Saturday, October 22, 2011

5 Writing Books You Should Own

I do a lot of teaching at writers conferences, in articles and to individuals I'm editing. I find myself recommending the same books over and over and thought I'd share this list with you.

It is by no means exhaustive and I've yet to pick up any how-to writing book and not learn something but these I found exceptionally helpful. I believe if you read and apply these books you can't help but to become a good writer, assuming you have the natural gift of story-telling and a basic command of the English language.

1. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne & King.

My first writers conference someone suggested this book. It's funny to think that I almost didn't put out the $10.00 on it. It turned out to be the best money I've ever spent on my writing career. No writer should be without this book. If there's a bible of fiction writing, this would be it. I would gladly have paid nearly any amount of money to gain the knowledge I have from this one.

2. Word Painting

Setting a scene is absolutely imperative in bringing a good story to life. Yet so few new writers do this. We have instead, talking heads who play out the story in a room I picture as all white, with no background noises, no grounding of the setting in any way. This book will help paint the scene which every book, no matter its genre desperately needs. And while I know this is going to look like shameless self-promotion, I think reading my debut, Crossing Oceans (Gina Holmes) will do just as much to teach scene setting as any how to book. If painting a scene is your challenge, these two together might just finally make it click for you.

3. Techniques of the Selling Writer

This book isn't the easiest read. It's a little dry, but if you can absorb the lessons within it, it will take you from good to great in the area of laying out your story. For me, I was writing down the bones of a story, sailing through a scene so quickly that the reader felt like they were being told a story, rather than living it. What this book did for me was teach me small action, reaction units and how to write them.
For instance, instead of "She grabbed the steering wheel and sped off," "She wrapped her shaking hands around the cold leather of the steering wheel, threw her head back to be sure he wasn't still standing in her path. Part of her hoped he was. Running him over would be doing the world a service. Nothing but a dried brown meadow stood behind her... "

4. On Writing, John Gardner

This book taught me the absolutely necessary concept of not pulling the reader out of the continuous dream. He also doesn't sugar coat what it means to be a novelist, who's cut out to make it and who isn't and what he finds helpful to writers and what he finds to be a hindrance to them growing. It is a fascinating and quick read.

5. Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See

This one reminds me a lot of Bird by Bird in that it is absolutely a no-nonsense look on what it really means to be a novelist. She pulls the curtain back on the not-so glamorous life of a novelist and give such practical advice such as not trying to buy copies of your book from your publisher at deep discount, and writing charming notes that may change the course of your career and life. Great book. I reread it every year or so.

I'll do another list at another time because there are probably 20 books that have been very useful to me. But, this will get you started.

Gina Holmes is the President and founder of Inspire a Fire and Novel Rocket and award-winning author of Crossing Oceans and Dry as Rain. In 1998, Gina began her career penning articles and short stories in Ten years, and a stack of rejection letters later, she held her first published novel. She holds degrees in science and nursing and currently resides with her husband and children in southern Virginia. She works too hard, laughs too loud, and longs to see others heal from their past and discover their God-given purpose. To learn more about her, visit


Ane Mulligan said...

I've got all but the last one. It's next on my list. :) I've loved all of these books, but I think Self-Editing made the most dramatic difference on my writing. After that, it was individual concepts that grew me, but Self-Editing taught me the mechanics of good writing. :)

James L. Rubart said...

Word Painting? Hadn't heard of it till now. Will be getting it.

I agree on Self Editing. Without question a must have.

Would be interesting to compile a list of five from 50+ novelists and see which ones come up the most often.

Gina Holmes said...

That would be interesting, Jim. Word Painting is a good one. Ane, Making a Literary Life is a wonderful book. Definitely grab it.

Kathy Harris said...

I love Word Painting, and it's rarely included on lists. Glad you included it, Gina!

Cassie said...

I'm going to go and add these books to my Goodreads to-read list. Thanks!

carey b. hartman said...

gina, thank you so much for these fantabulous suggestions!

you've combined my three favorite things: writing, books & lists.

i can't wait to see what other titles you suggest!

Ellie Anthony said...

I agree Self-Editing is an invaluable resource. I would highly recommend it to any writer!

Ray said...

"if you read and apply these books you can't help but to become a good writer, assuming you have the natural gift of story-telling and a basic command of the English language."

My dear Ms. Holmes, you were doing so well up until the last half of that sentence.

I also teach writing classes, and here's what I urge all aspiring writers: do NOT feel discouraged if you don't possess the so-called natural gift of storytelling. That's largely a myth anyway: the "gift" of storytelling and a deep command of any language can, like all things literary, be learned.