Recommended books

A quick search on Amazon will reveal hundreds, if not thousands of books on the subject of writing. Here are some of my trusted favorites which I refer to and recommend time and time again (in no particular order).

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King: this is a well-respected reference book which teaches self-editing techniques, accompanied by examples and exercises. Topics include writing effective dialogue, avoiding too much exposition, mastering point of view, interior monologue and how to make your writing more sophisticated. It’s become the go-to book for many courses, too. It’s quite dry and serious in tone, though, which isn’t for everyone.

How Novels Work by John Mullan: written by the Guardian columnist responsible for ‘Elements of Fiction’, this book is essentially a collection of accessible literary criticism, discussing works by contemporary authors such as Ian McEwan, Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith and Donna Tartt, and analysing what makes them so enjoyable to read.

Into the Woods by John Yorke: written by a screenwriter who is responsible for many UK television dramas, this book discusses the underlying structure of storytelling. You’ll never watch a programme in the same way after reading this, and it has numerous applications to novel writing too. 

On Editing by Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price: this book is as much for writers as editors. It will teach you how to analyse, edit and redraft your manuscript. It also includes a section on submitting to agents in both the UK and US.

Write to be Published by Nicola Morgan: this book is primarily aimed at writers hoping to secure an agent and a publishing deal and is packed full of honest insight and advice delivered in the crabbit old bat’s inimitable style. She has also written two shorter books on how to write a synopsis and query letter, and many authors I work with find her approach is not only refreshing but can even help to make this daunting prospect enjoyable. 

The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman: a New York-based literary agent, Lukeman has written a series of books covering different elements of writing craft. This one is full of practical and succinct advice, and shows how a successful plot interweaves with other key elements of storytelling. I also regularly refer to his book on punctuation. Fiction allows you to break the rules, and he’s a big advocator of this non-prescriptive approach, as am I.

How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman: full of entertaining and sound advice about what not to do and pitfalls to avoid when writing, illustrated with plenty of examples. I regularly recommend this book, especially to less experienced writers. 

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith: an insightful read rather than a guide in the traditional sense, by the master of deceptive simplicity and one of my all-time favourite authors. Highsmith shows how to develop a tiny grain of an idea into a novel, revealing snippets of autobiographical information along the way. 

The Magic of Fiction by Beth Hill: this indispensable reference book, written by editor colleague Beth Hill, is a guide to honing and crafting the various elements that go into a work of fiction. I refer to it so regularly that it rarely makes its way back onto my bookcase. 

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody: this guide to plotting and story structure adopts a methodology originally developed for screenwriting and successfully applies it to novel writing. It’s strong on theme and genre, and many writers swear by this book. Even if you don’t follow the beat sheet approach, it may inspire you to look at how and what you write in a completely different way. 

On Writing by Stephen King: subtitled ‘A Memoir on the Craft’, this book by one of the world’s best-selling authors is a book of two halves. The first part is a memoir of his childhood and his journey to becoming a writer, and it’s both endearing and insightful. The second part is where he shares his opinions on writing in the form of a ‘writer’s toolkit’, providing helpful advice in an entertaining and self-deprecating way. Some of his advice is perhaps controversial, especially regarding adverbs, but from a writer’s perspective it’s undoubtedly an interesting insight into a remarkable talent.