Craft and How-To Books

Reading: Time Riders by Alex Scarrow
Listening to:  Angry Birds (weeee!!! squark, squark.  OINK!)
Watching:  Winners and Losers

So, leading up to our 20th anniversary RWA conference, discussion on our loops turn to all the wonderful craft and how-to books available for writers.

When I first started writing, I craved genre-specific how-to books.  Sure, there were heaps of ‘creative writing’ books out there, but none that suited my particular needs.  For example, I really hate “let’s do a writing exercise!” books, and ones that reference literary fiction or authors I have no interest in reading.  I wanted practical stuff!  “If only there was a book on effective editing/writing love scenes/conflict/how to structure a story, etc.” was my familiar lament.   I went through a bunch (mainly from the library) that, although okay, didn’t give me any greater insight.

Then I picked up The Secrets of Successful Romance Writing by Emma Darcy and The Art of Romance Writing by Valerie Parv.  FINALLY!  Information specific to my genre! Sure, at the time I was writing sweeping historical sagas not category romance, but still, much of the information contained in those two small volumes hit home.   And slowly, more and more authors began to publish craft books.  And then I discovered Writers Digest.

It was a bit of an obsession, this burning desire to acquire how-tos, and for a few years I was blissfully caught up in the excitement of buying a book and absorbing every detail.  Then came my first sale, and looking at my shelves, I realized I’d moved on from the basics – writing a gripping first chapter, effective dialogue, what is tension/pace  – and needed something different to satisfy my thirst for information, like procrastination, juggling life and writing, better ways of plotting.

So below are a list of recommended books I’ve actually READ 😀

Craft Books

  • Writing Romance – Vanessa Grant (Self-Counsel Press) – a good overall book to start, which gives some great advice as well as practical ways to structure a synopsis
  • Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies – Leslie Wainger  (Hungry Minds Inc US) written by an Executive Editor of Harlequin Books, this book is an easy-to-follow guide to writing, pitching and selling your romance novel
  • Story – Robert McKee (Methuen Publishing) I started reading this book after I was fortunate enough to attend McKee’s Story seminar.  Sure, it’s aimed at screenwriting, but the wealth of information this legendary guy brings is totally worth it, from structure, writing compelling scenes, dialogue and turning points
  • Writing the Breakout Novel – Donald Maass (Writers Digest)  Love The Donald (one of New York’s leading agents) and love this book.  It gives you practical ways of improving your story, from layering in tension, to increasing the stakes for your characters.  Use in conjunction with his workbook.
  • The Writer’s Journey – Chris Vogler (Michael Wiese Productions) Vogler contends that “all stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies” and his book details and expands on those elements.  A great book for both plotters (as a plotting tool) and pantsers (as an editing tool)
  • Writing the Fiction Synopsis – Pam McCutcheon (Gryphon Books for Writers) – if you’ve ever wrestled with a synopsis (okay, all of you??) this book breaks it down into easily understood pieces
  • Book In A Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days  – Victoria Lynn Schmidt (Writers Digest) – love the layout of this book: spiral bound with easily flippable pages.  It’s also a great way to plan out your first draft.


  • The Writer’s Handbook for Editing and Revision – Rick Wilber (NTC)
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – Renni Browne and Dave King (HarperCollins)

Two fabulous editing books that give you practical examples on how to strengthen your writing.


  • Goal, Motivation, Conflict – Debra Dixon (Gryphon Books for Writers) – one of my writing staples.  If your characters don’t have GMC then your story will suck and you’ll lose reader interest.  Trust me.
  • The Sociopath Next Door – Martha Stout (Three Rivers Press) – fascinating study into sociopathic personality types
  • The Complete Writers Guide to Heroes and Heroines: 16 Master Archetypes – Tami Cowden, Carol LeFever, Sue Viders – brilliant for creating believable characters.


  • The Productive Writer: Tips and Tools to Help You Writer More, Stress Less and Create Success – Sage Cohan (Writers Digest)
  • Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within –  by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett (Mariner Books)
  • The Procrastinator’s Handbook: Mastering the Art of Doing it Now – Rita Emmett (Walker & Company)

And of course, I have stacks of books on my TBR pile that look awesome but I’ve yet to delve into:

  • The Artful Edit: On The Practice of Editing Yourself  – Susan Bell (WW Norton)
  • Lights, Camera, Fiction!  A Movie Lover’s Guide to Writing Fiction – Alfie Thompson (Running Press)
  • Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need – Blake Snyder (Michael Wiese Productions)
  • What Would Your Character Do?Personality Quizzes for Analyzing your Characters – Eric Maisel (Writers Digest)
  • The Hero Within: Six Archetypes we Live By – Carol Pearson (HarperOne)

Do you have any favorite writing books?  I’d love to hear about them because you can never have too many books 😀


10 comments on “Craft and How-To Books

  1. Hi Paula, fantastic topic in the lead up to conference! 🙂 I noticed you’ve mentioned several books on my shelf already – GMC by D.Dixson, The Art of Writing Romance by V.Parv, Writing the Breakout Novel by D.Maass, The Writers’ Journey by C.Vogler.

