My Top 11 ‘How To Write Books’ Books

Welcome to the Distress Signals Blogging Bonanza! What’s that, you’re wondering? Well, you can either go and read this post or read the next sentence. In a nutshell: Distress Signals was out in paperback in the UK and Ireland on January 5 and hits the U.S.A. on February 2, and every day in between I’m going to blog as per the schedule at the bottom of this post. 

Today is Tuesday which – phew! – means a tiny post. (I’m back at college as of this morning so this is really good timing.) I thought I’d use it to share my favourite ‘how to write books’ books with you, and ask you if there’s any good ones I’ve missed off the list that I need to check out.

I love these kinds of books – or, to be more specific, I love two kinds of these books. The first is the therapy kind, the books that reach down to you in the depths of self-doubt and say, ‘It’s okay. All writers feel this way. It’s normal’ and then pull you back up. I still remember the day that – in a public place – I opened Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers and started reading. Within a few paragraphs, I felt like bursting into tears. It was as if she’d climbed inside my head, had a peek at my innermost (writing-related) thoughts and then typed them up and sent them into her editor. She knew writers and, as she pulled me up out of the self-doubt, I was more convinced than ever that I was supposed to be one.

The other kind I love are the instructional kind – but with caveats. I’m not into creative writing guides that tell you how to come up with everything from a killer title to identikit characters. I feel like ideas are the very least a writer should have. And although I think you can learn to write better, I’m not in the school that thinks you can learn to write. But… I am obsessed with the architecture of plot, the mechanics of good storytelling, etc. and so I love reading books about that – because that’s something I think a writer can learn to do better. Then there’s the books written either by bestselling authors or by other titans of the industry that are full of the kind of useful information you need after you’ve written THE END.


So here are my picks (from the bottom up and only in the order that I happened to stack them in):

  1. Save the Cat! by Blake by Blake Snyder
  2. How To Get Published and Make a Lot of Money by Susan Page
  3. How Not To Write A Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
  4. The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Learner
  5. Into the Woods by John Yorke
  6. Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott
  7. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
  8. From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake
  9. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
  10. How Fiction Works by James Wood
  11. On Writing by Stephen King

(1) THE book on plotting if you write commercial fiction, me thinks.  (2) Don’t be put off by the title. Although this book is quite dated these days, it still contains the best information I’ve come across for putting together a proposal for a non-fiction book. (3) Possibly one of the most entertaining books ever. (4,5,6) Why are these all named after nature?! (7) Yes, that is her real name. (8) When Carole Blake very sadly passed away recently, the best anecdote I heard was that she was told to cut down the chapter in this about books going to auction, and was shocked to learn that most books don’t get sold that way! Brilliant. (9) About being creative in general and with probably a couple of bits that will grate, but well worth a read. (10) Because it doesn’t hurt to know… and (11) Is there anyone left who hasn’t read this? It’s like the How To Write Books Books Gateway Drug.

Have you read any/all of these? Have you read any other good ones that I’ve missed? Thoughts? Criticisms? Comments about how you don’t remember subscribing to receiving these posts by email (even though you definitely did because I have never signed up anyone up on the sly and also that’s not possible because it’s a two-step process that involves you clicking confirm in an e-mail sent to your address and hey, it’s okay if you want to break up, but you have to do unsubscribe yourself because I can’t do it for you)? I’ll take them all! Keep scrolling and type away. (Translation: do leave a comment.)


Remember: there’s a super sexy hardcover edition of Distress Signals (the American one, out February 2) up for grabs, signed to you from me. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post or any post published here between January 5 and February 2. One entry per post, so comment on more than one and increase your chances. Open globally. Good luck!

19 thoughts on “My Top 11 ‘How To Write Books’ Books

  1. Joel D Canfield says:

    “On Writing” gets bashed a lot, but I love it. Inspiring, partly because sweet merciful heavens the man can write, and since I don’t read his fiction, this is my SK fix.

    Writing books I can’t imagine living without:

    “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield (identifies Resistance and arms us for the battle)
    “The Writer’s Process” by Anne Janzer (eminently practical, and plot/pants agnostic)
    “Around the Writer’s Block” by Rosanne Bane (practical brain science to get you writing and keep you writing)
    “The Sound on the Page” by Ben Yagoda (only book I’ve read about finding your writing voice, and it makes sense, plus it’s a fun read)
    “The Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne (acquisitions editor for a million years, he knows what makes a story work, and explains it in luscious geekish detail)
    “Language in Thought and Action” by S. I. Hayakawa (deep dive into what, exactly, language is and how, precisely, it works—and despite the textbook feel of the title and my description, one of the most glorious explorations of words I’ve ever experienced; practically a religious experience as an author.)

  2. avrilsilk says:

    Just ordered ‘How Not to Write a Novel’ on the strength of Catherine and Iola’s recommendations – and this quote from it:

    “Know what the chase is, and cut to it.”

  3. hilarycustancegreen says:

    Interesting list… I think I’ll have to try no 3. I would add Faulks on Fiction (Sebastian Faulks). This is not a ‘how to’ book, but a thorough investigation of some characters and books in well-known fiction, querying how and how successfully the author has dealt with certain problems. I loved every word, though I hadn’t read all the books he discusses.

  4. Laura says:

    I haven’t read any of these yet, but I’ve pinned this post into 2 boards on pinterest so I can find it when I’m ready! I’m reading The Writer’s Journey right now and loving it!

  5. Susan Roberts Writer says:

    Great blog post! Best of luck with your new novel.

    I’ve read about half of these, and will seek out the others. Stephen KIng’s “On Writing” and Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” are my two favourites.

    May I add another two?

    “From First Draft to Finished Novel” by Karen S Wiesner – I still use her suggestions for creating character sketches and tracking their evolving goals and motivations.

    “Plot versus Character” by Jeff Gerke – every novel I write gets the in-depth character treatment from this man and his methods.

  6. Nikki says:

    I adored Big Magic (most of it), it helped change the way I feel about my creative process, reminded me how fun it is to write, and who cares if it’s rubbish!

Ah, go on. Tell me what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s