The Writing Books That Helped Me At The Start

by James Scott Bell

Last week in the comments, Kay DiBianca wrote:

I sure would like to have a master list of the best books for learning the craft of writing.

You asked, you got it.

Now, modesty prevents me from mentioning my own books on the craft. If I was not the humble scribe that I am, I would probably say something like, “These books have proved extremely helpful to fiction writers,” and then I’d put a link to my website for a list of the books.

Instead, I will narrow my focus six books which I found most helpful when I was starting out. There’s that old saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Well, I was ready, and these books appeared. They helped lay a foundation for all my writing since.

Writing and Selling Your Novel by Jack Bickham

Apparently only available in hardback, this is the Writer’s Digest updated version of Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell (which is the edition I studied). It was his treatment of “scene and sequel” that gave me my first big breakthrough as both a screenwriter and novelist. A light came on in my brain. It was a major AH HA! moment. Bickham’s style is accessible and practical, and a big influence on me when I began teaching. I wanted to give writers what Bickham gave me: nuts and bolts, techniques that work, and not a lot of fluff and war stories.

I found out that Bickham was running the writing program at the University of Oklahoma, where he himself had been mentored by a man named Dwight V. Swain. So I researched Swain, and discovered he’d been a writer of pulp fiction and mass market paperbacks, and written a book a bunch of writers swore by. So naturally I bought it.

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

For those wanting to write commercial fiction (i.e., fiction that sells), this is the golden text. Swain takes the practical view of the pulp writer, the guy who had to produce gripping, ripping stories in order to pay the bills. He lays it all out in a perfect sequence for the new writer, who could go chapter by chapter, building a writing foundation from the ground up. I review my highlighted and sticky-noted copy every year.

Writing the Novel by Lawrence Block

Block was, for years, the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine. At the same time, he was a working writer himself, having come up through the paperback market and into a series character that has endured, the New York ex-cop Matthew Scudder. Thus, what Block brought to the table was the way a prolific writer actually thinks. The questions I was having as I wrote Block always seemed to anticipate and address. He opens the book with his timeless advice: “If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass. If it persists, you probably ought to write a novel.”

Screenplay by Syd Field

This was, I believe, the first “how to” book I bought when I decided I had to try to become a writer. I started out wanting to write screenplays. With writers like William Goldman and Joe Eszterhas getting seven figures for original scripts, I thought, well, maybe this would be a good venture (the only more lucrative form of writing, according to Elmore Leonard, is ransom notes). Field’s book contains his famous “template,” which is a structure model. I studied movies for a year just looking at structure, and finally nailed it. What I added to Field was what is supposed to happen at the first “plot point.” I called it the “Doorway of No Return.” That discovery still excites me.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

This is a right-brain book, and therefore a necessary balance. The secret to elevated writing is finding a way for the rational and playful sides of the writer’s mind to partner up. Bradbury’s book is full of the joy of writing, and it’s infectious. Two of my favorite quotes: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” And: “Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together. Now, it’s your turn. Jump!” My signed copy is always within reach.

Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

Sol Stein, 92 years young, is a writer, editor, and publisher (he founded Stein & Day back in 1962). When I started out he had an innovative, interactive computer program called WritePro, which is apparently still available. Much of the advice in the program is in this book, including inside tips on point of view, dialogue, showing and telling, plotting, and suspense.

So there you have it. My list of the books that helped me most when I was starting out. The floor is now open to you, TKZers. What books have you found helpful in your writing journey?

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33 thoughts on “The Writing Books That Helped Me At The Start

  1. I used to look at the displays of writing craft books and think, “If there was a way to get published, shouldn’t there just be one book about it?” But I ended up with a shelf full of them anyway.

    When I was starting out, every craft workshop I attended had Browne & KIng’s “Self Editing for Fiction Writers” listed in their handouts, usually at or near the top. I found it invaluable as a beginning writer who had no formal training.

    I bought “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman and was so discouraged, I gave it away, but as I moved forward, I bought it again.

    GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Deb Dixon is another one.

    And if you don’t want to mention yours, I got a lot out of Write your Novel from the Middle.

  2. Thanks for this list. I have Field, Swain, and Bell. I’ll check out the others. Always good to start the writing day with a reference to a specific skill. Also, thanks for those quotes. So inspiring. Off to the minefield…

  3. Thank you for this list. I have several craft books I find useful, but do not have any of these. They have jumped to my Christmas list.

    Since JSB is going to be modest, I’ll say it. Elements of Writing Fiction: Conflict and Suspense is phenomenal. I also found Write Your Novel From the Middle helpful.

  4. I totally agree about Stein on Writing, excellent. And it’s practical, too, for reviewing what you’ve already written.

