Monday, December 21, 2009

Guest Post: Books on Writing

By Randy Susan Meyers

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.


  1. Excellent list! This is a goldmine. Thanks!

  2. I think Blogs are the new "Books on Writing." I have learned so much from the other blogs that I have read (especially about people's process with both writing and finding an agent).

    I have also started to learn a lot through the writing of my blog ( and the reflection of my writing.

    I think anything that gets you talking, thinking and looking at writing is a great resource!

  3. Great list! I just finished Stephen King's On Writing -- it's worth the read.

  4. Makes me want to add several of them to my library today! What a great resource.

  5. The 'Virginia Woolf Writers Workshop' by Danell Jones and 'Longman guide to intemediate and advanced fiction writing' by Sarah Stone are some of the better ones I've read. And for beginning writers, 'The First Five Pages' by Noah Lukeman is a great place to start. I guess that makes me a shark. The difficult thing about recommending writing books is that everyone has different strengths and things they need to hear. Virginia Woolf wrote that you have to slay the 'house angel' to write- the part of you that looks after everyone- and I needed to hear that. Not that I don't do anything for my familoy anymore, but that other people consider writing more important than getting dishes done every. single. day. Great post.

  6. Great list--I found these two helpful as well (both pubb'd in 2009):

    MAKE A SCENE: Creating a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time by Jordan Rosenfeld

    THANKS, BUT THIS ISN'T FOR US: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected by Jessica Paige Morrell

    (sorry if this comment appears twice--not sure what happened with first one)

  7. I love books on writing and am currently rereading my twenty-year stockpile to create an Amazon Top Ten list.

    King, Lamott, Renni Browne, and Betsy Lerner are definitely going to make the cut, and I’d also have to add two classics – Lawrence Block’s TELLING LIES FOR FUN & PROFIT – the best all-round guide to writing and the writing life I’ve found, and Dwight V. Swain’s TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, which lays out dramatic structure and more in a very straightforward and entertaining way.

    Now off to tell Santa about all those ones in your list I’m now hankering for.

    P.S. Thanks to Kelly for Woolf's "house angel" tip - it definitely helps when someone's calling you to find the musical Santa when you're busy trying to kill someone in a very visceral, stylish manner.

  8. Thanks for this list. I have a few of the books on the BEFORE list (Bird by Bird makes me feel better about life in general, not just writing), but none from the AFTER list. I will keep all of them in mind.

  9. I'm going to suggest The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield. Recommended by a friend when I was in a creative slump. Powerful and inspiring at any stage, especially in addressing the fear of success.

  10. Great round-up! I'll link to this in my blog tomorrow. I would also add Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life. I'd say it fits best in the AFTER section, because it deals with promotion, networking, and deal with craft only under the assumption that yes, you've written one, and will now have to write MORE books...

  11. Wonderful, comprehensive list, Randy. Thanks so much for sharing it. You are certainly proof that all that reading is worth it ... can't wait for THE MURDERER'S DAUGHTERS to make its debut next month.

  12. I can't wait to get all these newly recommended (to me) books (I really can be a writing book junkie!)

    And thanks, Sharen! I love reading your blog.

    And thank you, Eric for this opportunity.

  13. Anything by Noah Lukeman is great, especially his Amazon Digital Short about section breaks...he is really astute and easy to implement.

  14. I agree with Rachel about how blogs are the new "books on writing." Think about Pimp My Novel, Nathan Bransford, and the host of extraordinary sources available to us...

    Also, another good BEFORE book is "Reading Like A Writer" by Francine Prose.

  15. Yesterday, I was reading Poppy Z. Brite's blog about her experiences during Hurricane Katrina. While standing in an interminable lineup for gasoline, she was reading Stephen King's "Misery." She claims it's the best book on writing out there. So I just started rereading it.

    Have to agree on "On Writing" too. I liked that one so much I discovered I had somehow ended up with three copies of it!

  16. Thank you for this, Randy. Great list and helpful tidbits about them. I've read a few of them but I see more that catch my eye.

    Here's an add for mystery writers: "Don't Murder Your Murder Mystery," by Chris Roerden

  17. Wonderful suggestions! A few I've read, but most I haven't.

  18. This was a fantastic list, and as I am a brand new writer I found it helpful. I am purchasing Jessica Morrell's Between the Lines and am looking forward to the help. I will take all the positive advice I can get my busy hands on. Thank you for putting all this info in one spot, and all the comments with extra info were great too.

  19. Thank for for the wonderful recommendations. Booklife by Jeff Vandermeer totally reinforces many of the strategies I've read on this blog, both regarding publicity and in maintaining a balance in one's life as a writer.

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