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19 Books for Helping Authors Write and Craft Better Stories

May 2, 2017       Arts and Culture
19 Books for Your
Creative Writing Chops

Many kids and adults these days are taking the plunge to write for a living or commit to a career of writing fiction, creative content, marketing copy and all sorts of scribing opportunities in the age of Amazon eBooks, office outsourcing, content farms, and Wattpad.

Book lists are a perpetually convenient resource for finding what you need to be better at, craftwise or  storytelling tips--whichever you need to be a better creative writer.  We present our top 19 books for your creative writing fix.  Find the book which will help you most and knock you sox off writing that story or story-driven copy.

The Elements of Style
by Strunk and White

For constructing sentences and choosing the right words as well as a guide for using punctuation, Strunk and White's Elements of Style is a handy resource book.  When you need to refresh yourself and make your writing clearer, more concise and a better read.  But this is according to style rules that are commonly used as the preferred method for the kind of writing that is formal--like in newspapers, and magazine features. 

If you write fiction, you may work off a different style guide.  If you think Elements of Style only works best for formal writing and non-fiction writing.  But for a pocket-sized reference guide that is always handy if you are proofreading and revising your own work for a tighter read, Strunk and White's Elements of Style is as important as a dictionary or thesaurus sitting by your writer workspace.

Chicago Manual of Style

For most non-fiction writing work, for newspaper articles, essays, opinion pieces, but also useful for fiction as a style guide for making reading easier, The Chicago Manual of Style is a generational standard that is revered by many professional writers and editors as well as publishers.  Most writers will encounter this huge tome if they were working in media publications.

The latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style offers guidelines for electronic publishing and online writing as well as a collegial guide for citing references in both academic and print media environments.  Aside from a basic set of grammar usage and parsing rules for clarity, and plenty of advice for proofreaders and copyediting work, the Chicago Manual covers just about anything you need to clean up your work or start off with all the right stuff in place.

Perrine's On Story and Structure 12th Ed.
by Laurence Perrine

Perrine's On Story and Structure is an invaluable resource for writers who want a sample story as illustration for the best possible example of a any story trope, plot structure, theme, or configuration of a short story.  The book is now in its 14th edition, and is a staple of Lit classes and creative writing class for understanding of both technique and form  by some of the best short story authors that even lived.

Story and Structure uses short stories by renowned authors and runs down everything you need to know about fictional elements: from plot, rising action, foreshadowing, reversals, fractured narratives and the like.  This book has been going on as a series and can be easily found in most thrift bookstores or you can order it online.  The reference book can be used for self-study at your own pace, if you can mirror or assimilate the illustrations of how each story is put together in your own writing--aka learning technique. 

If you can wing it better for the kind of writing you want to achieve, this book only serves as your reviewer, since we often get caught up in our own writing style and technique that we forget that we need to use the right reference for seeing if we're doing it too flat, too edgy or just right.

Story Structure Architect
by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D.

This blue book is touted as a writer's guide to building plots, characters and complications.  If you need an instant reference on fiction's spread of story devices, plot devices, narrative structures as a way of outlining your story whether you are working on a novel, short story or any story-driven writing project

Get the jump on storytelling, and get your story outline put together faster, using Story Structure Architect.
  If you can't wing a story off the top of your heads, or get easily lost in the exposition of a narrative and can't find your way around to the next chapter or scene, using Story Structure Architect as guide helps you quick reference ideas on how to format parts of your story and flesh out everything. 

This book won't let you down for it lists all of the scenarios in dramatic storytelling and helps you put your story characters together with profiles and sketches of protagonists and antagonists.

On Writers and Writing
by John Gardner

John Gardner is a controversial and opinionated, ivory-towerish, literary critic for the New York Times Book Review whose series of reviews and critical essays of many contemporary writers of his time led to his idealized view of literary writing.  In his book, On Writers and Writing, he espouses that writing is the kind noble profession where authors need to have a moral compass when rendering their characters and story payoffs. 

