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The best writing craft books

by Sep 9, 2023Evergreen, On Writing: Craft and Commiseration0 comments

I’m teaching a bunch of writing classes over the course of the next year so I thought it would be helpful to start a list of the books I recommend the most often. Not just to keep them consolidated in one place, but also so I can update them as I find new ones. It’s no secret that I am a writing craft junkie, constantly reading writing craft books and taking workshops and classes. I read a lot but only rarely find something truly useful so I’m happy to share the good ones. So here, without further ado, is a subject-to-be-updated list of my most recommended books about writing.

(I’m going to link to these books on Amazon because I get a small referral credit if you end up buying through there but almost all of them should be available at your local library or independent bookstore!)

My Top Go-To Writing Craft Teachers

Before we start, some writing craft authors I recommend without hesitation are…

  • K.M. Weiland who has generously shared almost every bit of writing craft info that appears in her books on her website for free (though I still own many of her books because a) it’s just easier to digest the info in book format and b) I wanted to support her hard work financially.) She also has a massive directory analyzing the story structure and character arcs of many popular books and movies that is an amazing resource of examples when you’re trying to see those concepts in action. Her style is clear, easy to understand. Many times I’ve read about a concept in another writing craft book, didn’t understand it, went over to see how Weiland explained it and her explanation is what made it finally click in my brain. (Books by KM Weiland)
  • Chuck Wendig also doesn’t have a single loser when it comes to writing craft books and posts. Like Weiland, most of the articles from his books are on his website to read for free… but unlike Weiland, whose site is super organized and easy to navigate, you’re going to have to dig around for Wendig’s craft nuggets. But the majority of his writing advice is collected in several books he put out himself and some traditionally published ones too and they are all worth a read because his advice is good, his style is funny and he swears creatively and often. (Books by Chuck Wendig)
  • James Scott Bell also does not have a single loser when it comes to writing craft books. He’s got a ton of great insights, and my only complaint is he’s sometimes a little “Old Man Yells At Cloud” about random things, like romance for some reason. He has a video course through The Great Courses which is an overview of mostly all the content from his books. Wondrium (which hosts The Great Courses) offers a free trial if you want to try it out. (If you’re coming here from my talk at the Parsippany Library I have really great news: your library membership includes The Great Courses as part of the Kanopy app so you can watch the whole series for free.) (Books by James Scott Bell)
  • Bonus: This may seem like a weird addition because she doesn’t have any writing books out, but Linnea Sinclair is one of my all time favorite craft instructors. She offers online workshops frequently, though, and I have taken nearly every one she offers and can highly recommend them all. Unfortunately, there’s no good way to view all her upcoming classes, but she’ll usually promote the next one a few weeks before on her facebook page.

Standalone Books

General disclaimer that authors above would all dominate this list if I was including all their books, which I’m not doing since I already recommended them above.

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

I like this book a lot. This is a very generic sort of writing book in the sense that it doesn’t really give you anything specific to work with or apply to your work in progress, but it does talk a lot about the hows and whys of what makes a story work and makes readers keep reading. It’s inspiring and makes you think about about your characters and story in a new way.

GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon

This one is a super short read but important and provides the kind of foundation every author needs. It’s one of those texts that is referenced in so many other craft books and classes, you can’t go wrong by reading the original for yourself.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne, Dave King

This book is “controversial” because many of their editing examples are classic novels where they show how those passages would be written today and people don’t like when you edit their favs, I guess. But it’s an amazing resources for training yourself to see the errors in your own writing and improve your draft with each pass through.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody

I’m a bad scriptwriter in that I have never been able to get through the original Save The Cat, even though it’s supposed to be the gold standard. It was just too dry for me! But this guide is very readable and really gives you an overview of the classic Save the Cat formula from a novel writing perspective.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Becca Puglisi, Angela Ackerman

This is an unusual entry in that, unlike the others on this list, this isn’t the kind of book you just sit down and read cover to cover. Instead, it’s a thesaurus where you look up ways to “show” your character experiencing an emotion rather than “tell.” So when you’re character is afraid, you can quickly flip to the entry on fear and see lots of examples to inspire how you can craft a moment so your reader feels with the character instead of just saying, “He was afraid,” This is the rare book that is MUCH more useful as an eBook because you can leave the Kindle Cloud Reader open in another tab while writing and look up entries on the fly using search as you write.

