Books for Writers

Next post, I’ll do a link post of sites with information on copyright (good, bad, and ugly) and related resources. However, that takes time I did not have last week, so I want to look at resources for authors, especially books that I have found useful.

Important caveat: these are books that I have found useful. Not all books work for all authors. Guides for people who do genre fiction (thrillers, romance, sci-fi and fantasy) might not work so well for people who write literary fiction, and vice versa.

Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. This is the one I go back to every year, especially when I seem to have trouble with pacing, and as a refresher. Swain’s goal is to walk you through the techniques that work to keep readers interested and following your protagonist’s adventures. His “W” pattern of rising and falling action works very, very well as a rough guide that you can adjust to fit the character and genre. After you read the book once, you can go back and refresh your memory easily, because of how Swain divides up the book. I won’t say that this is the One True Book for writing stories that move, but it is up there. Obligatory disclaimer: Swain wrote in the 1970s. He’d be considered sexist and a few other things today, I’m sure. Ignore that and focus on the big picture.

Joseph Campbell The Hero’s Journey. If you are going to look at the Hero’s Journey archetype, you might as well go to the original, and then read the riffs on it.

Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers 3rd Edition. This is the Hero’s Journey, but for screen-writers. Vogler uses movies to walk through how the idea fits into story, but you can easily apply it to print/electronic fiction. Each chapter is one stage of the Journey, so it makes a useful sort of checklist.

Donald Maass The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface. This is a relatively new work, and Maass is a NYC editor and publisher. However, what he provides are exercises, and ways to working through a character’s emotional state. The goal is to hook readers without leaning on cliche too much. I don’t agree with all of his ideas, and he inclines more towards what I consider more literary fiction, but his exercises can be useful if you are stuck and need to kick the cardboard out of a character, or if your alpha readers complain that “I’m just not feeling it.” I know I am changing the character arc in the work in progress because of working through one of his exercises.

Orson Scott Card, Character and Viewpoint, and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. There is some overlap in the two books. His point in Science Fiction and Fantasy about the vital importance of genre signals, and making sure your readers know that, for example, your trees talk because of genetic experimentation and mutations rather than magic, is a good one, especially for those of us who tend to blur genre lines at times. If you only get one, I’d recommend Character and Viewpoint. It includes things like MICE (what drives the novel’s actions or lack thereof), character development for major and minor characters, and a lot about the different points of view, and when you might want to use one or avoid one. Plus it applies across all genres.

There are a lot of other books out there, and some more general author-life sorts of books like Stephen King’s and John Erickson’s books (of the two, I like Erickson better, but he’s a relative of a good friend, so I’m a little biased.) Nibble around, check books out from your library, and find what works for you. Your needs as an author change over time, and what was too nit-picky for you as a beginning writer might be exactly what you need later on.


  1. I’ve just started “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel” by Jessica Brody and am finding that it has helped me figure out some of my plot problems in the first 50 pages. I know it advocates a formula, but I think it will be of enormous help to me. Anyone else tried it?

  2. I’m a Swain fan. I re-read his Techniques of a Selling Writer regularly. I’m reading his Creating Characters for the first time now. It has some overlap with Techniques, but is dense enough with new-to-me concepts, that I’m going to need to re-read it while taking notes.

    I also like all of Lawrence Block’s books about writing: Telling Lies for Fun & Profit; Spider, Spin Me a Web; The Liar’s Companion; The Liar’s Bible; and Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel.

  3. *grins* I loaned a chunk of mine out to a friend, for more writing education that you’re likely to get in any 6 college courses. Dwight Swain’s Techniques was the top of the pile, and Orson Scott Card was right behind it. I’ll have to see how he’s doing on getting through the stack.

  4. Errr… you said, “people who write literary fiction, and vice versa.” Two questions. First, do people actually write literary fiction, or does it just happen by itself? Second, how does literary fiction write people? Oh, not that vice versa? Whoops 🙂

      1. Nah, I just enjoy the funny twists English makes. Thanks! I enjoyed the image of literary fiction writing people… kind of like Soylent Green, popping out of the literary oven?

  5. About Swain: I have long assumed that he is the same guy who (as Dwight V. Swain) wrote stf pulp fiction for Imagination and Imaginative Tales back in the 1950s and 60s. Anybody know for certain one way or the other>

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