The writer life: Books on craft

The question is so broad it’s hard to answer.

So how do you write a novel?

The quippy answer isn’t helpful, even if you directly quote Hemingway (or a string of others who may have actually said it first): “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

But the real answer is you study. I went to secondary school to be a journalist, and I learned the structures and techniques that it took to write those pieces (yes, I know the leg up it gave me over, say, a mathematics degree). A friend of mine went to school to be an engine mechanic, and he now travels the country doing it because he learned the trade well.

Though some will provide anecdotes about the person who wrote a novel on a whim and it became a bestseller, that’s not the reality.

How does a person learn the craft of writing fiction without an MFA program?

For many, the answer is in the one place all writers should look first: books.

I won’t go into Stephen King’s On Writing, because every writer knows about it. And even if you haven’t read it, you’ve seen enough memes on social media to get many of the big ideas.

The two books that were first recommended to me when I was in the middle of rewriting my first novel are Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee; and Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.

These two were instrumental in (eventually) getting Deep Background into something that resembled a story.

One of the first questions I had for the industry pro who recommended McKee’s books was obvious: I’m not trying to write screenplays, so why should I read this book?

The answer became just as obvious: Telling a great story is the same no matter the medium.

The book isn’t about prose or the difference between assonance and consonance, but about the fundamentals of storytelling. And if you’re writing commercial fiction, that’s what a large swath of your potential readership is after, in addition to quality writing.

So I would also recommend Story for any of you who are trying to tell a good one.

Maass’ book is equally focused on that, but — you guessed it — it’s designed for writers who are trying to write the next mega bestseller. It was useful, but I’m going to read it again now that I’ve written two and am closing in on a third.

There are two other books that I’ve found incredibly helpful in continuing my development as a novelist.

The first is, once again, a book that focuses on storytelling: The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird. While it reinforces many of the basics you can learn in McKee’s book, it’s written for a more modern audience and focuses on the hero, and how she can be both complicated but one audiences will empathize with.

Much of the discussion is based in human psychology. It’s nothing so click-baity as “how to hack readers,” but the effect is there.

For those who are looking to level-up on their prose, I recommend Writing with Quiet Hands: How to Shape Your Writing to Resonate with Readers by Paula Munier.

And for those of you who are trying to actively sell novels, both Munier and Maass briefly discuss the basics on those skills, too.

This is far from a comprehensive list, but hopefully there’s at least one title you haven’t already read that can help.

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