Gardner has his own lofty ideals on both the profession, and on those who write for a living.  As both an academic, literary criticism, and entertaining reviewer for a very prestigious newspaper, John Garnder raised the bar for writing manners tuned for a high level of reading for English language stories.

Gardner picks on the works of Herman Melville, Italo Calvino, Lewis Carroll and John Updike and enumerates all the good points, readers can find in the writings of these popular authors.  He also openly disparages authors whose style and writing voice he dislikes.  If you want to know how the Ivory Tower of literature--aka--academic literary critics think, and review other people's work, Gardner is a good reference.  Even if you don't agree with all of his opinions.

Scene and Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing)
by Jack M. Bickham, Jack Heffron

Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham and Jack Heffron is a guide book that shows you how to write via structuring your story off scenes that engage the reader and hook them into turning the page until the end.  The authors teach the writers how to keep the readers engrossed into a story and following what happens next by playing with scenes.  Simple writing tricks like weighing how much some action can affect any direction the story will flow as well as always making sure the story makes sense, so the reader does not get lost at any point, or get stuck in a rut and lose interest, are what you can learn from this book. 

Another structuring method the book will show is how to dilate or stretch time by working off the conflict that your main character is facing.  You can run scenes that lengthen situations or make short work of them.

The Five-Minute Writer: Exercise and inspiration in creative writing in five minutes a day

The Five-Minute Writer is an exercise book for the most part where you play around with putting together a scene, dialogue or description to get you warmed up for the task at hand.  There is a writing-related discussion, followed by a five-minute exercise. Five minutes is what most of the sample writing exercises takes to complete and if used as a routine warm up or cool down method for improving your chops, it can help you get sharp, keen and get into the act of writing for a workday or get some good ideas down for future use.

Grab a copy, if you are often blocked for inspiration and need some pick-me-up exercise to get going for the rest of the day.

Story Trumps Structure: How to Write
Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules
by Steven James.

Story Trumps Structure
is the kind of book for writers who prefer writing on the fly, instead of planning around preset story outlines.  It also provides useful tips about working around standard creative writing lessons like the three-act structure, rising action; to make a narrative better without being over-conscious that you are weaving a tale. 

For Steven James, the heart of story lies with tension, character motivations, conflict and crisis, escalation, discovery instead of formulaic story tropes.

Although you still must know what the rules are so that you can work around them to create a better story, the book shows simple tips for the uninitiated that will help them run stories with minimal stress about making the parts come together as an organized whole.

Understanding Show, Don't Tell: (And Really Getting It)
by Janice Hardy

Award-winning author Janice Hardy (and founder of the popular writing site, Fiction University) helps you understand what the common creative writing dictum: show, don't tell, means.  In her guidebook, Understanding Show, Don't Tell, she will teach you how to spot told prose in your writing in all the structural and stylized forms they may appear. The book shows how certain writing stuff can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

Using clear, before-and-after, text to explain how words that tell more than show change the prose, the author shows you how you can weave a better story with the active voice and also show how the passive voice has its place in all narratives.  Learn how to find the right balance between description, narrative, and internalization for the strongest impact. These examples will also demonstrate why showing the wrong details can sound just as dull as telling.

Steering the Craft (2nd Edition)
by Ursula K. LeGuin

This is a creative writer's handbook for writing exercises that show you how to maneuver your prose to keep the story going.  From writing long sentences without punctuation to writing  a short piece then cutting that to half, Steering the Craft (2nd Edition) offers the legendary Ursula K. LeGuin's own spin on how to master one's craft by making your sentences flow. 

She has certain unique writer insights too, on craft, that offer the idea that narratives should keep the reader going to the next sentence and so on, even as you flesh out your story with detail, drama and character development.  If you hate mechanical writing advice from the usual creative writing textbooks, LeGuin offers a better way for writers of both fiction and nonfiction to figure out how their craft can be honed and tuned to read better.

Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion
by Jack Zipes

Jack Zipes' academic discourse on the nature of marchen (fairy tales) and their role as literary fiction in teaching morals and stories, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, is one of the most useful textbooks for understanding the fairy tale as a tool in olden times, and the many modern ways that a writer can use the fairy tale story format to easily teach almost any behavioral attitude or moral code of conduct to young or older readers.

Jack Zipes runs a very thorough rundown on the bowdlerized and unbowdlerized fairy tales of the west and explains why these tales were written, and what purpose each tale has in instilling a moral code as well as what behavior the didactic storytelling want readers to assimilate.

As a writer, you get the viewpoint of an academician, showing you the behavioral science behind fairy tale writing, and their effect on their readers--which may be helpful for creative writers engaged in writing children's stories for teaching, as well as for career writers looking to improve the way they can write adult fairy tales.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces
by  Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell published a book in 1940 outlining the seven steps a hero takes on his journey to redemption--whether that means he kills the Big Boss Bad, rescues the princess, finds secret treasure or any other plot device you may think of.  His book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is a very useful reference on how to look at the hero as a character in a journey to redemption, and how to flesh out heroic motivations, actions, tragedies and everything else that revolves around the myth of the hero.

This is a standard textbook in Literature and Creative Writing courses because it outlines to beginning writers, a perspective about characters in a story.  As a reference for character rendereing, it shows how the main protagonists as heroes are portrayed in writing by other classical writers.
Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction
by Brian Stableford

Science fiction and fantasy as a fiction genre has its own themes and plot devices that one should be familiar with so you can write your story better.  Brian Stableford's book, Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction shows readers what a space opera is, what the quest is all about in mythical epics, how tragedies work, why you can understand Star Wars better based on the basic tropes laid out in the story--rescue the princess, mad scientist story themes, save the world from the big bad apocalypse device.

As an easy reference guide for beginning science fiction or fantasy writers who are not as versed in the genre, Stableford shows us what the nuts and bolts are in clearcut examples of stories and film as well as pop culture references for easy understanding.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide
to Creating Imaginative Fiction
by Jeff Vandermeer

More like a children's book with infographics and gaudy illustrations for showing the jigsaw puzzle parts of a story, Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer is a complete visual resource for learning about writing genre.  With original drawings, visual story maps, character renderings, and writing exercises for helping young and seasoned writers understand the craft of writing horror, science-fiction and fantasy.  Wonderbook includes helpful sidebars and essays from some of the biggest names in fantasy, horror and science fiction today, such as George R. R. Martin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Catherynne M. Valente, and Karen Joy Fowler. 

In an interview with Co.Create, Vandermeer says “A recurring thing in Wonderbook is to think of stories as being more like living creatures than machines.”  Like most popular guidebooks that use visually structured information, that also includes online links to Vandermeer's own website and other web resources, Wonderbook is easier to use as a reference guide for genre writers who want to know how other good genre writers work their stories.

Realms of Fantasy Magazine

This is an out-of-print magazine that went under at about the same time it could have weathered the eBook storm surge and gotten its legs under it as one of the best literary fantasy magazine in the business.  Omni doesn't even cut it compared with the quality of short fiction writing on Realms of Fantasy Magazine by totally unknown names along with a healthy mix of seasoned writers who appear every now and then.

It is a great guide for how top notch short story writers make the grade in a paid submissions magazine, unlike the diluted content of most genre, short-story collections today.  If you want to hone your chops writing fantasy and need reference on what quality stories are worth paying for, a stack of RoF magazines off eBay should help you understand how tight western short story writers do genre fantasy short fiction and what it takes to get your story published in western markets.

