With April's Camp NaNoWriMo drawing to a close, we have decided to honor the occasion by compiling a list of our favorite books which double as master classes on the art of writing, as one great has put it (and who is featured in the list below, fear not). Penned by authors, agents, publishers and screenwriters alike, these are the books which have helped us deepen our understanding of storytelling as a whole, as well as what it takes to imagine a good novel into reality (or die trying). From advice on structuring a plot to an overview of entire genres, these are our top picks not only for their insights, but also for their diversity in terms of the methods they use to approach the craft.
As always, this Top 10 Monday list is subjective. And as always, it is in no particular order.
As always, this Top 10 Monday list is subjective. And as always, it is in no particular order.
1. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
The honorary father of the monomyth, the late Joseph Campbell had not strictly-speaking intended for The Hero with a Thousand Faces to be a writer's aide as much as a non-fiction breakdown of comparative mythologies from around the world. In that vein, Campbell's collected works (as featured in this novel) depict the so-called hero's journey in a way in which it applies to stories from the dawn of time to the present day. And not only does it offer invaluable insight into storytelling as we know it today - it does so by drawing parallels to our own lives. Nowhere has a protagonist seemed closer or more ubiquitous than in Joseph Campbell's unintended ultimate guide to characterization and story structuring.
2. The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass
When it comes to fiction-writing guides, Donald Maass is as close to a jack of all trades as they come. From The Fire In Fiction, an instructive guide on how to care deeply about our manuscripts from the get-go (and how to translate that passion so the reader feels the same), to Writing 21st Century Fiction, a guide suffused with modern-day examples of good fiction-writing, Maass has just about covered it all. And The Breakout Novelist, the latest of his published work, is a kind of magnum opus in its own right. On 346 pages, the literary agent in Maass covers how to make a story both vibrant and marketable - and does it well. What makes Maass's fiction-writing guides both theoretically and practically useful are the questions he asks of the reader and an abundance of examples from all genres, across all literary platforms.
3. Zen In The Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
We've covered the professor (Campbell) and the literary agent (Maass)'s advice. Ray Bradbury's writing-journey-in-a-novel, by contrast, is told through the lens of one of the most revered authors of the modern day, the father of science fiction, and one of the only writers whose addition to a required reading list in schools doesn't make students scoff. Ray Bradbury has succeeded in uniting the young and the old, the adventurous and the less-adventurous, in an admiration of his work. And it comes as no surprise that his Zen In The Art of Writing is contagious in its excitement for the craft. Bradbury's love of writing leaps off the page. And if ever there was a book to inspire the writer in us all, this would be our top pick.
4. On Writing by Stephen King
Part memoir, part writing craft advice, Stephen King's On Writing is the kind of non-fiction read where it's hard to remember that it's non-fiction in the first place. It's only the lack of eerie phenomena and inexplicable behavior that sets King's memoir apart from his fiction. In terms of how engrossing, powerful and thought-provoking his work is, the fiction and this non-fiction are one and the same. What with it being part memoir, the writing advice King offers is a bit less detailed and less exhaustive than some of the other straight-up "writing craft textbooks" on this list. But it is easily the most fiction-reminiscent of the lot, and therefore our top recommendation for aspiring writers new to the books about the craft.
5. Make A Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
The truth is, there is an abundance of guides which tackle the writing craft as a whole. There are hundreds of attempts at delving deep into characterization, or of deconstructing the plot. There is also quite a lot to be said about structuring and outlining a story. And the advice on these topics is very often invaluable. But most aspiring writers - ourselves included - tend to find that even after these topics have been studied thoroughly, even after real-life master classes have been taken and online seminars have been attended, the resulting manuscript still lacks something. Mostly, this brand of ennui is best described as "it just doesn't match what's in my head". And nearly one hundred percent of the time, it comes down to individual scenes. We've learned a lot there is to know when it comes to the story as a whole. But in this global orientation, we've forgotten all about studying how to construct an individual scene - how to make each event in the character's life memorable. That is where Jordan E. Rosenfeld's Make A Scene comes in handy. A lot.
6. Save The Cat by Blake Snyder
Save The Cat is not a novel-writer's guide per se. Save The Cat is intended primarily as a screenwriter's guide. What with both professions being tasked with many of the same problems, rules and tools of the trade, it's hardly a surprise that what applies to screenwriting often also applies to novel-writing. Through examples and reminiscences of his own time in the movie industry, author Blake Snyder systematically talks the reader through the process of creating a manuscript, from titles and loglines, to story-structuring methods, character creation and scene set-up.
7. No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty
As one of the founding fathers of NaNoWriMo, Chris Baty brings us a bit of (sane) writing advice to temper the insanity that envelops us all during the National Novel Writing Month each year. In essence, No Plot? No Problem! is a practical guide on how to write the first draft of a short novel in 30 days without, you know, losing one's soul in the process. True to form, No Plot? No Problem! is in and of itself a roughly 50,000 word straight-to-the-point writing how-to. And what with it being intended as a NaNoWriMo companion, it covers many aspects of writing which other guides don't concern themselves with: from how to make time for writing every single day, to proper nutrition while writing, and to the importance of writing buddies and a support system as we work on our novels - sometimes hectically and often frantically.
8. Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James
Don't let the title of this novel fool you - as she talks about detective fiction, author P.D. James talks about a lot more than mere detective fiction. Despite the retrospective evaluation of detective fiction from its inception to its state today, James offers lots of insight into her own writing process, and into what makes a good mystery in general. And if there is one thing that other genres could learn from mystery novels, it's the creation of good conflict, the escalation of tension and the consistently high stakes. And in recounting her own storytelling experiences, P.D. James covers it all.
9. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
A Room of One's Own is a collection of lectures, a fictionalized account of non-fiction, and writing advice all rolled into one. And nowhere have 113 pages been used more thoroughly than they have in Virginia Woolf's take on female authors and female characters alike. And much as other books on this list which were penned by successful and revered authors, this is one which is both constructive and inspirational. It is the kind of read which makes one want to write - immediately, and with abandon. Because if there is anything Virginia Woolf repeatedly emphasizes, it is our many opportunities to write (especially today, when so much has changed!). So let's take advantage immediately.
10. Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King
Here at The Honest Bookclub, we are passionate proponents of professional editors. (The alliteration is accidental. We don't actually have an editor, much as we could use one.) Writers, we have found, are often too close to their work to be able to do as thorough a job of editing and evaluating it as an impartial editor might. Having said that, with the boom of self-publishing today, it has become entirely possible (and alarmingly frequent) for a book to get published without ever having been read by anyone apart from the author. And in instances like those, books such as Self-Editing For Fiction Writers could save both the writer and the readers a lot of frustration by offering helpful insight without being stifling. (There's a reason we aren't recommending The Elements of Style; authors who feel it isn't necessary to edit a book at all would hardly make it through a dry handbook on the rules of grammar.) In that vein, Self-Editing For Fiction Writers does what many other editing guides fail to do successfully - it makes revision and editing feel like parts where the true magic happens - and keeps us from making a lot of mistakes in the process.
We hope this list has been useful or in some way instructive. But in case you're looking for advice on a specific facet of writing we've failed to mention - there's a lot more where that came from. This Monday has been one of those instances where limiting our choice to just ten has been exceedingly difficult. So if you wish us to recommend a more specific book, or if you (dis)agree with our choices above, feel free to leave us a comment and let us know. Or find us online at a multitude of places where, as usual, we are taking over the world one book-related squeal at a time:
TOP 10 BOOKS ON WRITING
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