Updated: Feb 27, 2021
Good morning (or afternoon? Or night?) Feisty Fox Folx!
If you haven’t caught on yet, I’m a major #Nerd with a capital N. So it should come as no surprise that I love reading books about writing. The how of it. The theory of it. Okay, look, reading these books just ups my chances of writing something that will absolutely traumatize my readers on an emotional level and that my friends, is the true goal of all writers.
We want to make you hurt. A lot. (okay, okay, some writers want to make you feel all warm and fuzzy. Spoiler alert, I am NOT one of them).
There are tons of books out there to choose from and what works for me, might not work the best for you. But, nevertheless, here are my top five writing craft books and what I learned from them.
This lovely little pamphlet of a book is a super quick read and definitely worth it. The author takes you through her process of how she managed to hyper focus her writing sessions and up her word count from 2k to 10k per day. Which, I mean, DAMN. I get excited on the rare day I manage 5k, and I mostly teeter somewhere in the 1k-2k range. And at just 72 pages, I figured giving this little book a shot was worth my time. And it was.
Spoiler alert, there is no magical incantation that suddenly latches muses to your soul and sends words spewing through your fingertips and onto the page while unicorns dance and harps play. BUT she does give very solid advice on how to structure your writing time and, more importantly, how to prepare for your writing sessions.
Preparation goes a long way. It’s why we pack our lunch the night before or lay out the clothes we’re going to wear. It sets us up for success. And Aaron’s method of preparation is excellent and the payout (increased word count, less time spent staring at the screen or doom scrolling social media while you lament NOT being able to write) is well worth giving her method a try. I was pleased to find that I was already doing a beginner’s level version of her method and I’m in the process of integrating bigger portions of it. And so far, it's worked. The more prepared I feel, the less intimidating that blank page feels.
Writing Irresistible Kidlight by Mary Kole
This book was recommended to me by an agent who has several successful clients and so I immediately tracked down a copy and hunkered down to read. This is one of the areas I really struggle with in my own writing--a lot of my feedback from industry professionals has been that the writing is good, but that it just didn’t ‘do it for them.’ Which is 10000% subjective, but if multiple people are telling me that it’s not hooky-enough, then it’s something I need to address and this book was promising.
Kole focuses on the commercial and emotional hooks that draw readers to YA and MG literature. Which is an ever elusive and constantly changing thing in the publishing world. Despite this, she’s still able to nail down some tried and true elements that your story should have regardless of what is currently trending in publishing.
She uses well known examples to illustrate her points and perhaps more importantly, her tone in the book is friendly and easily digestible. Craft books can be hard to read if they are too text-booky because, well, textbooks are just about passing knowledge on, not about holding your attention. Kole explains herself well, her examples are solid, and she gives a lot of great advice along the way. This one is definitely worth the read and will help you home in on the elements needed to hook your audience and make agents, publishers, and readers beg for more.
Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig
THIS BOOK. This might be my favorite of all the craft books I’ve read. It was not only a delightful read, but it clearly breaks down major story elements and does a deep #Nerd dive into the why of why a story works (or doesn’t). My copy is now riddled with highlighted sections and porcupined with post-it flags.
Damn Fine Story focuses on the broader picture of what makes a story appealing to a reader and breaks it down into 6 Rules (don't panic, they're more like guidelines--there are NO rules for writing) for crafting a story that will create emotional engagement in your readers and have them desperately turning every page. He also uses common, well known examples, with an emphasis on Die Hard--so if you’ve seen the movie, you’re in luck! Chuck breaks it down, bit by bit. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend spending an evening with the greatest Christmas film ever made, because no matter what else, the narrative structure and the way it has continued to ensnare audiences is worth a study.
As a bonus, you get snippets of Chuck’s delightful wisdom about life and it's written in his voice--if you follow him on twitter, you know what to expect. I laughed out loud a lot while I read this book and it’s one I plan on revisiting often because for me, it helped to refuel my creative well.
The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass
If the previous three books were Craft 101 level, this one ups the ante and gets a lot more textbook-y in its delivery and tone. Despite this, it’s still definitely worth the read. I would recommend reading AFTER you’ve finished a draft, but before you start revisions. If you haven’t picked up on the overarching theme here, it's emotional engagement between the reader and the page and this book does a deep deep dive in this very specific aspect of writing.
It’s not the easiest of reads and can be a bit rough to get through at points, but the slog is worth it. The tips and exercises are fantastic and they will help you to deepen the emotional impact of your book. I love that Maass gives a variety of exercises that not only allow you to pick and choose the best one for your story and writing style, but also helps you to know when to employ each tactic. It’s like a field guide to writing emotional engagement.
I like going back to this book when I’m stuck on a scene that has high emotional stakes or if a CP tells me that a scene I *thought* was amaze-balls fell flat for them. I use the different exercises to root out the problem and fix it. This is definitely one where you want to flag, highlight, and margin note all over the book so you can turn it into a quick reference when you hit snags in the revision process. It definitely has more heft as an advanced writing book, so I don’t recommend reading it until, like I said, you have a rough draft finished and you’re starting to plot your revisions.
Story Genius by Lisa Cron
This book is...well, it gets all its points for the strategy and exercises in it. It loses all its points in how it was written. I personally struggled with the tone of the book and the author’s style. You might love it. Who knows. But no matter how I struggled with the actual words and their arrangement on the page, I can’t deny how invaluable the strategy and exercises proposed in this book are.
Much like 2k-10k, this craft book focuses on the pre-writing prep work you need to do. By the end of the book, you’ll have uncovered and analyzed your character’s emotional wound, which gives you the ability to manipulate it and wring every ounce of emotional suffering out of them and your reader. And that, folx, is worth its weight in gold.
Your character’s emotional wound and their want are vital factors to your story--and, (surprise, surprise) they affect the reader’s emotional involvement as they journey through the story. It’s changed how I approach my initial plotting process and I love it. This is one you can read before you start writing, but it will carry just as much weight if you're done drafting and ready to start revisions. You’ll want to take the time to do the exercises in the book. They’re also a lot of fun (at least for me, I love uncovering and exploring the trauma of my characters).
Those are my top five craft books that I’ve read and loved! I love digging into the how, the why, and the theory of writing. What are your favorite craft books that you can’t live without? Hit me up on Twitter with your recommendations or if you have any questions about the books I mention above! (one day I will have proper functioning blog comments, but until then, this is what we got!)
Happy Reading & Writing!