On Writing–Some Favorite Books


Let’s face it—we were all complete and total amateur wannabe writers at one time. None of us were born with the innate ability to craft a good novel. Pick your favorite novelist, one who’s been around the block a few times. Pick up a novel or short story collection he/she wrote early in their career. Read carefully, take notes if you’d like. Now, take your fresh memory/notes and compare it to one or more of their later works. I’d be willing to bet you’ll agree the earlier work doesn’t quite measure up to the author you’ve grown to admire.

ross_macdonald - 3

I’m currently “into” the mystery genre as both reader and writer. There are many great mystery novelists out there, but Ross Macdonald is my favorite author de jour. His Lew Archer novels have made a big impression on me, not only for their intriguing, complex plots, but also the beauty of the language Macdonald weaves between the covers of his books. I decided to delve into Macdonald’s earlier works and purchased a collection of short stories he wrote and published in pulp magazines while still honing his craft. Big difference. In the story, Death by Water, the author stretches the reader’s credulity with a plot-hole big enough to swallow a 1950 Ford Custom. Suffice it to say, his brilliant later works contain no such glaring faux pas.

While I still say the best education a potential writer can get is to be an avid reader, there are many good books available today that were written to help improve the novice and even established writers. I’ve collected and read a slew of such books over the years. Here are a few I’ve found especially helpful for our chosen craft:

Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style, by Stunk and White. This classic is considered indispensable by many. Still a quick and handy reference since E.B. White revised and expanded Strunk’s original in 1959.

Stein on Writing

Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein. From Amazon.com:  “This is not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions—how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place.”

How to Grow a Novel

How to Grow a Novel, by Sol Stein. Another masterpiece from Stein, a master editor and best-selling author. Again, from Amazon.com: “Stein takes the reader backstage in the development of memorable characters and fascinating plots. The chapter on dialogue overflows with solutions for short-story writers, novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights. Stein shows what readers are looking for—and what they avoid—in the experience of reading fiction.”

Art of Fiction

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner. This book by the award-winning novelist, non-fiction writer, and creative writing teacher, is compiled from courses and seminars he taught over the years. It’s been hailed as “The next best thing to a graduate workshop in fiction writing.”

Writing the Novel - L. Block

Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, by Lawrence Block. Block, a multi award-winning author of over one hundred (and growing) novels lays the process out from idea to polished manuscript ready to submit. How can you argue with a guy who wrote his first novel in two weeks while still a teenager, and then sold it to a major New York publisher?

How to-Damn Good Novel

How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. The award-nominated mystery/thriller author offers a clear and concise crash course in the down-to-earth basics of dramatic storytelling. I hear there’s a new edition out that is even better than this 1987 gem.

Self-Editing fiction

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. Both authors are seasoned editors for long-established New York publishers. The advice you’ll find within the pages of this book is sound. It’s not “Do it this way or else!” type advice. It is practical and worthwhile advice that will spare writers a lot of headaches and rewrites. One of the handiest books in my collection.

Shut Up! He Explained

“SHUT UP!” He Explained, by William Noble. The subtitle says it all: A Writer’s Guide to the Uses and Misuses of Dialogue. This is another of my personal favorites. Noble is the author of several nonfiction titles, mostly about the craft of writing, and one mystery novel. While his fiction writing is limited, he absolutely nails the subject of writing effective dialogue. This is the clearest, most useful book I’ve ever read on the subject.


Remember, nothing replaces careful and prolific reading, especially in the genre(s) you hope to write. But good books on the craft can be a source of continuing education for us all throughout our careers. The above are a few of my favorites—what are yours?



7 thoughts on “On Writing–Some Favorite Books

  1. So, you’re sending me off to Amazon. Dang, Mike! I too turn to MacDonald for pleasure reading, but to John D. MacDonald – I first read his Dreadful Lemon Sky during a hurricane, in the moments before the ‘cane hit, the sky had a lemon color. Hooked me. One of my very favorites that is not on your list is Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s really not a writing book, although it is supposed to be, but I find it more inspirational. It always gives me energy!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m a fan of John D. also. I’ve been accused of trying to emulate him (I wish!), i.e. the coastal Florida setting; McGee lives aboard a houseboat, McClellan lives in a travel trailer (both mobile), etc. But Mac’s a one-woman man (despite temptations) while Travis is, well, Travis. In one book the reader gets the hint he’s about to settle down with a permanent lady, but alas and alack, she dies. Problem solved. 🙂 Never read King’s book although it’s wildly popular. If you must visit Amazon, don’t forget the one-cent sale! (Although that doesn’t do much for the author’s royalty statement!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I found The Marshal Plan… too formulaic for my tastes or style. We just didn’t “click.” That said, the old saying, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” still holds true. I don’t (can’t effectively) outline, so I simply “wing it,” depending my characters to come alive and write the majority of the story for me. What works for some, as you well know, doesn’t work for others. I agree, write, write more, and then write even more. I’d toss “read, read some more, and read a lot more” into the pot.
    “There ain’t no magical formula,” he expostulated.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Its true that we aren’t born being amazing writers but at some point we have to put it out there and just keep going. Practice makes… not perfect but much better writers. 🙂 Some great resources.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. You’re right, Maggie. We can read-read-read & write-write-write till the pigs fly home, but if perfection is your goal, it ain’t gonna happen. Write your best stuff and put it out there. Learn from your mistakes. Keep at it and keep getting better. It’s a rocky road for sure, but it’s the only way to get there!

    Liked by 1 person

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