    There’s this book, by this guy . . . what’s his name? Oh yeah, James Scott Bell, and he wrote the most helpful book ever on dialogue: How to Write Dazzling Dialogue. I especially appreciated the writing exercises he suggests.

    Writing Scary Scenes by Rayne Hall is short but packed full of advice and good rules-of-thumb, especially for horror writers.

    The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke helped me a lot to understand what agents and editors look for

    And finally, not a writing book but a business-of-creative-people book: Manage Your Day-to-Day by 99U because it helped me develop better working habits.

  5. Wow, signed by Ray Bradbury. What a treasure.

    In the ’90s, Jack Bickham taught at a conference I attended. SCENE AND STRUCTURE opened my eyes and I had an autographed copy which I foolishly lent out and never got back.

    I frequently recommend your books to new writers, esp. VOICE which is invaluable for developing characters.

    One day, I hope to meet you in person to have you sign my JSB collection. You can bet I won’t make the same mistake again of lending autographed copies!

    Merry Christmas to you and your family, Jim, and thank you for sharing your wisdom so generously.

  6. Your Plot & Structure book was one of the many books on writing I found helpful when I started writing my first novel. I think I finished the first shitty draft in 2014, which is when I discovered Write Your Novel from the Middle, just in time for my first big revision. I found it so helpful that I gave that book to everyone in my writing group as a holiday gift that year. Then the following year, I used your (then-) new Super Structure book to make sure I had all the right elements in the right places before querying agents. And now, that novel is being published in 4 months! I think the Super Structure book has been the writing book I’ve turned to the most as I work on my second novel. So THANK YOU, James Scott Bell!!!

  7. Thanks you all for the kind words. A couple of you mentioned Write Your Novel From The Middle. That discovery, for me, was even more exciting than the Doorway of No Return. I’m just so gratified so many have found it helpful.

  8. Jim, Thanks for visiting this subject. I always love to hear what others have to say about their favorite craft books.

    First, I have to mention ALL of your books. I have them all. I reread them. They’re dog-eared and highlighted. My autographed copy of Plot and Structure sits top and center on my bookshelf. My favorite is Write Your Novel from the Middle. That’s the book that turned on a light for me. Even though it doesn’t fit your short story model with the shattering moment, it has given me some success with short story competitions.

    Here are some others:
    On Writing Well – William Zinsser
    The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler
    Writing 21st Century Fiction – Donald Maass
    And for those who want to go really deep on structure – Story Engineering, Story Physics, and Story Fix – Larry Brooks

    I thought there was another week or two before the Christmas break. But, if am wrong, Merry Christmas to you and yours. And thanks for all your teaching!

  9. Hi Jim,

    Several of the titles on your own list helped me, especially Bradbury and Block’s books. Scene and Sequel by Bickham made a huge difference as well. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones helped free the writer within me (I need to revisit that book). Nancy Kress’s Characters, Viewpoint and Emotion was a huge help, and I had the pleasure of taking two classes from Nancy later which also helped.

    Your own Write Your Novel From the Middle really did unlock structure for me, and has made a huge difference in my novels. Thank you!

  10. Mr. Bell — You’re too modest. I own and use four of your books and they’re terrific. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Pete

  11. Good list, Jim. I have all six. I have been writing for many years, along with bouts of chronic illness that slowed me way down. I have all your books and I do like that Write Your Novel from the Middle. Syd Field taught me the three act structure years ago and I keep going back to that. My copy of Swain is “well used.” He did a workshop years ago at an Romance Writers of America conference that I attended. He talked about structure, as I recall.

    I sold a book to Harlequin in 1992 and then couldn’t finish another book for many years. I was too sick and my creativity went into hiding. I’m now writing again and have just indie published the first three books of my romantic suspense series. I credit my vast collection of well-studied craft books with finally getting me to the end point of publishing again.

  12. Not every book on writing works with every writer, but there is at least one book that will work for you. Mine was the Ben Bova book on writing science fiction. (The book has been reprinted under at least three names that I know of.) I wasn’t writing science fiction at the time, but his explanation of how character and plot work together was that light bulb moment for me in my struggle to write a cohesive novel.

    Another book was THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING by Lajos Egri. It’s about playwriting, but it has some really great advice on character and plot.

    I had to purge all my paper books because of allergies so I can’t name any specific books, but many of the Writers’ Digest books on specific subjects are pretty good. Your library probably has a shelf of them. I used to graze through all the new writing books as they came into the library. For a newer writer, that’s a good habit to get into.

    Here are some general suggestions about books that are must haves for most writers. These days, you should be able to find a few websites with the same information. The advantage of the paper version is that you aren’t tempted into the time-devouring rabbit hole that is the Internet.

