict (a method I developed for myself), SBB II: Crafting Believable Conflict; SBB III: The Revision Layers and SBB: Build A Cast Workbook (based on personality types). Plus my Game On! blog where I explain why Sally, Dick, and Jane behave and misbehave.

  15. Like so many, I adored BIRD BY BIRD. It had less to do with the technics (at least to me), but was the first book that said, "You can do this and here's now."

    I have one by Ursula LeGuin that I keep meaning to look at. I've read a couple by James Scott Bell (CONFLICT & SUSPENSE and PLOT AND STRUCTURE) that were helpful, as well as STRUCTURE YOUR NOVEL, which was more of a general help when I was trying to figure out just how to do that (falling somewhere between plotting and pantsing, structure came late to me). I keep intending to read King, but, well, just haven't gotten around to it.

    I read a couple by Don Maass that were good (WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION & WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL), but I needed space to really absorb them.

    And Rhys, THANK YOU for saying that! There were a couple of books I just about put down because instead of inspiring me, they just depressed me. Good to know I'm not the only one.

  16. Stephen King's On Writing is the best book ever for inspiration and butt-kicking motivation.

    For process, I'm going to add to the general acclaim and gratitude for Hallie's book! I have read that one and Elizabeth George's (Write Away) from cover-to-cover in the past, but now when I start a book, I do the same "dip and read selections" process that Hank does.

    Somehow what I do is never exactly what either author suggests be done, but the hybrid works for me. So far. Fingers crossed!

    I'm also making a list of the other mentions. Thanks, all!

  17. Stephen King and Block's Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, of course.Two of the best ever. Donald Maas for hard headed, practical advice and Carolyn Wheat has hugely helped me think through structure, a struggle for me. I also like an old beginners book and still turn to it when stuck, You Can Write a Mystery by Gillian Roberts. And an odd one. Years ago, dreaming of writing, I found the Paris Review collections of interviews with great writers to be both fascinating and inspiring

  18. Two books mentioned by almost everyone here - Anne Lamott's classic and Stephen King's classic - are two books I think everyone should have. They're inspirational in so many ways - even if you're not a writer.

    I seem to have a lot of books about how to write, but other than the two mentioned above, I don't think I've actually read any of them. Life Hank, I dip into them randomly. Mostly, like all books, they seem to bring me a level of comfort just having them near.


    The one book I treasure and keep close and read and reread is one given to me by a dear and treasured friend. It's Gillian Roberts' "You Can Write a Mystery." She inscribed it to me with loving words about trusting myself. And if you're writing a non-mystery, this book works just as well with advice on crafting and what Judith/Gillian refers to as the seven Cs - character, conflict, causality, complications, change, crisis and closure.

    One more book I reach for often is Neil Gaiman's little "Make Good Art."

  19. Major Fan Girl Moment. I see Eileen Goudge here. Squeeeee!!!!

  20. Chris Roerden's Agatha winning "Don't Murder Your Mystery."

  21. Wow, Kaye. Somehow I read Eileen's comment but never put it together with THAT Eileen Goudge.

    I love love love Garden of Lies.

    What a pleasant surprise for the day!

  22. What a wonderful list of suggestions! I've ready many of these books, but it was so long ago. I need to go back to some, especially John Gardner.

    I tend to be a selective reader. I read writing books for what I need at the time, and I skim over what doesn't pertain to what I'm doing.

    I also keep a set of what I consider my guides to writing next to my desk: Joan Didion's Democracy, Graham Greene's The Quiet America, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and a few others. When I'm feeling stuck, I read one of the books that I feel truly shaped me as a writer, using it as a guide to find my way.

    And when I need a guide for crafting a sentence, I turn to Mary Oliver or Raymond Carver ... for some reason reading poetry can always help me along. Not sure why poetry and certain self-help books like Gracious Living in a New World can be as useful to me as actual non-fiction books on writing - but as all writers I'm sure feel, whatever works, go for it!

  23. PS - Forgot to echo Ramona who mentions dipping into May Sarton's journals. Writer's published journals are often gems when it comes to writing instruction!

    And I also want to give a shout-out to Hallie's books, along with Elizabeth George's which is also mentioned here and which I just finished. I feel so fortunate that such wonderful writers have taken the time to share their insights.

  24. Yes, to Stephen King's book and Lawrence Block's two books. (I used to read his columns on writing in Writer's Digest religiously.) Yes, to both Gardner books and Carolyn Wheat's, Elizabeth George's, Hallie's, and Natalie Goldberg's. May Sarton's journals inspire me, as did Madeleine L'Engles's three Crosswicks Journals. Also, Nancy Pickard partnered with a psychologist to write a very useful book, Seven Steps on the Writer's Journey. I can also recommend Dare to Be a Great Writer by Leonard Bishop.

    But the most important, most useful I ever found--and the one Gardner recommended and Goldberg and Julia Cameron of The Artist's Way and many others based their own books on without acknowledging--is Dorothea Brande's On Becoming a Writer.

    I've got a better library on creative writing than most university libraries do. I've read them all straight through, some many times. But now, I tend to do like Hank and dip into them for inspiration or search through them looking for specific information/tips.

