Unless you’re incredibly fortunate, learning how to write fiction—whether you want to learn how to write fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, comedy, etc.—isn’t a topic covered in your primary or secondary education. It isn’t until you go to college you find yourself able to take formal courses in creative writing. If you’re lucky, you are given the building blocks used to construct your future writing career. If you’re unlucky, you’re taught how to write like your professor—who, coincidence of coincidences, happened to write the book(s) required for the course. For most of us, we have to take it upon ourselves to learn by reading books on writing.
I’ve gotten a great response to my post about the best books on book design, so I thought it would be useful to also offer another post about the best books on writing and the best books on editing.
Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style
Before delving into the list, let me get this one out of the way. Originally written in 1918, The Elements of Style has consistently ranked as one of the best books ever written about the English language through its several editions published within the last 100 years. When used as a guide, it remains every much as relevant today as when it was written. However, you have to remember to think of it as such and not as rules set in stone.
Books on Writing
There are a few different basic concepts every writer needs to learn and master, such as plot, characterization, dialogue, the flow of tension, etc. By reading the following books, you’ll have a firm grasp on each and will be well on your way to a blossoming career as an author.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Stephen King is thoroughly informative and incredibly entertaining in On Writing, which serves both as a memoir from one of the most prolific writers of our time (57 novels as of January 2017) and a practical guide to every aspect of writing. The tone is friendly and unpretentious, using the metaphor of a carpenter’s tools in a toolbox. Whether you’re looking to get your feet wet or are well on your journey as a writer, I can’t recommend this book enough.
Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish
The backbone of any great work of literature is its plot. In addition to the easy-to-read charts and diagrams for different types of plots and structure, author James Scott Bell‘s guide provides you with techniques to write strong openings, endings, and everything in between to engage and satisfy your reader.
Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities That Keep Readers Captivated
No matter how great your plot is, unless you have the characters to back it up, your story will crash and burn. Well-written, three-dimensional characters are the driving force behind any plot. Without them, not only will your future readers lose interest, but you are likely to lose interest in writing the manuscript in the first place.
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)
Covering the most common mistakes that turn what could be a stellar manuscript into more fodder for the rejection pile, Jack Bickham helps you navigate through what the book’s description calls a “minefield.” Providing you with guidance on topics such as “wimpy characters”, plot, conflict, and much more, any would-be author should give this one a read.
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
This book has hit the bestseller list with each of its nine editions since first being published in 1982. Descriptive rather than prescriptive, Writing Fiction provides clear direction. It offers solid examples, in the form of numerous short stories, and creative exercises to help writers develop practical techniques and proficiency in each step of the writing process.
Books on Editing
One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is thinking they don’t need to edit their writing. Sure, they know to check for spelling and grammar errors, but they stop there. Don’t let your work end up in the rejection pile or fade into obscurity. With the techniques and tips offered in the books below, you will be able to push your writing to the next level.
Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies
Set aside the mouthful of a title. Catering not only to those who wish to write novels, but also those who write short stories or nonfiction, Sol Stein draws upon his decades of experience as an editor, playwright, instructor, and publisher to offer guidance to newcomers and established writers alike. Stein succinctly describes it as “A book of usable solutions”, and—as you would expect from someone with his résumé—he’s spot-on in his summation.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
Written in a clear, concise manner good for the novice and the experienced alike, this is a mainstay for many working novelists. Not only does this book offer guidelines and techniques for how to edit, but it helps readers understand why such edits are important.
Bookmaking: Editing, Design, Production (Third Edition)
Although I already included it in my other list, Marshall Lee’s book continues to hold its place as the be-all-end-all of books on books. Covering every possible aspect of book editing, design, formatting, printing, marketing, and more, if you only have one book on your shelf featuring the subject, make it this hefty tome.