Here are some of my favourite books on writing. I’ve arranged the shelf above in order of how much I like them (L-R), though some of the ones I talk about below are missing because one of my best writer friends has borrowed them. (Yes, that’s you, JODIE!!)
Story by Robert McKee is a must-read for every story writer. It’s full of inspirational and thought-provoking quotes about story, and I love how it dissects classic movies to explain how and why they work their magic.
QUOTE: “We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality.”
I’m a massive fan of John Truby. He’s a story genius! I found his book Anatomy of Story SO helpful even though it’s heavy reading. He places a strong focus on the main character having a moral weakness which drives the plot. I’d heard about this from other writing books, but hadn’t implemented it much in my own writing until I read his book.
Milla Anderson, the protagonist in my thriller Shiver, is hypercompetitive. In the ’10 years ago’ timeline, she’s a professional snowboarder competing at halfpipe. Her desire to defeat her rivals drives the story. Her competitive behaviour causes the predicament she finds herself in, in the present day. Deciding Milla’s weakness from the start had a magical effect: my story almost seemed to write itself.
I particularly love listening to Truby talk about story. He has some brilliant videos available to watch free on YouTube. Here’s the video where he talks about his book Anatomy of Story.
Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham was eye-opening for me because it taught me, amongst other things, to think in scenes, not chapters, and to start scenes late and end them early, ideally on cliffhangers, for maximum narrative drive.
Into The Woods by John Yorke is a fascinating explanation of how stories work, as well as a critique on many other books on story.
I’m also a massive fan of US literary agent Donald Maass. His book The Emotional Craft of Fiction blew my mind when I read it a few years ago. I’ve reread it a few times since and still only feel I can apply a fraction of his advice. The book focuses on the psychology of the reader and what they experience, and details what writers can do to give their work more emotional impact.
QUOTE: “Readers fundamentally want to feel something, not about your story but about themselves… They want to anticipate, guess, think, and judge… They want to feel like they’ve been through something. They want to connect with your characters and live their fictional experience.“
I love the idea that what matters most of all to a reader is how the words make them feel. His book on Writing the Breakout Novel is great when starting off a new project, for evaluating your premise.
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is a short, accessible and entertaining read with some nuggets of gold. It’s written for screenwriters but the principles apply just as much novelists. Many writers swear by Blake Snyder’s ‘Beat Sheet’ for plotting a story.
These are my favourite books for the editing stage. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is full of straight-talking advice. Read it and forever after you’ll hear in your head his no-nonsense advice about what to cut and what isn’t good enough.
Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, is written by a pair of highly experienced fiction editors. It’s particularly good for pointers on how to tighten your writing. The first time I read it, I immediately slashed twenty percent off the manuscript I was working on.
Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us by Jessica Page Morrell looks at common pitfalls of querying writers and it’s another extremely helpful read. I plan to reread these three books after finishing each new project, to keep the advice fresh in my mind.