My Top 15 Favorite Writing Books & Why (In No Particular Order)

Today, I thought I’d list the 15 writing books I find most helpful to my writing and teaching writing and offer a little explanation as to why. Hopefully some of these are useful and helpful to you. I am doing these in no particular order of priority, but instead based on how they fit with each other.

The first 8 are part of an excellent Writer’s Digest series called ELEMENTS OF FICTION WRITING. These are by no means all of the books in that series. All of them are excellent, but these 8 are the ones I have referred to most often myself.

  1. Beginnings, Middles, and Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Nancy Kress — Kress takes you through not only the importance of these three pieces of any good story but also the hows and whys of writing them in a very organized and useful way.
  2. Characters and Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Orson Scott Card — Excellent examination of building characters that spring to life and dealing with points of view.
  3. Conflict, Action & Suspense (Elements of Fiction Writing) by William Noble — No good story can exist without conflict, action, and suspense, and Noble tells you what they are, how to write them, and why they matter succinctly.
  4. Description (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Monica A. Wood — one area I had the most to learn when I became a novelist. And Wood expertly helps you learn the hows, whys, and wherefores.
  5. Dialogue (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Lewis Turco — Dialogue has always been one of my strengths (or so I was always told) but this book helps examine things like etymology, accents, and more which go beyond just good every day dialogue.
  6. Plot (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Ansen Dibell — A key resource on an essential tool for any writer and something most books live or die on: plotting.
  7. Setting (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Jack W. Bingham — An excellent how to.
  8. Voice & Style (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Johnny Payne — Wanna know the difference? Wanna develop your own? Look no further. Truly eye opening.
  9. Checking on Culture by Lee Killough — A tiny little tome about a huge subject that just nails it. Her checklist alone is indispensable. Not to be missed.
  10. How To Write A Breakout Novel by Donald Maass/The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass — Technically two books like the next entry, these two are by one of the most successful literary agents in the business and give you real insight into what editors and agents look for and what you need to write a sellable book.
  11. How To Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey/How To Write A Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey — Two books by a top author and teacher which examine key elements of successful novels, different areas are covered in each book. Essential reading.
  12. On Writing by Stephen King — If you don’t know King, this book gives you insight into his background as a person and his approach to writing. It’s incredibly useful as a writing tool and resource in addition to being a damn compelling autobiography.
  13. Screenplay by Syd Field — The essential book on 3 Act story structure, indispensable for novelists and screenwriters alike. This one was key reading in Hollywood for decades.
  14. The Emotion Thesaurus by Becca Pugliosi and Angela Ackerman — The one writing book I never write without, this one helps you nail the internal and external and mental signs of various emotions so well, you can describe them without ever mentioning the emotion. I use it daily while writing.
  15. The Ten Percent Solution by Ken Rand — The single best revision and editing book I have ever read. Like Killough, it is deceptively slim, but every word counts and it will revolutionize how to revise and edit your own work. Essential.

So those are my Top 15 Writing Books and briefly why. What are yours? For what it’s worth…

Novel Writing Boot Camp Starring Me

Some of you know that in late 2017 and early 2o18, in association with Inkitt, a new young publisher that is still finding its way, I wrote and hosted a series of novel writing videos which were short versions of material I later wrote in How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, my first nonfiction book which was published by Inkitt this Fall. Well, the videos—there are 10 of them—are now live and you can watch them for free. They are slickly produced and I am proud of them. They also tease material I develop more fully in How To Write A Novel, so you can check that out too here.

Here is the link to Inkitt’s Novel Writing Boot Camp.

The 100 Books I Read This Year

Goodreads has a Challenge where you can set reading goals each year.  Last year I discovered it half way through so I only set a goal of 40 books, which I more than reached. This year, I decided to set a goal of 100. I finished today, with my first Honorverse and David Weber book, a real page turner. I read these for various reasons: 52 for chat guest interviews, some for other interviews, some for market research, a few for writing craft, a few for fun and pure interest. In any case, I did some great and varied reading this year. Here are the covers for all the books I read in Goodreads’ Reading Challenge for 2012:

