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How to write a book: resources for the first time novelist

best writing craft books

When I tell people I write fiction, sometimes they say ‘Hey, I’d like to write, too!’

Then I geek out on recommending craft books, resources to change ‘I’d like to write!’ to ‘I write!’, and their eyes glaze over because hours have passed & my enthusiasm has turned scary.

This page is a restrained list of the resources I most often recommend.

It’s a list for first-time novelists. I love reading about craft & have a teetering sub-list of other, nerdier writing books I adore, but I’ve kept this batch broad, & applicable to any genre.

Note: this is what I needed when I was starting out. At that point I’d been practicing & going to writing classes enough to know I could write a few thousand decent words, but had no clue how to turn those into a novel.
You might be at a different stage. Or you might prefer a different book on the same subject (though I’m willing to bet it will be the same advice, just in a voice or style that’s more you).
If none of these appeal, ignore me. Just start writing, and keep reading other people’s fiction until you can figure out what they are doing to bewitch you.

Important: Don’t stop writing while you’re reading: keep your hand in with some kind of practice along the way. It’s easy to trick yourself into feeling productive because you’ve read about doing something, instead of actually doing it. Most of these books have exercises to follow: use them. It’s the best way to learn.

My top three desert-island, heavyweight champs of writing craft books:

The Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maass. Skip the accompanying book & go straight to this workbook.  It’s full of exercises to make what happens in your novel matter.
Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder. For when you don’t know what’s supposed to happen next. This is classic on how to structure a story (though you could easily substitute Weiland, Bell or Hawker’s books on structure for it (see below), this is the one I read first, & I wish I’d found it sooner).
Spellbinding Sentences, by Barbara Baig, advanced reading & practical exercises on how to make clever, beautiful sentences.

Other strong contenders

Structure & outlining

Outlining your novel by KM Weiland. KM’s books are always friendly & sensible. Good for beginners on where to take your baby idea next.
Take Off Your Pants  by Libbie Hawker. This is the outlining book I refer to the most. before and during writing (despite always getting Blink 182 songs stuck in my head).
Super Structure by James Scott Bell.  Another simple explanation of story structure that gets you up & started, quickly.
(Psst, if you’re writing romance, supplement these with Gwen Hayes’ Romancing The Beat)

What the hell is a scene, anyway?

How to Write Page Turning Scenes, by Holly Lisle

Revision

How to Revise Your Novel by Holly Lisle. I have no other resources for revision because this mammoth online course covered everything. EVERYTHING. And taught me a huge amount about novel writing in general, not just revising.

Editing

Before You Hit Send Another online course, this one for gussying up that revised novel. Run a few times a year by a thorough & well-respected editor who answers questions personally in the forums. Take notes, as you only have access to course content while you’re enrolled.
The Emotional Thesaurus and The Fiction Thesaurus will help you to show not tell, & the actual thesaurus, Rogets, will give you a hand when you’re absolutely sure there’s no other word to describe your character than ‘nice’ or ‘good’.


For remembering writing is fun, & staying in touch with your creativity:

(‘step away from the beat sheet, ma am’)
Use A Writer’s Book of Days  and How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play for prompts & exercises that will get you playing around with words, & remembering why you thought writing a novel would be a good idea in the first place.

The Artist’s Way is what you need if your brain is playing up & talking crap about you & your creativity.

Last but not least, you’ll need:

All of your favourite books, and some you dislike.
Tear yourself away from the plot & characters & examine how they transport you, or turn you off: How much of the page is dialogue? How much is description? How is sensory detail used? How does the setting reveal detail about the characters? What is irritating about the books you don’t like? Why don’t they suck you in, or how do they let you down?


There. C’est tout. For now. Happy writing!

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