There is a writing book for every problem.
When people find out that I review how-to books for writers, they often ask me, “What’s your favorite?” I always sweat and stammer and give a vague answer, because how can I choose just one?
I have over 200 how-to books on my shelf, and those are just the keepers. My favorites are the practical ones. Airy theory is nice, but I prefer the books that get right into the trenches with me, through concrete examples and positive action steps.
Even though I can’t recommend a one-size-fits-all book, I’m good at recommending specific books for specific problems. So here are ten books to take with you on your novel writing journey. Whether you’re looking for help with character, plot, or just getting your butt in the chair, these are my top ten problem-solvers.
For help with plot, read Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. This book breaks down popular novels to show you exactly how they were put together. Understanding story structure is the fastest way for a writer to “level up” her craft.
For help with characters, read Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress. This book gives authors tools to create three-dimensional characters. All the examples are positive ones, focusing on what works, rather than what does not.
For help with emotion, read Writing with Emotion, Tension and Conflict by Cheryl St. John. This is the book to read after you’ve mastered plot and character, because the deeper you can make your readers feel things, the more they will connect with your novel.
For help with dialogue, read Writing Vivid Dialogue by Rayne Hall. This is a book I’ve wanted for years. There are dozens of very bad books about dialogue on the shelf. Ignore them. This is the one you need.
To learn about stakes, read Story Stakes by H.R. D’Costa. It will give you tools you to make your stories as gripping as possible. There’s an art to upping the stakes, and this book will show you how.
For help with outlines, read Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland. It’s truly the outline book for everyone, whether you’re a meticulous plotter or a fly-by-your-seat pantser. This book will show you how to use an outline and why you should.
To learn good habits, read Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox. It’s guaranteed to help you get your butt into the writing chair every day. The books listed above are great for story craft, but it’s the daily grind that will make a real writer out of you.
To learn time management, read Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy. It’s the book you need when just getting to the writing desk is a struggle. This book will help you beat procrastination once and for all.
To push yourself, read Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth by James Scott Bell. It’s inspirational, but it includes solid instruction along with its cheerleading. This book is about never-ending self-improvement, stressing the inner work a writer must do to have a long-term career.
And for a dose of wisdom, read Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel by Lawrence Block. For so many reasons, this book will always be special to me. It’s a practically a complete writing course in one volume and is so full of good advice it’s like having a paperback-sized mentor you can consult at any time.
About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She gives back to the writing community by reviewing how-to books on the Writing Slices blog.
It takes guts to write something. It takes even more guts to delete it.
I recently got a new job working as a part-time editor for a small press. The first book I was assigned to work on was a memoir called Ginger Stands her Ground. It was written by the bravest writer I’ve ever met.
Ginger Ford has lived with polio for 66 of her 70 years. Her life’s story details the complexities of being disabled before the ADA. In the era before ramps and automatic doors, Ginger had to learn to adapt to a world not built for her. She recalls trying to hide her leg braces to fit in at school, the terror of learning to drive a hand-controlled car, the near-impossibility of finding an accessible college, and the worry that she’d never get married and have a family of her own.
But here’s the thing. Ginger Stands her Ground is not a downer. Ginger has a relentlessly cheerful spirit and she always, always looks on the bright side of things. It’s as if the word “resilient” was coined just for her.
The memoir she wrote was utterly fascinating. It had a problem, though. A big one. The manuscript she turned in was 235 pages long, but the story effectively ended on page 200. The final 35 pages were well-written, but they didn’t fit the current story whatsoever.
I paced the floor, agonizing. Could I really ask her to lop off the entire last section of her book? How would she take it? Would she complain to my boss? This was my first project with Fifth Avenue Press. Ginger was a first-time author. I saw so many ways this could go badly.
But I’m an experienced editor, and I knew my instincts were right. Those 35 pages had to go. So I wrote the most gentle editorial letter of my life, explaining what needed to be done, and then I held my breath, waiting to see what Ginger would do.
She cut those pages without a second glance.
It was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen a writer do.
Some people might think it wasn’t a big deal, but let me tell you something. It was. I’ve seen professional writers who’ve been writing for decades fight to preserve pages they know aren’t working. I’ve been one of those writers from time to time.
It would be one thing if I’d asked her to cut bad or ineffective writing. But I was asking her to cut pages that were very, very good. Later, Ginger took that section and submitted it as a stand-alone piece to the Writer’s Digest competition, where she won an honorable mention. But at the time, she didn’t know she could do that. For all she knew, removing those pages meant they were lost forever. But her editor asked her to remove 1/6 of her book, so she immediately ripped it out and didn’t look back.
That’s not just brave. That’s like, writer superhero brave.
And the thing is? She didn’t think she did anything remarkable. She approached the editing of her memoir the way she approaches everything—with cheerful good humor and the determination to make the best of the situation, no matter what.
If you want to check out Ginger Stands her Ground, it’s on sale now at Amazon and everywhere else. Ginger isn’t on social media, but she gave me permission to post this, and I’ll be sure to pass along any words of encouragement left in the comments.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who works with all kinds of writers, especially brave ones.
No matter what you got your mom for mother’s day, it’s not as cool as what my kids got me.
I have wanted a unicycle for years. I was always delighted to see one-wheel riders in parades and shows. Seeing a unicycle for sale made me sigh wistfully. I watched videos on YouTube and thought “someday…”
Then I came across this quote.
It made me think about what I was capable of. And then I realized why I’d never bought myself a unicycle and why I’d never tried to ride one.
For twenty-five years, I lived with a partner who didn’t think I was capable of anything. He didn’t think I could be a successful writer, or a good mother, or a skilled editor, or an inspiring teacher. Even when I clearly was all those things, he insisted I was not. He second-guessed every independent decision I made and never once told me he was proud of me. When we divorced, I told him I’d be fine. He snorted, “No, you won’t.”
But I am. I am more than fine. In the past few years, I’ve learned just how capable I am on my own. I sold my house and bought another. I dealt with evil realtors and surly bankers and the odd rules of court. My son needed surgery at a special clinic in another state, so I arranged it and financed it. I launched my oldest kid into college. I held my little family together.
Turns out my kids were watching the whole time. And they always knew what I was capable of. So when I asked for a unicycle for mother’s day, they didn’t try to talk me out of it. They didn’t undermine my confidence by asking, “are you sure?” Without any hesitation or debate, they pooled their money and bought me the exact model I wanted.
They gave me more than a unicycle. They gave me a symbol. Every time I ride it, I’ll know how much my kids believe in me. No matter how many times I fall off, they expect me to get right back on again.
I’ve been practicing twenty minutes a day, wobbling up and down the driveway, clinging to the garden wall. Losing my balance, falling off, getting on again. But I’m not giving up.
I’m going to learn to ride this unicycle.
Because I can do anything.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She is finding her balance.