On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington, #1)CitizensLance of Earth and Sky (The Chaos Knight, #2)Blowback (Retrieval Artist, #9)Seven Wonders
God's War (Bel Dame Apocrypha, #1)The Creative Fire (Ruby's Song #1)The Halls Of Stormweather (Forgotten Realms: Sembia, #1)Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette EscadrilleIndustry Talk
Flash PointBeggars in SpainBroken Blade (Fallen Blade, #1)Starbridge (Starbridge, Book 1)The Tears of the Singers (Star Trek, #19)
InkThe Monster HuntersTheft of Swords (The Riyria Revelations, #1-2)Han Solo at Star's End: From the Adventures of Luke SkywalkerExploits: The Chronicles of Lucifer Jones Volume II
The Hutt Gambit (Star Wars: The Han Solo Trilogy, #2)The Paradise Snare (Star Wars: The Han Solo Trilogy, #1)The Whitefire Crossing (Shattered Sigil, #1)Crosscurrent (Star Wars)Little Giant--Big Trouble (Dragon Slayers' Academy, #19)
March Of The Ankylosaurus (Dinosaur Cove)The Magic School Bus to the Rescue: Forest FireCharge Of The Triceratops (Dinosaur Cove)Frog and Toad Are Friends (Frog and Toad, #1)Attack Of The Tyrannosaurus (Dinosaur Cove)
Ecko RisingImmortal Hope (The Curse of the Templars, #1)Adventures (The Chronicles of Lucifer Jones, #1)Dragon Slayers' Academy the New Kid at School/Revenge of the Dragon Lady: 1 & 2 (Dragon Slayers' Academy 1 and 2)Hail! Hail! Camp Dragononka (Dragon Slayers' Academy, #17)
Kitty Steals the Show (Kitty Norville, #10)Lightbringer (Lightbringer, #1)Starters (Starters and Enders, #1)The Cat (Sons of Destiny, #5)How to Write Magical Words: A Writer's Companion
Born of BloodDarwen Arkwright and the Peregrine PactThe Mask of AtreusA Soldier's Duty (Theirs Not to Reason Why, #1)The Winds of Khalakovo (Lays of Anuskaya, #1)
Blood on the MinkThe Hammer and the BladeLibriomancer (Magic Ex Libris, #1)Thieftaker (Thieftaker Chronicles, #1)Darth Vader and Son
The Sword-Edged Blonde (Eddie LaCrosse, #1)Reaper (Lightbringer, #2)Sword of Fire and Sea (The Chaos Knight, #1)Fighting GravityOrion and King Arthur (Orion, #6)
Wide OpenLeviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)The Warded Man (Demon Cycle, #1)Judgment at Proteus (Quadrail, #5)The Skybound Sea (Aeons' Gate, #3)
Skinwalker (Jane Yellowrock, #1)The Caves of SteelTriggersShadow's Son (Shadow Saga, #1)Living Dead in Dallas (Sookie Stackhouse, #2)
The Science of Science Fiction WritingA Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, #3)WWW: Wake (WWW, #1)Master of Devils (Pathfinder Tales)Prince of Wolves
The Domino Pattern (Quadrail, #4)Sins of the Son (Grigori Legacy, #2)Glamour in Glass (Glamourist Histories #2)Sins of the Angels (Grigori Legacy, #1)Carpathia
Old Tin SorrowsSeven PrincesDead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse, #1)The Dragonbone Chair (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, #1)Wars: The Battle of Phobos (Vol.1) - Preludes
The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction: 6 Steps to Writing and Publishing Your Bestseller!Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook (Pathfinder RPG)Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide: A 4th Edition D&D SupplementPathfinder Chronicles: Campaign Setting (Pathfinder Chronicles)Machine
Subversion: Science Fiction & Fantasy Tales of Challenging the NormEmpire StateThe January Dancer (The January Dancer, #1)The Truce at Bakura (Star Wars)Making Waves
Control Point (Shadow Ops, #1)Count to a TrillionThrone of the Crescent Moon (The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, #1)CassafireFirst Meetings in Ender's Universe (Ender's Saga, #0.5)
A War of Gifts (Ender's Saga, #5)EarthboundShadows in Flight (Shadow, #5)Arctic RisingAnniversary Day (A Retrieval Artist Novel, #8)

Worker Prince frontBryan Thomas Schmidt is the editor of Blue Shift Magazine and an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exoduswill appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends from Delabarre Publishing.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press (July 2013), headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for Every Day Publishing (November 2013). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Guest Post: Historical Research & Science Fiction by Robert L. Collins

