Books on Writing

The art of writing stories in literary fiction is a vast topic not easily captured in a single book. And there are numerous books on the craft of writing that, while important, miss the concepts of most value to the literary fiction author.

Below are books, many out-of-print but often seen in used bookstores or on the Internet, that have been graded (with editor comments included) on the value for the literary fiction storyteller. Other authors’ reviews are also included.

What books have you found useful and why? Write a review in the comments section.

Four Books Narrative

H. Porter Abott

ISBN 0 521 65969 8

An in-depth academic analysis about narrative that is full of valuable insights for the fiction writer, but is not a craft book.

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Five Books Poetics


ISBN 0-486-29577-X

Where it all began. Always relevant, although a little sexist for modern times. A must for every author’s reading.

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Four Books Burning Down the House

Charles Baxter

ISBN 1-55597-270-5

Nine essays on Fiction. Truth from the publisher “. . . handbook of good sense and sound taste in fiction.
” At least four of these essays will give thought-provoking insight into mysteries of fiction.

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One Book Narrative Design: A Writer’s Guide To Structure

Madison Smart Bell

ISBN 0-393-97123-6

Analyses of a number of stories that go awry for the aspiring writer in a pedantic, pseudoacademic way. A student’s time better spent elsewhere.
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One Book Writing the Novel

Lawrence Block

ISBN 0-89879-208-8

Thoughts more suited to the writer of commercial fiction than writers struggling to create stories as art forms.
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Five Books The Rhetoric of Fiction

Wayne C. Booth

ISBN 0-226-06558-8

Almost without argument, the most in depth and illuminating text on fiction writing. This book is essential to the library of any serious author of fiction.
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Three Books The Rhetoric of Irony

Wayne C. Booth

ISBN 0-226-06553-7

A difficult read but one of the few places writers can think about irony as it relates to their fiction.
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Four Books Picture and Conversations

Elizabeth Bowen

ISBN 0 7139 0990 0

This book should be purchased for the short section, “Notes on Writing the Novel.” Slightly disjointed in presentation but incredible in its worth to a writer.
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Two Books Writing a Novel

John Braine

ISBN 0-07-007112-8

Fatherly advice, loosely presented, about novel writing.
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Five Books Understanding Fiction

Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren


Well chosen stories with commentary that makes sense. A classic.
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Two Books Syntax: A Linguistic Introduction To Sentence Structure

Keith Brown and Jim Miller

ISBN 0-415-08421-0

A linguistic academic text never to be read cover to cover but with some valuable ideas that a writer can use to improve.
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Five Books Strategies of Drama: The Experience of Form

Oscar Lee Brownstein

ISBN 0-313-27754-0

Although not targeted for prose writers, this work presents thoughts on dramatic structure that would make every disgruntled reader of contemporary fiction wish it was required reading before writing stories for publication. Expensive but worth the investment.

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Four Books Analytical Sourcebook of Concepts in Dramatic Theory

Oscar Lee Brownstein and Darlene M. Daubert

ISBN 0-313-21309-7

Like bread and water, an essential resource for understanding elements of drama useful for the serious writer of stories.

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Three Books Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

Janet Burroway

ISBN 0-321-11795-6

This has many editions and is consider essential by many writers. There are many stories, and there is a dependency on the stories for illustration of points. Using stories to illustrate points can be unclear, and may not be efficient for some. Also there is emphasis on journal keeping, freewriting, and clustering. These gimmicks for writers can detract from the real joy of dramatic structure in a story. Although not a widespread opinion, there are many other more useful texts.
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Five Books The Masks of God: Creative Mythology

Joseph Campbell

ISBN 0 14 01.9440 1

This book, and the others by Campbell, has valuable ideas about humanity and mythology that are endlessly useful to fiction writers. Not about craft. About stories. And you’ll get a sense of how stories shape our world.
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One Book Writing Popular Fiction

Robyn Carr

ISBN 0-89879-515-X

A book of tips for genre writers. Not worthy of purchase by someone eager to learn literary writing. However, it provides interesting comparison into the differences between genre and literary writing.
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Three Books American Short Story Masterpieces

Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks (Eds)

ISBN 0-440-20423-2

Good source of stories from the last half of the twentieth century.
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Four Books The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction

R.V. Cassill

ISBN 0-393-96663-1

A perfect source for a variety of stories old and new.
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Four Books Creating Fiction

Julie Checkoway (Ed)

ISBN 1-884910-40-8

Essays by a number of contemporary authors on thinking about writing. Something of value for almost everyone writing literary fiction stories.
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Four Books The Shapes of Prose

Charles M. Cobb

ISBN 0-03-011326-1

A well organized and useful college text that provides examples and content on elements of fiction writing.
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Five Books Creating Literary Stories: A Fiction Writer’s Guide

William H. Coles

ISBN 0996190368

An essential guide for every writer of fiction. LEARN: Character, Narration, Structure, Dialogue, Point of View, Writing in Scene, Drama (Conflict-Action-Resolution), Humor, Revision.
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Five Books Literary Story as an Art Form: A Textbook for Writers

William H. Coles

ISBN 1434391582

Specifically deals with story structure and literary fiction with examples and ideas on purpose and craft to achieve the best written story possible. An excellent resource and good value.
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One Book The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction

Barnaby Conrad

ISBN 0-89879-395-5

Primarily oriented to genre fiction, it is loosely organized in a name-dropping style that is of low value for the serious writer.
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Four Books Mythology

Arthur Cotterell & Rachael Storm

ISBN 0-7548-1488-2

An encyclopedic presentation of myth. Wonderful images to stimulate the imagination.
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Three Books The Art of Fiction

R.F. Dietrich and Roger H. Sundell

ISBN 0-03-089221-X

Many stories grouped to illustrated various aspects of writing fiction.
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Two Books The Complete Notebooks of Henry James

Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers

ISBN 0-19-503782-0

It’s fair to say Henry James not only wrote from a stilted, often arcane, time, but that he was verbose to extreme and arrogant beyond most contemporary readers’ tolerance. Yet, he created stories that have lasted and served as resources for some of the greatest films of our time: The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove, Washington Square, for examples. The notebooks, in general, are tough reading, and are meant only for reference. But there is insight galore in the thinking of James about writing and the novel that can aid any writer’s career.

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Five Books The Art of Dramatic Writing

Lajos Egri

Simon and Schuster, NY: 1960

Originally written primarily for playwrights, it provides rich insight into dramatic writing. Worthy for finding (copyright in 1946) and adding to your library.

Two Books In Praise of Comedy

James K. Feibleman

ISBN 0-8180-1152-1

The role of humor in fiction is delicate. This book, off the mark for writers at times, does address comedy with thoughts that are valuable for the storyteller and can compliment a study of irony (see Booth).
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Five Books Aspects of the Novel

E. M. Forster

ISBN 0-15-609180-1

An invaluable classic. Here is where the discussion of “flat” characters was memorably introduced.
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Five Books The Art of Fiction

John Gardner

ISBN 0-394-72544-1

On the theory and process of writing creative fiction. Here is the idea of continuous fictional dream: thinking about it and why it is effective. This is a classic that seems to come in and out of favor. But the ideas are invaluable whether Gardner’s work is in vogue or not.
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Four Books On Becoming a Novelist

John Gardner

ISBN 0-06-014956-6

Helpful guide for novelists to think about their craft.
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Five Books On Moral Fiction

John Gardner

ISBN 0-456-0522-66

Ideas that every author should digest and then incorporate in his or her approach to writing. Many reprints.
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Four Books The Art of the Short Story

Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn

ISBN 0-321-33722-0

A valued collection of stories with a very useful section on writing. A good resource for great stories and for learning about writing.
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One Book The Art & Craft of Novel Writing

Oakley Hall

ISBN 1-884910-02-5

A poorly organized text with a somewhat random presentation of ideas and examples. Many concepts seem newly discovered by the author rather than well thought out for presentation. Writing style is pretentious.
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One Book Discovery and Response: The Strategies of Fiction

James Hart, Stanley Johnson, and Judah Bierman

A collection of stories for analysis. Provides no real advantage or learning over reading the stories anywhere. The introduction gives abstractions and little direction for determining the strategies of fiction noted in the title. Questions posed at the end of stories are generally not helpful to writers at any stage in their career.