The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger

Gail Carriger is one of my all time favorite authors so I was so excited when she wrote a writing book! There’s a lot of scholarship out there about how the traditional Hero’s Journey structure is centered on a white cis straight male Western perspective and that stories from other cultures and perspectives have their own structure that doesn’t fit into that pattern. This delves into one of those such alternate story structures, one that matches many of my favorite books and movies.

Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Ugh, this book. I am always hesitant to recommend it because I think the information in it is good, but the examples Cron uses have led many any author astray. I actually read this book three times before I felt like I had a way her method was useful to me and then it was only because I realized that what she was touting as a revolutionary new method was actually the same character arc creation method that’s been around forever under a new terms (you can see Weiland’s take on the same material here.) All that said, once you get past the weird examples and realize she’s just offering her take on an old idea and not inventing anything new, there’s some great info on how to craft a book around your character’s positive change arc. Plus she gives you a good checklist of exactly how to go about it during the planning stages.

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (and Screenwriters!): STEALING HOLLYWOOD: Story Structure Secrets for Writing Your BEST Book by Alexandra Sokoloff

Written by a screenwriter turned novelist, this is is mostly a collection of craft articles that used to be on the author’s website, but there is a lot of gold in there and I recommend it. In particular, Sokoloff has a fantastic Index Card Method for plotting out a story into traditional story structure when all you have are random scenes that I like and a lot of insights on taking Hollywood stroytelling tricks and translating that into page turning fiction.

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

This book is super short and mostly visual, but it’s good guide for training yourself to see inspiration everywhere (even if it does gone on a bit longer than the author has material for). It has two follow ups as well and you could probably read all three in less than 2 hours total.

Specialized Stuff

Here’s a few books that are useful only if you’re in a very specific situation.

Take off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker

So you know how writers tend to divide themselves into plotters and pansters? aka people who plot and outline ahead of time (plotters) vs people who just take a basic idea of their story and wing it by the seat of their pants (panters)? This is a book for people who started out as pantsers, but need to start plotting, a thing that commonly happens when you have deadlines and a publishing contract. It’s a quick, easy to read guide of making the transition to outlining and planning when that’s not how you typically write.

2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron

This one is a huge mood for me personally because Aaron wrote it because she became a parent and struggled with the need to write more while having less time than ever. It’s short but full of practical tips for making the most of your writing time so that you can increase the amount you write with the time you do have, even if that isn’t a lot.

Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes

A very short, quick read but it’s essential if you’re thinking of writing romance because it takes the standard Save the Cat structure and translates it to the romance novel.

Writing Fight Scenes by Marie Brennan

Goes into the nitty gritty of crafting a good fight scene that isn’t just technically correct, but also narratively interesting.

Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens

Super niche, but hear me out because this is one of those books I think about constantly even though it’s been years since I read it. Part Jim Hernson biography and history of The Muppets, partly a book about balancing the commercial aspects of creation with fueling your creative soul. It’s an amazing exploration of how Jim Henson managed to build a empire without ever being seen as a “sell out” because he kept a balance between his artistic principles and the commercial market that surrounded him. Of most interest to Muppet fans, it’s still got a lot of universal lessons about how to keep your creative fire going without letting the industry burn you our and beat you down. One complaint? this was originally published serially and the author kind of runs out of steam in the last few chapters. But it’s still a great way to rethink how you create and craft your career.

That’s it for now!

I plan to update this list as I read more books and remember others I forgot and left off by mistake. Obligatory mention that I also write writing books that obviously I recommend. Got a writing craft book you think I’d like? Please comment below! I am literally always reading craft books to stay in a writing mindset so I love a steady stream of recommendations to keep me busy!

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About the Author

Hillary DePiano is a playwright, fiction and non-fiction writer who loves writing of all kinds except for writing bios like this.

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