5 Craft Books for Emerging Fiction Writers
Updated: Aug 3, 2019
I love reading books on the craft of writing. Often, they turn me back to the blank page with renewed excitement, ready to tackle a difficult plot problem or re-envision my characters.
A disclaimer, though. Sometimes writers (myself included) read craft books as a substitute for actually, well, writing. So read, enjoy, take notes. Learn from them. But remember that the most fruitful learning comes from the trial and error of the practice itself.
In no particular order, here are the craft books I have found most helpful over the years.
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (Francine Prose)
This modern classic is a reminder that anyone who wants to be a great writer must begin as a great reader. With chapters like "Words," "Sentences," and "Character," Prose encourages reading the best of literature with an eye on craft. "It's essential to slow down and read every word," Prose writes. "Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer used notes, the way a painter uses paint."
Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott)
In a lot of ways, this craft book doubles as a self-help book for writers struggling with doubt and perfectionism. (And really, what writer isn't?) It's difficult not to feel encouraged by Lamott's honest, funny, and self-depricating style. She urges writers to give themselves short assignments, write "shitty first drafts," and silence their inner critics. Oh, yeah, and sit your butt down in that chair, even if you have to hold an imaginary gun to your head to do so.
The Art of Fiction (Jonathan Gardner)
This one is a little more dense, but all the more rewarding for the effort of reading it. If you're just beginning to dabble in the pools of creative writing, some of Gardner's arguments might sound overly academic or theoretical, but it's a book that keeps on giving. I have gotten more out of it with each reading, including a number of lightbulb moments that sent me scrambling back to my own writing. Gardner's most helpful section is probably his observations on fiction as a dream that the writer must continually maintain.
On Becoming a Novelist (Jonathan Gardner)
Another book by Gardner, who is perhaps now more famous for his books on craft than for his brilliant novels. This one focuses on long-form fiction. "The beginning novelist who has the gift for inhabiting other lives has perhaps the best chance for success," he writes, adding, "Detail is the lifeblood of fiction."
How Fiction Works (James Wood)
This book is the most theoretical and least "practical" of the lot, but that's not to knock it's quality. Wood, a long-time writer for the New Yorker, knows his stuff. After all, knowing how fiction works, the nuts and bolts of narrating, detail, and dialogue, are essential for any writer hoping to become a master.