    I know I posted this list over on Romaus but it’s worth sharing again!

    My favourite craft how-to book for synopsis writing (as I really suck at it) is THE DREADED SYNOPSIS:A WRITING AND PLOTTING GUIDE – Elizabeth Sinclair : it’s probably my most worn out/well used synopsis reference book on the shelf. It’s so practical and it breaks down paragraph by paragraph how to write a synopsis. Hugely practical and I highly recommend it.

    Others I refer back to include PASSIONATE INK: A GUIDE TO WRITING EROTIC ROMANCE – Angela Knight : This book is a hell of a great read, even if it’s geared towards erotic romance writing (not everyone’s genre preference, I know). I’m a huge fan of Angela’s books, and after reading this one I deem it incredibly practical as there’s a section in it that has great Goal/Motivation/Conflict charts/tables (internal and external) on the characters from one of her books. I liked how she outlined each major turning point for each character along the way.

    ignore the erotic romance slant if that’s not your cup of tea but it has fantastic how-to chapters on everything from creating intimacy, talking/writing sex scenes, sexual tension, the love story vs.erotic sex. I’ve always struggled with writing sex scenes – are they too sweet, too hot, too explicit etc. How do I build the tension etc. this is a great reference book.

    EDITING MADE EASY – B.Kaplan : I grew up in the ’70’s here in
    Australia when “whole language” was the trend in public schools and so
    grammar was never taught until my later primary years but by then I
    struggled to understand everything about grammar. This book has some
    quick easy reference pages to things like pronouns, collective nouns,
    cliches, tautology, words we can do without in sentence, punctuation,
    often mis-used words (ie.compliment/complement, accept/except etc.).
    It’s a starting point for your editing.

    I also have a Grammar Guide (lent it to a friend and can’t remember the name of it at the moment) that is written for upper primary school aged children that I refer to for grammar assistance from time to time.

    The two are very similar in content and any one would make for a
    great read/reference book on your writers’ shelf. All have lots of
    great chapters/questions on everything from plotting, to GMC, to the
    hero/heroine, using POV, the black moment, sensuality/sexuality,
    dialogue, marketing, query letters & synopsis writing, etc. Very

    These days I’m pretty discriminatory about what reference books I buy. Like you, I’ve moved on from the basics but am always looking to improve my skills but it has to be good to get me to buy it. I’m eying off THE FIRE IN FICTION – D.Maass – might have to check it out at this year’s conference. 🙂

  2. Hi Paula – great post. I thought I had a lot of books till I saw your list 🙂

    When I first decided to write, my fav book was “Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies”. A few years down the track and I reckon my favs are Kate Walker’s 12 point guide, Heroes and Heroines and Debra Dixon’s GMC.

    See you at the conference 🙂

  3. Hi Paula!

    Hehe, I realise you said you don’t like “let’s do a writing exercise!” books, but one of my absolute favourites is “The Dramatic Writer’s Companion” by Will Dunne ( US$8.40 on Kindle). It is written with a playwright focus, but like e.g., Robert McKee, provides a wealth of knowledge of developing depth of story.

    As one reviewer said, “The Dramatic Writer’s Companion offers challenging, thought-provoking exercises rather than formulaic ‘how-to’ solutions” and I totally agree. You can pick and choose what works for you, in no particular order, but Mr. Dunne’s book lies a wealth of ideas.

    Great blog topic! Cheers! And have a blast at the RWAustralia conference next month!


  4. @Joanne D – I’m counting down the days 😀
    @JoanneL – I might have to see if I can borrow that one!
    BTW Kylie, I also have the workshop CD tute to accompany The Fire in Fiction, so extra bonus 🙂

  5. I think anything with ‘made easy’ or ‘for dummies’ in the title seems to find it’s way on to my book shelf. I do have a few, though, that I would highly recommend:
    1) GMC by Debra Dixon
    2) Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
    3) The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines
    4) Deadly Doses – The Writer’s Guide to Poisons. Admittedly, though, I usually pull this one down from the shelf when I’m trying to make a point with DH.

  6. @Shannon – sometimes the ‘made easy’ titles are a little too easy, though 🙂 Which is where I love the old ‘flick through’ to check whether I really need the book or not.

    And I’m pretty sure I haven’t met many Writers Digest books I haven’t liked. Yet…!

  7. Exciting to see my how-to book here. One that’s not so well known is Heart & Craft (Allen & Unwin 2009), a collection of how-we-did-it articles and writing hints I collected from lovely authors like Robyn Donald, Helen Bianchin, Jennie Adams, Lilian Darcy, Elizabeth Rolls and many more. Reading the struggles of other writers and what they learned along the way will hopefully encourage and inspire. Conference bookstall will have this too. Can’t wait to see everybody there. Valerie

  8. PS Forgot to mention that I’m with you, Paula, on disliking writing exercises in how-to books. Makes me feel like a schoolkid again and I didn’t like it the first time around LOL. Much prefer actual examples showing how techniques work. My latest hot fav. how-to is Doctor Who The Writer’s Tale, a year of emails from the writer of the current series, a massive book but totally enthralling to see how a brilliant writer’s mind works. The David Tennant photos don’t hurt either.

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