  25. I'm having a comparatively easier time creating characters than creating outlines of a plot and creating a good story.

    The only books that I could find at the library were two books:
    1) writing the mystery: a start to finish guide for both novice and professional

    2) how to write a damn good mystey


  26. I've read or dipped into (I do both) about half of these. And own a good many of them. I will have to go back and make a list of the other half to look into.
    I went to many conferences where Karl Largent taught. He also wrote a good nuts and bolts book and now I can't think of the title. He died before all of the online stuff started but that doesn't negate the nuts and bolts stuff.
    I really enjoyed this post!!!
    Pen M

    1. How could I forget A WRITERS BOOK OF DAYS by Judy Reeves? It's more for inspiration than anything. I've had two copies and filled them full of post-its.
      Pen M

  27. Linda, thank you SO much for reminding me about Madeleine L'Engles's three Crosswicks Journals. I'm going to dig my copies out right now!!

  28. Of course, I love Hallie's book and agree Elizsbeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover is fabulous. Stephen King's "On Writing" is a classic. But my new writing book I can't say enough about is Harry Bingham's "How to Write." I couldn't put it down, read it on a beach like it was fiction. Bingham does write mysteries too.

  29. hdmt, check at your library for some of the titles listed by the Reds and in the comments. I'd think most libraries would have a lot of these books.

    Kim, Madeleine L'Engle was a godsend to me when I was a young mother with kids who wanted to write in a time when everyone said women didn't write, but if they did, they could only be good if they didn't have children. Her Crosswicks Journals got me through with hope and wonderful information on how to write well.

  30. Such a treat to read all these..thank you!

    I agree that reading interviews is also incredibly helpful.. Someitmes just one thing an author says makes all the difference. And you hear what you need when you need it--doesn't it so often work that way?

  31. Oh, the L'Engle Crosswicks Journals, yes! Love those!


  32. I've read along, nodding and high-fiving in my head. I have so many of these titles (loved yours, Hallie!) and some of the new-to-me ones have already landed in my Amazon cart.

    I am currently rereading Dr. Eric Maisel's BRAINSTORM: HARNESSING THE POWER OF PRODUCTIVE OBSESSIONS - I own most of Maisel's books and highly recommend his work. (And if you ever have a chance to hear him talk, GO!)

    Three faves that I frequently give away are James V. Smith's THE WRITER'S LITTLE HELPER: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW TO WRITE BETTER AND GET PUBLISHED, James Scott Bell's THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS: FICTION WRITING STRATEGIES, TACTICS, AND EXERCISES and Steven Pressfield's THE WAR OF ART. These three are packed with tips and short chapters, which make dipping easy.

    Also - in response to Hank's question "What do we use these books FOR?" I use them to continually hone my craft. Also, I moved to a rural area, with no nearby writers/groups (that is NOT recommended) so reading books on writing is a touchstone to remind me I Am Writer.

  33. I'm a big fan of James N. Frey's (not the Oprah guy) "How to Write a Damn Good Novel." He has influenced so many writers, particularly here in Oregon where he has led many seminars on how to put characters in conflict. I also love Elizabeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover; these two books are really about the meat of writing. And lastly, the great Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure. An oldie but assuredly a goodie. I have his elements of a "sequel" emblazoned on my brain.

  34. Thank you for this wonderful post -- and all the comments that followed! I enjoyed Janet Evanovich's HOW I WRITE and Evan Marshall's THE MARSHALL PLAN WORKBOOK.

  35. Oh, Cate, that is a great answer! Yes, and to remind us what we DO, and that we are not alone, and that all of our fears and hopes have already been feared and hoped by someone else. And that is a good thing!

  36. "Story" by Robert McKee is excellent. As well as Linda Seger's "Creating Unforgettable Characters."

  37. Linda - It goes to show how universal the Crosswicks Journals are. They got me through when I was in my early 20s, single, working in a bookshop, trying to find my way as a writer. I'm so curious to see what they will mean to me when I read this time around, now that I'm nearly 50!

  38. Kim, let's reread the Crosswicks Journals together! Who's in?

  39. I'm up for that, Susan. The Great Crosswicks Journals Reread!

  40. Susan, I also Love Stephen King's book, On Writing. I've been busy most of today but will settle down tonight and read all about the other books everyone has mentioned. I'm at a point now where I have to pull it together and get it done. Thank you. Terrific post and comments.

  41. Love this post so much. David Corbett's is one of my favorite!

  42. The King and Lamott books were both great, very inspiring. I think I've read almost all of the books mentioned in both the post and the comments, from Gardner's to Hallie's, and took away something helpful from every one of them.

    But I have to say the best way for me to figure out how to write a mystery(apart from just doing it) was to analyze the mystery novels that "clicked" with me in some particular way. What were the common traits of my favorite sleuths? What traits and problem-solving styles were best suited to the way I write?

    It took a while, because I like such a wide variety of mysteries, but reading them to understand what comprises successful examples for my own work as opposed to reading them just for pleasure was incredibly helpful.

  43. I'm late to respond, but I own the Crosswick journals, and I'd like to reread them, too.