Rhapsody:  Notes on Strange Fiction
by Hal Duncan

Hal Duncan has a subversive bent on writing genre but all of it is grounded on a strong knowledge of what makes fiction stories work.  Rhapsody: Notes on Strange Fiction is a collection of essays published on his blog that show how sci-fi works as a genre and all the arguments that go on about everything from fictional conceits, legitimacy as literature, style versus substance.  Duncan discusses sci-fi in a critically academic, formal discourse that breaks down into irreverent diatribes that make the book easier to read because he provides comprehensive examples and in-depth analysis for the lay reader or genre writer to follow.

It is rare these days that a competently smart writer explain to both nobs and even long-time writers what's going on with genre fiction and what's been done and what's coming up in easy to read discourse that allows us to learn more about craft and all the mechanical stuff plus all the philosophical underpinnings of sci-fi as literature itself.

On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association
edited by Mort Castle
On Writing Horror is a much beloved writing manual with popular authors like Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, and Ramsey Campbell, among 58 featured horror novelists, all offering useful and practical advice on how to successfully write and publish horror novels and short stories.  The authors help you through specific craft requirements of this fan favorite genre: how to write visceral violence, why classics like Dracula and The Exorcist are timelessly scary, and how to avoid predictable cliches--stuff that makes a scary story corny instead of memorable. 

Find out what new roads writers are taking horror novels and stories to and enjoy all the anecdotes and craft lessons that they offer.  The featured Horror authors also teach how you can stretch believability with setting and character. 

The Outlandish Companion, Volume 2
by Diana Gabaldon

If you want to know how a successful
time-travel adventure, historical romance novel is put together, grab Diana Gabaldon's The Outlandish Companion, Volume 2, which reveals complete author breakdowns of her bestselling Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, and Drums of Autumn, and also includes complete character genealogies and listings.  Gabaldon also offers her own Theory of Time Travel as well as a glossary and pronunciation guide to Gaelic terms used in her stories.


If you want to pick the author's brain about her craft, there is a FAQ section where the author makes clear everything you wanted to know about Outlander as a book series. Part of her research for the book included historical accuracy for a period setting so the book also includes essays about medicine and magic in the eighteenth century. 

The volume 2 version of The Outlandish Companion includes new listings for active fan websites and an update on the making of the TV series plus essays on what she thinks of ghosts, magic, romance, and how she puts her stories together for each book--she doesn't use a story outline but she also doesn't write in linear fashion.  Gabaldon admits that she is a slow writer and does a lot of rewrites but only averages two to three pages a day.  For fans for Outlander and historical romances, this reference guide is the perfect book for starting romance authors as well as for long time romance writers.

I Give You My Body...How I Write Sex Scenes
by Diana Gabaldon

For writers of romance, steamy scenes are almost always a part of the story so a reference book is always useful especially if it is by Diana Gabaldon.  Download a copy of I Give You My get your fix of techniques for writing sexy moments.

Writing a sex scene involves skill in making both description and narrative work for you, and Gabaldon teaches writers how to evoke a mood, wield character emotions to communicate intimacy leading to the act and other tricks of the trade. She shows writers the difference between gratuitous sex and genuine encounters that move the story forward, and how to handle less-than-savory acts that nevertheless serve a narrative purpose.

Sex in romance novels isn't like how some writers proffer that it should have a raison d'etre but each scenario has a psrt in making the story whole, which works for the more mature and astute writer than the high horse writer. 

Gabaldon offers the "Rule of Three” for involving the senses, a ready to use list of words that can be used for describing the act (euphemisms) and telling us how to use these terms.  Even if the book is only available as an eBook and audiobook it is a priceless reference guide for both new romance writers as well as seasoned erotica writers.

While there may be other good books out there for creative writing, we are recommending both core skill books and specific genre books to get a beginning writer or even a veteran author the best workdesk resources for their own chops.  You won't get any better unless you start getting work done and write stories and all of the books on this list should get you going and good.  Start a pagecount goal for each day that you can put in some writing hours.


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