    A visual dictionary which has pictures of objects that identifies the different parts. This is really handy when you have a brain fart about the name of what you step on a ladder and spend three hours trying to remember the word “rung.”

    A good thesaurus.  Experiment with the different types to find one that works for you.

    Baby name books, any will do, for naming characters.  Sherrilyn Kenyon also has a name book specifically for writers.

    PROPER NOUN SPELLER, compiled by Jean Emerich.  Out of print but similar books are available.  It lists proper names of celebrities, historical figures, place names, and product names you won’t find in a dictionary.  If you need to spell Spaghetti Os or Steven Spielberg, this kind of book is for you.  I also use it for a fast reference for handling italics, etc.  

    AMERICAN SLANG, Robert L. Chapman, Ph.D.

  13. I have a rule about technical books. Don’t read just one. Read them all because each author has his or her own bias. Take from each and make your own way. However, a few do stand out. Everything by Robert McKee, Nancy Kress, and some guy named Bell. In fact all the Writer’s Digest books are great.

  14. Syd Field’s Screenplay is absolutely one of the most useful and influential books on my writing. Once you understand that structure you can pinpoint the plot point scenes, look at your watch, and see that they occur exactly where they should. The structure lessons in that book are as applicable to novel writing as screenwriting. The other book I’m surprised nobody has yet mentioned is On Writing by Stephen King. That’s a gem.

  15. I get nuggets of wisdom from each of the craft books I read. JSB books I’d rate way up there and the other book that I especially loved was “Writing the Breakout Novel” by Don Maass. I keep 2 copies of that one on my shelf–maybe it was just the right book hitting me at the right time, but I just loved it.

  16. What a great list. I have all the books you listed except for Bickham. I’ll have to get that one. I must say all of the craft books by JSB is excellent, too. Especially Plot and Structure. Thank you, Mr. Bell

  17. Anything by Jack Bickham. Do the exercises – they will teach you a lot. Scene and sequel was the first thing that made sense to me.

    Anything in the Save the Cat series. I’m halfway through the newest one – Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. The others were written for screenwriters, but they all teach structure.

  18. Jim, Thank you, thank you, thank you! This list is exactly what a novice like me needs.

    Having JSB and friends provide collective wisdom on the craft of writing is a fantastic first gift of the season. What an inspiration to start my new novel in the new year!

    Now if I could just find a book on writing ransom notes…

  19. Pingback: The Writing Books That Helped Me At The Start | Loleta Abi

  20. These have been the most helpful for me.
    Lisa Cron, Story Genius
    John Yorke, Into the Woods
    James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing for Publication
    Larry Brooks, Story Engineering

  21. Coming in late as usual, but wanted to add one that no one has mentioned. Carolyn Wheat’s How To Write Killer Fiction was useful to me when I was starting out. I heard Carolyn speak at a conference and got her book. It is very helpful for understanding the basic differences between mysteries and thrillers. Which, even in these cross-over days, is good to know.

  22. I have been collecting writing books like talismans since the early eighties. I agree with the ones many of you liked. I have Write your Novel from the Middle–though I haven’t gotten to it in my TBR pile yet. Guess I’ll have to move it up. Other books by James Scott Bell are really helpful too.

    Some other favorites not mentioned yet:
    Les Edgerton’s Hooked. I liked it so much I had to invite him to speak at my second Writer’s Workshop here in Fayetteville NC. The entire writing community continues to ask me when he is coming back…
    Larry Brooks came to the third and fourth Writers’ Workshops. His presentation “cured” a lot of writers from their structure problems. His books are awesome but already mentioned for good reason.
    An Oldie that will be hard to find: Fiction is Folks by Robert Newton Peck, author of A Day No Pigs Would Die. It really made me think about characterization. If you can’t find a copy to buy, go to your public library and ask for an interlibrary loan.
    Three books by Jessica Bell are awesome for people who are repeatedly told SHOW don’t Tell: Show and Tell in a Nutshell, Adverbs and Cliches in a Nutshell, and the Six Senses in a Nutshell. The idea is super simplistic which is why they are so valuable. It gives a short paragraph such as can often be seen in a newbie’s writing, and converts them using stronger verbs, more action, better imagery, more detail. The three books have been compiled into one volume, Writing is a Nutshell. I’m considering buying bulk copies to hand out like candy to new members of my library-sponsored writers’ group. They are instantly illuminating.
    Also mentioned before and one that fixed issues I had with my “heart novel” (as yet unwritten, but finally plotted, at least) is The Writer’s Journey by Vogler. The idea of the Hero’s Journey helped solve some problems I had with the structure.

    And there are sooo many others…

    • Oh. and a reference book: The Emotion Thesaurus by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman. For when you want to know what is happening to a person *physically* when they feel anger, happiness, fear, etc.

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