Whisper the words books on writing to a bunch of writers and you might have to watch the whoosh of air as they take sides so fast it’s like being transported to West Side Story.
Jets: “Books, I don’t need no stinking how-to-write books. Long as I have John Gardner, I’m fine.”
Sharks: “I can’t hear you over this pile of writing books stacked in front of me.”
Me? I love astute books on writing. Over the years, they’ve offered common sense techniques, given succor as I wept over rejection letters, and taught me ways to use the hundred-dollar technical writing words used by smarter writers. Books on writing can be divided into the before, books that interest you before and during the process of writing, and after, books that become your bible when you are trying to sell your work.
PART ONE—BEFORE: Technique, Tools, and Support
Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive by Joni B. Cole
Joining a good critique group, writer’s group, or writer’s workshop is often a frightening move for a beginning (or not-so-beginning) writer. Cole’s enjoyable book speaks to the good and bad of both sides of this process, making this a great book for both teachers and participants.
The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch
Reading this book is like having the best kind of writing teacher—kind, smart, clear—talking you through the rough spots and teaching you why you need motivation, action, and clarity in your writing and how to go about getting it. In addition, Koch includes advice from writers ranging from Ray Bradbury to Samuel Johnson.
Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Morrell
A gifted and experienced teacher, Morrell offers a full tour through writing a novel, starting with Chapter 1: Art & Artifice: Keeping Readers Spellbound through Chapter 18: Transition. She had me at her chapter headings.
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
Burroway “attempts to guide the student writer from the first impulse to final revisions, employing concepts of fiction elements familiar from literature’s study, but shifting the perspective towards that of the practicing writer.” A thorough book. Very.
On Writing by Stephen King
King weaves the story of his journey to becoming a writer, his life-changing near-death experience, and his struggle to overcome addiction with top-notch writing advice. Write much? Read. This. Book.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Lamott covers not only the writing basics (with clarity and humor), she also reveals the writer’s underbrush: jealousy, self-doubt, self-deprecation, depression, anxiety, and waiting. What a glamorous life writers have, eh?
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King
What William Strunk and E.B. White do for anything and everything requiring The Elements of Style, Browne and King do for fiction. What? You don’t already own this???
The Artful Edit: On The Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell
Bell writes a fascinating book in which she uses Max Perkins' editorial collaboration with F. Scott Fitzgerald as a teaching tool about the fundamentals of editing. Read. Reread. She also includes interviews with writers such as Ann Patchett and Tracy Kidder.
Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Lyon
Lyon’s book bridges the "before" and "after" of writing your book, first outlining tools for a smart revision and rewrite, and then providing the how-to of preparing your manuscript (including suggestions for font and point!) and queries.
PART 2—AFTER: Selling Your Book Without Selling Your Soul
Writing a book resembles entering a reverie where the entire world is your playground. Birth, death, war, and peace—it’s all in your hands. Then you finish. It’s the next step and you can’t get a handhold anywhere. Control is gone. You are subject to the whimsical tastes of agents and editors who hold the key to your future.
The books below are for when the writing (seems) finished, and you are about to enter the dreaded world of querying agents (immediately followed by checking your email every .5 seconds). They are for when you finally have an agent, and she is passing along notes from potential editors reading this book is well-written, but too quiet, too loud, too happy, too depressing... simply not right for our list.
And these books are for when you've sold your book and now that your baby’s been handed over, you have no idea if they will even remember to feed her.
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
Betsy Lerner, an agent, a former editor, and a writer, takes us on a journey through the world of publishing: querying, rejection, success, and everything in between. In a former blog I called her an instant shrink for writers, where I wrote, among other praise: "Clear as water, cool as the same, and welcome as a brownie to a food addict, her words entertain, teach, and soothe." For this writer, it’s self-prescribed two ways: 1) take as needed. 2) Read minimum once per year.
There is a new version coming out soon—but if you need to understand the process now, get it now. She’s worth two buys.
Your First Novel: An Author Agent Team Share the Keys to Achieving Your Dream by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb
This book takes you through every step from writing a novel to finding an agent to getting it published, from first sentence to editorial production—even how to break up with an agent. Warm, chatty, eminently readable—a book I turn to on every step to publication.
Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye by Katherine Sands
This series of fascinating interviews with agents illustrates how different their wishes can be, as regards writers and their query letters. Sands provides a grounding book to read before setting off on the querying journey.
How to Get Happily Published by Judith Applebaum
This bible provides the steps towards getting published and is especially useful for nonfiction writers working on book proposals.
Agents, Editors and You: The Insider's Guide to Getting Your Book Published edited by Michelle Howry
A collection of enlightening articles by and about agents and editors, including deconstructed query letters for fiction and non-fiction.
The Resilient Writer: Tales of Rejection and Triumph from 23 Top Authors by Catherine Wald
Because we need some support! This collection (including interviews with Brett Lott, Arthur Golden, Wally Lamb... ) saved my life many a night. Read and reread with each rejection letter. This book provides rejection-tonic.
The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit: Everything You Need to Know About Queries, Synopses, Marketing, & Breaking In by Elizabeth Lyon
Filled with advice we all need, including querying, formatting (yes, she’ll tell you what font to use!) and how to look at your manuscript with the cold eyes you need.
Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript by Neff and Prues
A reassuring set of rules for everything (fiction and nonfiction) submission-related, because we all become obsessive at a certain point. How do you write a synopsis? An outline? It’s all here.
Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer
Subtitled Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer, this book calmed me, despite being about promotion—a topic which sends me straight to the cookie jar. VanderMeer breaks down promotion in a clear non-scary way, plus, he reassures writers that they don’t have to do everything.