Writing Books – 5 Favorites

What is a blog about writing without a list of top 5 writing books?

I’m a sucker for good writing books. I’m a sucker for any writing book for that matter. At one point the bed in my guest room was unusable since it was covered in writing books that spilled over from the shelves in the room. I had to purge, which prompted an analysis of which writing books I liked the best. Which were I going to keep? Which do I consider the most essential?

Without further ado. . .

My 5 Favorite Writing Books

1. Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver

Writing Books #1Immediate Fiction was not the first book I came across in my search for instruction on how to write, but it was the first one I read which turned on the lights in my mind. “Oh, that’s how that works.”

Who is Jerry Cleaver? He started The Writer’s Loft, Chicago’s longest running and most successful writing workshop, 20 years ago and taught fiction at Northwestern University for 10 years.

What makes the book so great?

Jerry covers everything from a top-down view. Chapters include: Rules of the Page, Theory, Story, Fine Tuning, Self-Editing, Emotion, Showing, Rewriting, Method, Uniqueness, Point of View, The Ticking Clock, Dead Weight, Short vs. Novel, Writer’s Block, Stage and Screen, and Selling. Quite the gamut of topics on writing.

The core of the book is the magic formula for all stories: CONFLICT + ACTION + RESOLUTION = STORY. Jerry tackles each of these aspects of story and offers helpful suggestions on how to implement them.  The book is truly a complete writing course.

2. On Writing by Stephen King

Writing Books #2Every good list needs a classic, and every good list needs a book on the writing life, preferably by a literary legend. Stephen King’s On Writing fills all those roles (and often appears on lists of the best writing books, and for good reason).

Part autobiography, part craft book, and part book on the writing life, On Writing gives the reader an overview on one author’s development from struggling writer to megacelebrity. Along the way, Steven offers his opinions, and there are quite a few, on all matters writing related.

Read it for King’s take on the touch points of fiction: description, dialogue, character, literary devices, theme, pace, research, and the ever-so-important revision (He includes a raw story towards the end of the book along with an edited version as an example). Read it for King’s take on classes, seminars, agents, and publishers. Read it for King’stake on plotting vs. pantsing (Did I mention he’s opinionated?).

Just read it.

3. The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass

Writing Books #3Every good list also needs a book written by an agent (in my opinion). There are many out there (Noah Lukeman’s work comes to mind), but I’ve found the books written by Donald Maass (his agency represents authors like Jim Butcher, Brent Weeks, and Martha Wells) to be exemplary.

The Breakout Novelist combines work from several of his previous books (Writing the Breakout Novel, the accompanying workbook, and The Fire in Fiction) into a tidy compilation. Maass splits the book into three parts: Mastering the Breakout Basics (topics like premise, stakes, subplots, and theme), Achieving Breakout Greatness (protagonists vs. heroes, scenes that can’t be cut, hyper-reality, and practical tools), and Building a Breakout Career (pitching, agents, contracts, numbers, career patterns that work). The insights of part three alone are worth the read, but the first two parts do not disappoint. Implementing the lessons of The Breakout Novelist into your writing will make you a better writer.

Honorable Mentions: Donald’s Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, and The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface.

4. Revision and Self-Editing for Publication by James Scott Bell

Writing Books #4The “Nuts and Bolts” book. When I browse the writing reference section of the bookstore and come across a new title, I often ask myself, “How is this going to help me be a better writer?” Then I gauge the table of contents and look for practical ideas for implementation in my writing practice (it is practice after all).

James Scott Bell has a ton of books on writing, but I think his Revision and Self-Editing for Publication is the best, mostly because it combines many of his thoughts, tips, and tricks into a single volume (and I like having things in one place). Part One covers the basics of writing (plot, point of view, dialogue, show vs. tell) with practical examples which can be implemented immediately. Part Two delves into revision and methods to rewrite and sharpen the aspects of writing covered in Part One.

Bell’s book is a bit more practical than Cleaver’s, but the two together will provide a very good foundation on how to write fiction.

Honorable Mention: The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers by Matt Bird.

5. Do the Work by Steven Pressfield

Writing Books #5If you only read one of these five books, make it this one. It is short and to the point.

Do the Work is about motivation, overcoming resistance (as Pressfield identifies it), and finishing a creative project. The book applies to any new endeavor, not just writing fiction. Pressfield’s direct prose gets right to the point about the matter and forces you to be honest about your dreams and goals.

Read the book. Then Do the Work. Trust Me.

Honorable Mentions: Any and all of these other great books by Pressfield: The War of Art, Turning Pro, and Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t.


Thanks for reading. I hope these books help you on your journey.

Now your turn. What are you top 5 writing books?

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