Here’s a quick list of some of the more useful how-to-write books on my shelf. One of the first things I learned about writing fiction (back in the late ’70s) was that I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Plenty of writers have written helpful books! All of the out-of-print books in the list seem to be available used from Amazon.
If you don’t own half a dozen how-to-write books, at the very least, or if you own them but none of them have underlined passages and notes scribbled in the margin, you’re not serious about writing. And by the way, the process of writing notes in the margin is easier with a real paper book than with an e-book. There’s no substitute for ink!
In my view, even if I only learn one useful technique from a $20 book, the book has paid for itself. And any decent how-to book is a lot more valuable than that.
Scott Meredith, Writing to Sell (out of print). Meredith is a terrible Philistine. He doesn’t give a crap about art. But if you want to sell books, this is a great resource. His advice on manuscript preparation and on the market is out of date, but on plot and structure he’s solid.
Jean Z. Owen, Professional Fiction Writing (out of print). A fine all-around introduction to basic techniques. Not a long or difficult book — only 130 pages. Chapters on plot, theme, viewpoint, openings, characterization, flashbacks, transitions, dialog, writing habits, and more.
Hallie & Whit Burnett, Fiction Writer’s Handbook. The magazine Whit Burnett edited, Story, is no longer around, but he published (in some cases for the first time) some of the most important writers of the 20th century.
Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages.
Orson Scott Card, Characters & Viewpoint. Just buy a copy. Don’t even stop to ask yourself whether you should.
Ansen Dibell, Plot. Chapters on handling exposition, viewpoint, openings, pacing, and more.
John Gardner, The Art of Fiction. Gardner assumes that you want to write literature. But really, if you’re writing genre fiction as well as it can be written, you’re writing literature! The chapter on “Common Errors” is worth the price of the book by itself.
William Cane, Write like the Masters (seems now to be titled Fiction Writing Master Class, but if the table of contents is to be believed, it’s the same book). An assortment of practical lessons you can learn from Dickens, Melville, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Hemingway, Orwell, Salinger, and others.
Ronald B. Tobias, Theme & Strategy.
Renni Browne & Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Showing vs. telling, point of view, dialog mechanics, interior monologue, characterization, and more.
Rust Hills, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Hills was at one time the fiction editor of Esquire, and his slim book is packed with wise insights.
For general inspiration, especially when you’re just starting out as a writer, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland would be hard to beat.
And of course, less about technique than about whatever he feels like saying about writing, Telling Lies for Fun & Profit by Lawrence Block.