One of the benefits of Cons, without a doubt, is networking. You visit with old friends, discover new ones, and have a lot of fun along the way. One of those new friends from two cons this year, ConStellation Nebraska and ConQuesT, is fellow author Robert Collins. Robert’s published books include Stories Of Feminine Strength, Lisa’s Way, and True Friends. His short stories have appeared in venues like Aiofe’s Kiss from Sams Dot, Golden Visions, Pulp Empire and Tales Of The Talisman. But in addition to his speculative fiction, Robert also writes nonfiction. His works include the books: Ghost Railroads Of Kansas, Pieces of Kansas History, and Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan. So since research can be an area with which we writers struggle–how much to do, how to do it, etc.–I asked Robert if he had any thoughts he could share about research. Here’s what he sent me:

Historical Research & Science Fiction

by Robert Collins

Many Science Fiction authors know the value of researching history for their genre work. Usually they do so because they’re writing a time travel story and need to learn more about the era their characters are visiting. Occasionally, they do the research because they have the idea of,  say, “the battle of Trafalgar in space” and want to make certain the plot follows the real event. However, most Science Fiction authors don’t think much about researching local history to get story ideas.

I write Kansas history as well as SF/F. I’ve done a great deal of research into the history of my home state. I’ve used that material to jump-start several of my fictional works.

One example is my biography of the “Bleeding Kansas” leader Senator Jim Lane. I found a newspaper story that claimed that Lane, in the run- up to the reelection for his Senate seat in 1865, had promised a federal post to 17 men. He made these promises to secure their support for him in the Kansas legislature come election time. Sure enough, the men came to Washington demanding Lane keep his promise to them. Lane gathered the men together one night. This is what he said, quoting from my book:

“What I did last winter, I did with the purest motives,” he asserted boldly.  “I thought the state of Kansas needed me in the senate, and it was with that idea that I made those promises which I cannot now fulfill.  If I have deceived you gentlemen, I believe that heaven will forgive me.  But you, gentlemen, who should have voted for me from the purest and highest impulses–you were actuated only by sordid motives.  You voted for me for a price and I do not think you are worthy in the sight of heaven of any recognition or consideration.” Lane lowered the boom.  “I renounce all of you, and in the interest of the state of Kansas I will select an entirely new man for the position that you all covet, and have him appointed marshal.”  With that Lane dismissed the men for the night.

Great, huh? But how to turn that into a story?

I chose to set my fictional version in the universe of my Frigate Victory stories. I’d already established that colony worlds are governed in a similar way to how United States territories were governed during the frontier period. All that I had to do was adjust the anecdote so that it fit into the established background. My research not only led to a story that sold, but helped me fill in details about that universe. Finding such useful material will take some effort, but you’ll can control how much. Start by checking state histories. Look for events or personalities that appear interesting yet aren’t well-known. From there you can either take what you have and build, or dig deeper. If you’re willing to look, and send out inter-library loan (ILL) requests, you should be able to locate biographies on important state figures and histories of state events, periods, and trends.

Statewide sources aren’t the only places where story and character ideas might be hiding. Most towns and counties have histories published. A local library will have their town or county history. Books on other communities can be obtained through ILL. Some states, like Kansas, have a State Library that handles ILL requests. If so that State Library will probably have a searchable website as well.

If you want to go as far as possible, consider historical newspapers. The Library of Congress has a handful of newspapers from each state digitized at their website. A few states like Colorado are doing the same with newspapers in their states. However, for most local papers you’ll have to look at microfilm. Libraries and historical museums are the first places to look for local newspapers on microfilm; state historical societies typically have all that state’s existing newspapers on microfilm.

Keep in mind that this is research for fiction ideas, not nonfiction books. Don’t get bogged down with accuracy or verification. Also remember that, when it comes to local history, there may only be one source.

One last point: there’s always a need for more books on local historical subjects. POD now makes it possible to publish a book without requiring a large print run. If an event, person, or trend interests you, writing a book could allow you to make use of your research, earn back what you spend, and maybe get you a few more readers.

Thanks, Robert, for those helpful tips. For what it’s worth…

Lucy: Tribute To A Companion

 This is an essay I wrote after my 18.5 year old cat died. I got her in college and she was with me almost half my life. I was devastated by the loss and timing and I still miss her and think about her every day. I never sold this but gave it to my vet and they shared it with people because they loved it so I thought maybe I should share it here. Animals are special, can become like children to us. I am thankful for the time I had Lucy in my life. It was precious and I cherish every memory. She died February 8, 2010. Five days before my birthday.

