My Top 3 Fiction Writing Books and Why You Should Read Them

My Top 3 Fiction Writing Books and Why You Should Read Them

[A note from James: “Wait – what?! Fiction?! On a blog for businesspeople?” You bet. In many interviews, I’ve mentioned that learning how to write fiction can definitely boost your copywriting skills – the two skill sets cross over more than you’d think. So when Kari pitched me the idea for this post, I was all for it. You don’t need to go off and write a novel, but you should definitely pick up one of these books to learn better writing skills that help you sell. Take it away, Kari…]

As a fiction writer, I’m drawn to the writing section of bookstores. I have a huge collection of writing books that seems to get larger by the month.

Publishers like Writer’s Digest keep pumping out great titles like, “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” or “Writing Your Way” – and I keep buying them, thinking they’ll have valuable information I could use.

What I end up with is a stack of writing books that cover the same topic with similar variations. Worse, I never read them.

So many books, so little time, right?

Here’s the biggest problem: The more time I spend reading, the less time I spend actually writing.

Realizing this, I decided enough is enough. I went through my collection, weeded out the wasted money and decided which Top 3 fiction writing books I should keep. Here are the books that made the cut and get to keep their place on my shelves:

1. Anything by Donald Maass.

Donald Maass is the brains behind The Breakout Novelist and Writing 21st Century Fiction. Maass has over thirty years of experience in the publishing industry, and his literary agency represents novelists including Jim Butcher (of The Dresden Files), Anne Perry and Robert McCammon.

His books contain numerous questions that help you add depth to every aspect of your story, from plot to setting and dialogue to character. Through extensive reading and his own agent experience, he’s put together valuable resources that explore the concepts and ideas hit novels have in common – the concepts that draw readers’ attention.

If you want to break out as a novelist and have aspirations of reaching the New York Times bestseller lists, Maass’ books are the ones that tell you exactly how to achieve those goals.

2. Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

You either love Larry Brooks or you don’t. His website StoryFix has won awards from well-known sites like Writer’s Digest and rubs shoulders with Men with Pens as a top writing blog on the Internet.

There’s an argument in some circles about whether you should write by the seat of your pants (called pantsing) or outline your story before you draft it out (called plotting, obviously). Larry Brooks has staked out the plotting claim for his own, and Story Engineering is all about creating good story structure.

For plotters, this is a dream come true. For pantsers, just bear with it – every concept is relevant to your work. Larry goes step by step, pointing out important aspects of story structure and even where those aspects should be in regards to your book to make it a success.

Even if you don’t want to plot everything out to the last scene, as a writer you need to understand WHY structure works the way it does. After all, you have to know which rules to break and which to keep – and why it’s okay to break them in the first place!

3. Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron

I’ve always been interested in how the mind works. And when I saw this book for sale, I jumped at the chance to make it mine.

Wired for Story explores how the brain works, mapping aspects to fiction so that you can learn how to create an emotionally impactful story. In each chapter, Cron shares a cognitive secret about how our minds work and then pairs it with a storytelling secret on how to make those cognitive secrets work for in your fiction.

Through the book, she gives ideas on how to keep your reader reading long through the night and explains why we become as engrossed in certain novels but not others. It’s the neuroscience behind fiction, and it’s very cool to see a book that combines both together in such a great resource.

The Bonus Book: Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham

This book is probably THE best book on using scenes to structure your novel. Understanding how scenes work, how to make them a smooth read, how to maintain the story’s tension and when to release it… this is some of the most important aspects of learning to write a great story.

Just because your novel has witty dialogue or brilliant characters or vivid description doesn’t mean you automatically have a great story. And while having working knowledge of story structure is a boon, you have to be able to use that structure and understand how your story all fits together.

Structure is your skeleton; scenes and sequels are the muscles and ligaments that keep it from falling apart.

What do you think?  Are there writing resources or books (fiction or nonfiction) that you can’t live without?  I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Post by Kari

Kari is a full-time content manager, editor and in-house blogger at Men With Pens. In her spare time, she writes fiction and is working on her first novel.

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  1. Excellent recommendations: You nailed it. Naming my own choices of the top 4. Cron’s book is not to be missed, and Maass is brilliant. And Larry Brooks is masterful with structure. And I need to go back and review my Bickham.

  2. These three (four) books sound like decent recommendations. Of course, I am compelled to throw Stephen King’s wonderful “On Writing” into the mix. What a great book!

    Another way to go about this might be to select three of your favorite novels, and three short stories and write up an analysis of how and why they work as good fiction.

    Thanks for the eye-opening post!

    • “On Writing” has some great points in it, definitely. And I’m all for analyzing fiction and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. Have you done this and what books would you choose to do it for? :)

  3. Tracy Derrell says:

    I have to second Peter and Stephen King’s “On Writing.” I loved the combo memoir and how-to format. Like Kari, I am guilty of buying lots of writing books and not reading them. But I read King’s book in a couple of days and found a lot of great advice.

    For anyone who has the money, Donald Maass is teaching a class at the Backspace Writer’s Conference in NYC in May.

    • Maass’s classes are so worth every penny you pay for them. I was in a day-long class with him at the pikes Peak Writer’s Conference a couple of years ago and was just smitten by everything he said. He’s got some fantastic ideas, regardless of what genre you’re writing in.

  4. I’ll recommend a fiction writing book like no other: THE FICTION WRITER’S HANDBOOK by Shelly Lowenkopf, which came out late last year. He wrote it because after teaching fiction writing in USC’s graduate writing program for over 35 years, he wanted a book that he wished was out there, one going over terms used by fiction writers and then expanding of them. You go through it using your curiosity as your guide. Check it out. It’s a great reference if nothing else.

  5. Hi Kari,

    Great list! Never heard of Maas — I’ll have to check him out.

    I liked Larry Brook’s book — even if you are a pantser like me, you have to inject structure into the novel at some point, (just not in the first draft…) This book really helps. I also like King’s book, but I can understand why you didn’t include it in this list. It’s more memoir-like than practical how-to. Worth picking up though.

    I just finished “Writing for Emotional Impact” by Karl Iglesias. It’s actually aimed at screenwriters, but it helped me immensely, both with identifying and conveying emotion in a scene, and honing my dialogue. It’s a well thought-out book with a lot of good points. If you’re concerned at all about the emotional impact of your writing or constructing believable dialogue, I highly recommend it.

    ~Graham

  6. Beautiful insights.

    > The more time I spend reading, the less time I spend actually writing.
    You’ve found the secret to the good life … find ways to spend more time doing what you love.

    It’s so easy to fall into the trap of doing A because we want to do B, when we could just do more B. (Sort of like the song … do B, do B, do.)

    Mitch Hedberg, a comedian, had a skit where he wanted to be a comedian, but they asked him if he could act. He said it was like asking a chef if he could farm.

    • J.D., excellent observation! I do tend to fall into the “doing A because we want to do B” group — but I’m getting better! :)

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