There are a ton of books about writing out there, and I own a whole lot of them. Some I read once, but some I wind up rereading, learning new things each time, probably because I’m ready to learn them. Here are some of the books I’ve found most helpful.
Writing the Breakout Novel (and its accompanying workbook)
The Fire in Fiction
By Donald Maass
Maass is a successful literary agent. In these two books, he draws on what he’s learned selling books to publishers. The books explain his points, provide examples, and then give checklists you can use to revise your own work.
One of my favorite chapters is “Scenes That Can’t Be Cut” from The Fire in Fiction. Among other things, he suggests you check to be sure the scene has both an inner and outer turning point—a place the characters shifts and a place the plot shifts. I’ve found that to be very usable advice.
In Writing the Breakout Novel, he includes on exercise in which you think of something your character would never do and then write a scene in which the character is forced to do it. Think of the pain you can cause your character!
By Blake Snyder
Snyder is a script writer, but I find film people often have very useful things to say about how stories develop. Like the Maass books, these explain and give examples. Save the Cat provides a trick I’ve found useful that Snyder calls “Pope in the Pool.” You use it when you have some exposition to deliver and worry providing it might be a low tension moment. So he suggests you have something else interesting going on. His example is a scene that takes place in the Vatican swimming pool. People talk in the foreground while the pope swims laps in the background, proving the amusement. An example I noticed came in an episode of “The Big Bang.” Sheldon and Leonard are trading information (ie providing exposition) but they’re playing Wii archery while doing it.
In Save the Cat Strikes Back, Snyder provides a beat sheet. This lays out the typical moments in a script when various things usually happen. For example, the most exciting moment usually comes at the end of the story, but the second most exciting usually comes at the midpoint.
By Alicia Rasley
In my opinion, point of view is the key to compelling writing. Done right, it provides us with voice and an internal arc. Rasley talks about the different points of view, the difficulties of each, and the ways you can overcome those snags.
The Story Within Guidebook lays out a way to develop plot and character simultaneously. Rasley makes the powerful point that they’re two sides of the same coin. The plot needs this character to develop as it does, and the character needs this plot to push them past the false defenses they’ve built for themselves. Notice how that echoes Maass’s advice to provide both an inner and an outer arc.
By Peter Dunne
As the book’s title suggests, Dunne is another screen writer. Adding yet another call for both inner and outer arcs, he differentiates between plot and story: “The story is the journey for truth. The plot is the road it takes to get there.” There’s a lot of deep exploration of character in this book.
By James Scott Bell
I haven’t read these two in a while, but I found them practical and educational when I first read them. Bell tells you things like how to get ideas and how to structure the story description in a blurb or query letter.
I should tell you that I recommended these books to a writer friend and she found them useless. They were too structured for her. Different writers obviously work differently and need different advice.
Have you found writer advice books that work well for you?
Marooned in a city far from home, Doniver struggles to earn enough to live without selling his soul in the process. Unfortunately someone wants him dead. He’ll need all his courage—and glib tongue—to survive.