I love writing books, but I also find that with so many available you can easily spend a lifetime wading through the dross to get to the good stuff. Here’s a list of my favorite books on writing. Early next year, I’ll add to this list. In the meantime, enjoy! – Jeff
The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter – This book discusses hidden subtextual overtones and undertones. While that might sound dry, it’s actually a marvelous and exciting exploration of how writers create visible and invisible detail in their work, using examples from modern and classic writers.
Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form by Madison Smartt Bell – Bell examines twelve stories written by his students and by well-known writers, analyzing their use of time, plot, character, and other elements of fiction. In this workshop-in-print-form, Bell deconstructs elements of the stories to show what works and what doesn’t. It’s a masterful performance, but you may want to buy two copies, since the relevance of each chapter’s end notes to the overall effect means you’ll otherwise constantly be flipping between pages.
The Passionate, Accurate Story: Making Your Heart’s Truth into Literature by Carol Bly – Bly discusses the role of the imagination, ethics, and your characters, and many other topics not dealt with by most writing books. Her observations pertain in the best possible way not just to technique but to very human aspects of the writing life.
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French – This book is the closest thing to a semester-long creative writing course you’ll find, probably because Burroway uses it as the foundation of her creative writing classes. Invaluable for beginners and intermediate writers alike.
About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews by Samuel R. Delany – This thoughtful perspective from an underrated giant of literature features a few reprints from books like The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, but mostly collects previously uncollected nonfiction about writing. The letters, which I thought would be slight, turn out to be insightful, focused, and consistently fascinating. The interviews are sometimes a little long, a little too detail oriented, but still wonderful to read. The essays are, of course, magnificent.
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner – An eccentric genius as a fiction writer, Gardner created this writing book aimed at beginning writers to discuss theory as well as the craft of writing. It contains a mixture of practical, specific advice, along with graceful observations about the writer’s life.
Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction by Damon Knight – Knight was known for his science fiction writing, but this guide is much more universal than that and steeped in the wisdom of fifty years of writing fiction. Perhaps more importantly, Knight includes diagrams of various plot structures. Early on, this helped me visualize my plots as diagrams and sometimes enabled me to spot structural problems as a result. His thoughts on “form” are also useful to beginning and intermediate writers.
Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers by David Madden – Madden breaks fiction down into its components (like character, theme, setting, etc.) and then creates subcategories of possible problems you may be having in your work. He uses examples of these problems from the drafts of books and stories by famous writers, and then shows you how the writer fixed the problem in the final draft. Just being able to see an early paragraph from The Great Gatsby and compare it to the published version is invaluable, but Madden’s advice and commentary make this my favorite writing book of all time.
Word Work: Surviving and Thriving As a Writer by Bruce Holland Rogers – Much of Rogers’ advice is for published writers, and in some cases published writers with books out. However, certain sections are relevant in terms of the psychology of dealing with rejection and the difficulties of the writing life. I much prefer Rogers’ approach to these topics than some of the more New-Agey writing books that seem to value mysticism over commonsense.
How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ – A sharp jab at the ways in which women’s writing has been marginalized by men and by society. Chapters include “The Double Standard of Content,” “False Categorization,” “Isolation”” and “Lack of Models.” Fiercely autonomous and darkly humorous at times.
Writing the Other (Conversation Pieces Volume 8) by Nisi Shaw and Cynthia Ward – A guide to writing about people who are not of your ethnicity, gender, economic class, etc. The book discusses basic aspects of characterization and offers elementary techniques, practical exercises, and examples for helping writers create richer and more accurate characters.
Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer by Peter Turchi – This brilliant exploration of creative writing through the metaphor of the map makes you see craft and form from a different perspective. Chapters like “Projections and Conventions” and “A Rigorous Geometry” provide insightful analysis of various short stories and novels in the context of topography.
How to Write Killer Fiction: The Funhouse of Mystery & the Roller Coaster of Suspense by Carolyn Wheat – This unassuming book provides a great breakdown of the tropes and expectations of thriller and mystery fiction. While acknowledging commercial requirements for the two genres, it also provides ample space for individuality and the art of fiction. Even if you don’t write mysteries or thrillers, Wheat’s advice applies more generally to pacing, story, and plot.