Deep in the drafting trenches whilst trying to write my first book, I realised three things;
I had no idea how to effectively structure a novel-length story.
My sentences were a mess.
I had no idea how to fix these problems.
After some dramatic wailing, I did what most fledgling writers do and decided to purchase some writing craft books.
And down the rabbit hole I went…
The amount of craft books claiming to offer unique insight on how to make your manuscript shine is astounding and, quite frankly, overwhelming. With such an abundance of options to choose from, it’s difficult to determine which craft books are actually helpful and which are passable for most writers.
So, writer friends, I’ve done you a favour and read…all of them, so you don’t have to.
Well, not quite all. But I have digested a large amount and have put together shortlist of books which, in my humble opinion, are a must-read for all writers. There were of course numerous other books I found helpful which did not make it onto this list but if you’re looking for a short, concise reading stack to begin your novel writing studies, covering a wide range of topics, this could be the line-up you need. And for those seasoned craft book readers well into their writing journey, perhaps there’s a book on this must-read list yet to make it onto your TBR.
How Not to Write a Novel
by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
It may be pushing the parameters of the term ‘craft’ book to include this one, but it’s here for a reason. Written by a literary agent and critic, this hilarious little gem of a book is an amusing collection of all the things which will get your manuscript thrown into the rejection pile by literary agents/publishers. From overuse of exclamation marks to clichés, it takes you through the pitfalls of many newbie writers. You may not realise you’re guilty of a cardinal writing sin until you read this book.
(N.B. I was guilty of the ‘character looks in the mirror to have an opportunity to describe themselves to the reader’ moment with my first book attempt. I shall now hang my head in shame accordingly.)
Even if you’re looking for something more technical, at very least, it will give you a laugh with advice such as: “Giving a reader a sex scene that is only half right is like giving her half of a kitten. It is not half as cute as a whole kitten; it is a bloody, god awful mess.”
In short, this is a great book to read before you even start writing. Especially, if you’d like to avoid severed kittens.
Plot and Structure
by James Scot Bell
This is a craft classic and for good reason. Of all the books on this list, Plot and Structure has earned its keep. Writing a novel-length work of fiction is a daunting prospect and it’s easy to get lost in the vast expanse of prose. Scott Bell breaks the essence of a well plotted story down into a classic, Aristotelean, three act structure. And then, more importantly, he further breaks those Acts down into bite-sized SCENES (goal -> conflict -> disaster) and SEQUELS (reaction -> dilemma -> decision). These two types of events work in a chain reaction to weave together your plot. This mathematical approach to structure keeps your characters on track and prevents them wandering off to do something which has nothing to do with the actual story. As Scott Bell says; “Structure is translation software for your imagination.”
‘Save the Cat’ Writes a Novel
by Jessica Body
“There’s something buried deep within our DNA as humans that makes us respond to certain storytelling elements told in a certain order. We’ve been responding to them since our primitive ancestors drew on walls and tribes told stories around campfires.”
Using the same storytelling ‘beats’ or ‘moments’ as screen writers, Brody lays out what could be the most effective analysis of story I’ve ever read. If you’re sceptical or want to delve further into why these beats are hard-wired into our brain, then I would suggest picking up Lisa Cron’s ‘Story Genius: How to use brain science to go beyond outlining and write a riveting novel. However, if you want to skip the brain science and go straight into using beats to mould a thrilling story, Save the Cat is the book for you. Brody explains the fifteen beats every great story meets, using examples from classic and contemporary fiction over a range of genres.
The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile
by Noah Lukeman
I am yet to meet a writer who doesn’t agonise over the first few pages, lines, or even words of their book. Those opening sentences set the tone for the rest of the story and if your goal is to be traditionally published, they are the most important part of your pitch. If the first few pages don’t grab the attention of the literary agent you’re querying, the rest of the book doesn’t matter because they won’t read it. So how do you get those first, integral pages right? Literary agent Noah Lukeman takes you through the making of an eye-catching manuscript. As he claims, “We read five pages of a good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page; we begin to see images.” Start as you mean to go on and give this quick book a read.
Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
by Steven Pinker
I have often lamented that I struggle with the writing part of writing. Ideas, character and plotting come easily but I come into difficulty when executing my vision on the page with elegant prose. My first beta reader picked up on this immediately.
(Hello again, Laura. Yes, I’m still working on it, I promise.)
If you are anything like me, fear not. Please welcome to the stage the legend that is; Steven Pinker. Cognitive psychologist, psycholinguist and keeper of writing secrets, just reading his prose will make you want to improve your own. In his own words; “To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life's greatest pleasures.”
From the technical to the poetic, Pinker’s book dives into what makes writing great. If you want to make your prose sing, he’s your guy. Absorb his wisdom. Steal his style. Stop using so many adverbs.
And there you have it, my top five craft books. Go forth and study well writing friends. And remember, whatever your problem, there are resources out there to help you on your writing journey. Good luck!
Did I miss your favourite craft book? Swing by my Instagram and @rachel_zillikens_writes and let me know.
Meet Rachel Zillikens
Rachel is a Welsh-German writer of fantasy, historical and contemporary fiction. She teaches English as an additional language and resides in the south of Germany with her husband, children and a cat named Gretel.
You can connect with Rachel on Instagram @rachel_zillikens_writes.