Would it surprise you if I told you I learned the true meaning of God’s unconditional love from a cat?

I’ll always remember the day she came home to live with me – so small she could sit inside my open hand, so cute I just wanted to cuddle and never let go.  From day one, she was a talker, always interacting with me using her various Meows and other sounds.  I loved the uniqueness of her tortoise-shell fur, the sincerity in her brown eyes, the way she followed me around like a puppy would.

From that day on, we were inseparable.  Wherever I was, she wanted to be.  She’d sit on the edge of the bathtub while I bathed or showered.  That lasted until she got hit by water one day and decided she didn’t like water and began staying away.  One day, while I showered, the answering machine went off.  She stood in the hallway meowing as she looked back and forth between the machine and me, as if to ask:  “How can daddy’s voice be there, when he’s over here?”  It was amazing how human she could seem sometimes.

She slept beside me from the beginning.  One day, early on, I woke up to muffled meows and realized I’d rolled over on her.  That was the first of a series of guilty accidents for me, when I first saw that look she’d give me as she shook her legs one at a time.  It said:  “I can’t believe you did that!  Grow up!”  Lucy always seemed more adult than I ever felt.

That was her name – Lucy, after the Peanuts’ character because she was so stubborn.  I carried her around on my shoulder, as I drove, bought groceries, etc.  She was so cute that we both got lots of attention, and she was fun to play with and have around.

For many years, while I was single and working long hours, Lucy was my closest companion.  She greeted me with purring as she rubbed against my leg when she came home.  She’d hop into my lap and curl up or meow for me to pet her.  She scolded me when I left her alone too long – avoiding eye contact and keeping her distance to let me know she wouldn’t tolerate that kind of behavior from me again.
In all honesty, she changed my life forever.  My first sole pet after moving out of my parents’ house, Lucy was like my child.  I had to feed her, change her litter box, give her attention, etc.  In some ways, I spoiled her too much.  She was never that comfortable around other people.  It had just been the two of us so often, she’d never gotten used to others being around.  My sneaking up and surprising her made her skittish.

I taught her tricks, too – things people assured me cats could never learn.  I taught her to kiss my finger when I held it in front of her face.  She learned to shake and hold my hand, to give me five, and to put both hands in mine and “dance with daddy.”  Sometimes, she liked the dancing so much, she would put her hands back after I let go and bite me if I didn’t let her do it again.  I taught her to speak and to jump, delighting in her intelligence, her personality, her spirit.

Lucy taught me a lot, too.  She taught me about friendship and how to learn to live with another despite their imperfections and irritating habits (mostly mine, not hers).  She taught me about parenting, serving as my first experimental child – both playful and stern as the moment required.  She taught me about forgiveness.  There were the times I stepped on her tail or smashed her foot.  The time I awoke from a dream to find myself swinging her by her feet (I’ve never felt so guilty in all my life).  There were times I left her for international trips or forgot to fill her water or waited too long to change her litter.  Each time she’d give me that same old look as she shook her legs one at a time, then come back a few minutes after to curl up next to me and purr, kissing my finger to let me know she’d forgiven me and life could go on as it had always been.

What she taught me above all was unconditional love.  I had learned about unconditional love in church – the love of God for us, the love of a Savior – but I’d never truly seen it manifest until Lucy came along.  She always wanted to be with me, wherever I was, whatever I was doing.  She didn’t always demand my attention, content to lie nearby where she could see me, or just hover on the periphery.  When she needed attention or food or something else, she let me know, but most of the time it was enough to just be near me.  Until I got married, I’d never known another person I felt that way about.  No matter how ugly I was when I woke up, how stinky I was until I showered, no matter how unfashionable my clothes, or how scruffy my hair, she loved me.  I was her “daddy,” and none of it mattered as long as we could be near each other.  Who couldn’t appreciate a love like that?  If you’re like me, you probably wish there were more of it.

Eighteen years later, as I ponder our life together, facing the end, it’s hard to believe I now have to live without her.  At forty years old, I’ve known her almost half my life.  We’ve been together through eight moves, across four states, and too many apartments and houses to name.  She’s hung with me through job changes, frustration, depression – even times when we were broke and didn’t know where the next meal might come from.  She’s bore the indignity of a new dog joining the family, of being displaced from her usual position on the bed by my wife, and all sorts of other challenges.

