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“You enter the extraordinary by way of the ordinary.” ~Frederick Buechner

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Reading For Craft

How-To: Writing Books That Deliver

Every writer has his or her bookshelf favorites. It’s important to find the writing mentors that can expand our depth and style in the stories we hunger to write. But there are also some mentors whose writing principles cross over genres and over years. These are the craft books we return to again and again: as beginners, advanced and professional, because each time we learn something new to apply. They have stood, or will stand, the test of time.

 As I read with pleasure a plethora of writing craft books over the years, I keep an ongoing list of suggestions for my students and clients. So if you’re looking to add to your own writing library, or give a gift to an upcoming writer, here are some top selections from my favorites.

Getting Started

Writing Fiction For Dummies, by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy.

This is one writing book I heartily wish had been written when I started out. Although no time spent on developing craft is ever-wasted time, the foundation advice given here enables a new writer to focus on valuable learning techniques, instead of hit or miss possibilities.

Crafting Novels & Short Stories, from the Editors of Writer’s Digest

The editors from Writer’s Digest have excerpted top quality articles from their books and their magazines then compiled them into over thirty-nine chapters to give writers practical applications for craft and creativity. It’s a goldmine.
The wide range of talent and perspective offered by the contributors is like a delightful banquet. This book’s advice will keep any reader busy for the entire year ahead with pleasurable, propelling instruction. Highly recommend!

The Productive Writer, by Sage Cohen

“The good news is that anything is possible in the realm of productivity if you are clear about the path or goal you are choosing, and committed to discovering and doing what it takes to get you there.”

Sage Cohen says that productivity is a lifestyle choice and by the time you finish this book she will cover every aspect of what that lifestyle can look like for a writer, or any other entrepreneur with some adjustments to their particular business. Her suggestions stem from the concept of “Putting the “You” in Productivity.”

Developing Craft

Make A Scene, by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

Rosenfeld takes basic functions and elements and launches them into powerful scenes. Then she thoroughly examines scene types to highlight their particular qualities and strengths.

The Scene Book, by Sandra Scofield

Scofield doesn’t deal only with theory and definitions, but also extends her insights into how-to applications through examples of novels and movies. And then gives concrete exercises for personal works in progress to find just the right fix to make scenes live beyond correct structure into living scenes.

Showing & Telling, by Laurie Alberts

She cuts through confusion, misunderstanding and error to provide practical understanding towards achieving balance, in fiction and nonfiction between these two concepts. Alberts gives clear definitions, shows how to use each, in either scene or summary, and how to blend the two together “to create vibrant and essential prose.” This book is a MUST.

Plot versus Character, by Jeff Gerke

His system integrates plot and character to deepen the quality of your novel, by both building on your strengths and reshaping your weaknesses. However the key dynamic in this book is the detailed development of a character’s inner journey. Gerke himself points out that a good novel can be written without this component and still be enjoyable. Yet, how much richer to experience your protagonist’s transformation from the inside out?

The Writer’s Compass, by Nancy Ellen Dodd.

Beginning with a story map and a picture map, Nancy Ellen Dodd uses a 7-stage process to combine creative thinking with analytical perspective to shape quality storytelling organically. It is intense. The 7-stages are not a formula, but organic, fluid, changeable, and encourage free-form development.

How To Blog A Book, by Nina Amir

Amir covers all the basic how-to questions of blogging in general and how to promote and profit. There are three main categories for fiction writers where her suggestions can fortify a writing life with ongoing creativity.

Purpose. Characters, setting, genre, and story question under Amir’s topic questions guide into the reason for the story as well as the needed proposal/promotion plans. Purpose gets you to the heart and enables the portion-by-portion development.
Consistency. The writing becomes continuous and connected. We finish the book.
Craft. Composing in bite size sections on a day-to-day basis highlights the quality we  ‘publish’ next. We tighten our scenes, focus our settings and build real characters.

Wild Ink, by Victoria Hanley

There are two invaluable reasons to read Wild Ink’s second edition. First, it encompasses a thorough introduction to the diverse YA market. Second it demonstrates an excellent understanding of voice from which all writers can adapt her principles to their own audiences. The wide range of possible topics, styles and content Hanley supplies are also shown by the interviews she includes from several YA authors in fiction and non-fiction. I found it interesting that one common thread amongst everyone was the need to be true to the voice of the story.

Hanley gives an outstanding Your Inner Teen Exercise to help identify where you have strengths or weaknesses identifying with the emotional range necessary for honest character development, voice, and dialogue. The questions can easily be adapted to other genres to increase understanding of characterization.

Writing the Fiction Series: The Guide for Novels and Novellas by Karen S. Wiesner.

Writing a series can be like juggling multiple eggs on an ice rink. Just one slip can create a crack that runs throughout the whole series. Often writers don’t realize that one novel is about to become a series and have to learn to balance along the way.

Wiesner details the definitions, catalyst, styles, focus, organization, and marketing required for any series by showing explicit examples, case studies and stumbling blocks. She thoroughly examines and warns about the importance of characters and consistency when writing across extended novels. On the surface this might seem to be common sense, but in reality it is a danger that can sink your series, and/or lose future readers.

Moving Forward

The Art of War For Writers, by James Scott Bell

In this book James Scott Bell applies Sun Tzu’s principles for clarity in battle planning to encourage quality, craftsmanship and courage to writers. He offers a plethora of tactical principles to help each writer along the working path, to harness the courage and skill required to keep writing and reach Sun Tzu’s standard.

The Constant Art of Being A Writer, by N.M. Kelby

In her first section, The Life, Kelby addresses the basic mindset requirements, decisions, and pitfalls available to all writers. The Work, comes next with articles and follow-up exercises on craft skills and how to take your vision to find its shape.

In section three, The Business, she gives practical detailed advice over what you can control and what you can’t; professional conduct, contract, agents and editors, marketing, book sales, book tours, survival tips and estate planning. Her foundational advice, “Don’t ever lose sight of the fact that you are a writer.


The Tricked-out Toolbox, by Melissa Bourbon and Tonya Kappes.

They share as writer to writer and their advice is plentiful: marketing, branding, websites, blog/grog, networking, promotion, trailers, swags, budgets, and PR. One of their best offerings is not in the table of contents but runs throughout the book—sanity.


Write Away, by Elizabeth George

Novelist Elizabeth George brings the depth of excellence and longevity to Write Away that she also does to her absorbing suspense novels. Her premise is that an understanding and mastery of craft will enable writers to navigate the problems we encounter in our novels.

In addition, with each chapter opening she shares an excerpt from her personal journals. These excerpts open a window into the emotional journey that writing requires, regardless of experience and success. Her psychological and practical insights into characterization provide ample creative fuel, no matter the specific genre.

The Key, by James N. Frey

Mythic features are often considered to be the domain of speculative fiction.  But James N. Frey considers them to be the foundation markers for all quality fiction, regardless of genre. In The Key, he sets out the reasons, the functions, the techniques and the possibilities.

One reason Frey gives is that every great fiction story experiences a transformation of character, and mythical journeys and heroes provide universal and ongoing dramatic patterns. We, as readers, are emotionally and psychologically hotwired to respond. Using mythical motifs increase reader identification and satisfaction in the story. 

Happy reading. Have a great holiday season!

Share: What is one of your 'must have' writing books on your shelf?

Read deep, marcy


  1. Hi Marcy, I have two to add to your list. The classic Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster is not only full of good information (my introduction to how to work with flat characters) but also a highly entertaining read. And Unless It Moves the Human Heart by Roger Rosenblatt. This helped me connect with my purpose in telling a story. Thanks for your list! Sydney

  2. Thanks for sharing, Sydney. Forster is great and now I'll look up Rosenblatt. :)


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