Above all else, she’s loved me and adored me, and I have loved and adored her.  Her love is the closest love on Earth I’ve found to the love of God the Father for you and me — unfailing in its strength, undeserved in its power, and unwavering in its hope.  Even as her kidneys failed, her hearing decreased, and her walk became more strained, she loved me still, and I love her, and somehow I know we always will.  If there’s a heaven for animals, I’m sure she’s there at the feet of the Father right now, delighting Him the way she delighted me for so many years.

Write Tip: 7 Tips For Being A Good Beta Reader

One of the things I’ve learned in the past year from working with editors and beta readers is how important a role these folks play in the creative success of any published product. Now there are good editors and bad editors, good beta readers and bad beta readers. I’ve been lucky with my editors so far but had a few beta readers who left things to be desired. (Actually my current crop are fantastic but took a while to find them.)

What you need to understand as a beta reader is that the author needs your focus and honesty to make a good book or story. In fact, without you, the story can’t be all it can be, so you’re actually participating in the creative process and can have huge influence over the final product. If it’s good–and even better because of your thoughtful attention–you can proudly brag about that, and I’m sure the author will credit you in the Acknowledgements as well.

So what does it take to be a good beta reader? Here’s Seven Tips:

1. Pay Attention. You need to read with focused care. Note everything that engenders a response in you. You don’t necessarily have to report them all in your notes, but pay attention, nonetheless, and analyze how that works as you assess the story. Because the author needs to know what works, what doesn’t, etc. This requires you to read with more effort and thought than you might be used to. So it may challenge you. But it will also enrich your reading life in later efforts by teaching you to look at things more deeply in ways you hadn’t imagined.

2. Ask Questions And Seek Answers. If you have unanswered questions or are confused, those are the first notes the author needs. Often we’re so wrapped up in our story with all its details, we don’t realize we’ve underexplained things or done so in a convoluted way. We desperately need you to point it out to us. And we’re thankful when you do. Sometimes what seems perfectly clear to us won’t be to you. This has happened many times editing my novel, and I’m always grateful for those chances to make it better.

3. If You Get Annoyed, Let Me Know. If I over explain or over foreshadow and ruin the surprise, I need to know. I need to know what bores or annoys you. You’re smart enough to realize when it was unintentional, so tell me, because I need to know.

4. Offer Me A Little Praise Too. I’m nervous and excited to put my work out into the world. I need to know the bad stuff, yes. But it’s also helpful to know what you liked. What made you laugh or smile? What surprised you in a good way? What made you want to shout and read it to someone else? Those things matter, and hey, the process is so long, I need the encouragement to keep going. Please let me know.

5. Don’t Be Afraid Of Hurting My Feelings. If I ask you to beta, I am giving you carte blanche to be honest. I need it to make my work all it can be. If I asked, you’re probably someone I trust or at least whose opinion I value enough to believe you can help. And although some of your notes may frustrate me, I won’t take it personally or hold it against you because I need your help. And in the long run, my writing will be better for it not just with this project, but every project to follow.

6. Take good notes. Either on the manuscript itself or via comments in Microsoft Word or on paper. Whatever the case note page and paragraph numbers and be as detailed as you can. The more you give the author, the more helpful your notes will be and the more impressed and grateful the author will be for your time and effort.

7. Check your political, religious and other opinions at the door. You should do this any time you read if you want to actually be informed by the experience. If you are only reading to reinforce existing opinions, your goal is not to grow. Being a beta reader is a challenge, growth is inherent for both you and the writer. It is liberating to set aside preconceived ideas and look at things in a new light, through someone else’s eyes. Reading it fairly doesn’t mean you have to agree or change your mind. But if you intend to help the author, you cannot operate under your own prejudices. Writers are human, our own biases do shape how we see the world and how we project it in our writing, no matter how hard we try to avoid it or how often some deny it. But it’s not your book. The beta reader’s responsibility is fair feedback, untouched by bias, to help the author make his or her book the best of theirs that it can be.

Well those are my seven. No list is perfect. But if you take my advice, you’ll have good success as a beta reader and probably get lots of chances to read stuff before anyone else. How cool is that?

For what it’s worth…