One Book Fiction as Process

Carl Hartman and Hazard Adams

A collection of stories. Not recommended except for an interesting side-by-side presentations of two different translations into English of Anton Chekhov’s “The Kiss.”

One Books Lit from Within

Kevin Hayworth and Dinty W. Moore

ISBN 978-08214-1948-9

A rather opinioned collection of essays useful primarily because many of the authors are actively teaching fiction writing (2010).

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Two Books Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

Patricia A. Highsmith

ISBN 0-312-04867-X

A book for genre writers that may be of interest to a literary writer interested in finding the energy that suspense brings to writing. (For a literary example of effective—and rarely equaled—use of suspense see Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky.) Although light on educational value, this book has an interesting section on readers’ attitudes towards heroes. Liking a hero is not necessary, but readers must have interest and caring, and believe the writer cares also. Solid thoughts.
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Five Books Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular

Rust Hills

ISBN 0-395-44268-0

An essential, easy to comprehend, complete overview that increases in value with each read.
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Five Books The New Oxford Guide to Writing

Thomas S. Kane

ISBN 0-19-504538-6

An absolute must for a writer in any stage of career. Always something discoverable that can be usefully applied to better fiction writing.
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Four Books Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction

David Michael Kaplan

ISBN 1-884910-19-X

An excellent text easily read that emphasizes what we, as writers, know but don’t think about and also gives what we may not know about new ways of thinking about revision.
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Two Books On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Stephen King

ISBN 0743455967

A pleasurable look at one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and successful story tellers. Although not an instruction manual, nor aimed at literary fiction, it is valuable to see the how a very successful author sees his writing.
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Four Books Metaphors We Live By

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

ISBN 0-226-46801-1

Fiction writers need to be in control of metaphor and rarely are. This book helps bring metaphor into focus.
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Three Books Light Up the Cave

Denise Levertov

ISBN 0-8112-0813-3

Levertov is a poet who wrote this and another book of prose. For the fiction writer, the thoughts on relationships of politics to writing alone is worth having the book. But almost everything she comments on has fresh insight into how writers should be developing their intellect.
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One Book Steering the Craft

Urusula K. Le Guin

ISBN 0933377460
Almost anti-intellectual with a chatty, bloated style and organization that is of little use to the serious writer.
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Four Books Introduction by Tom Wolff in The Secret Life of Our Times: New Fiction from Esquire

Gordon Lish

ISBN 0-385-06215-X

These stories, only a few are valuable for a serious literary writer’s library, has this introduction by Tom Wolff that has become a classic in its time. Worthy of a search.

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Three Books Writing Great Short Stories

Margaret Lucke

ISBN 0-07-0390770

Formatted as a self-help book (guide), it presents valuable thinking, particularly about structure and motivation. Ideas such as bio charts for characters seem a little grade-schoolish, yet there is valuable material throughout.
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Five Books Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting

Robert McKee

ISBN 0-06-039168-5

Although written for screenwriters, the book has essential ideas of story creation that should be pillars of reference for the literary fiction writer.
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One Book Novel Writing

Evan Marshall

ISBN 1-58297-062-9

Although some valid ideas, text is presented as if writing a novel is like instructions for putting together a doghouse that comes unassembled from the manufacturer.
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Four Books Storytelling & the Art of Imagination

Nancy Mellon

ISBN 1-85230-339-5

Not specifically for writers, this book addresses the power of storytelling in ways that are useful to a writer. It provides expansive thinking about story.
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Five Books Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript

Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald

ISBN: 0-06-463325-X

A classic in common-sense, invaluable advice on structuring the writing of a novel. Application of the principles makes an author more efficient, if not significantly more readable.
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One Book How Stories Mean

John Metcalf and J.R. Struthers (Eds).

ISBN 0-88984-127-6

Forty-seven essays with little coherence.
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Five Books Points of View: An anthology of Short Stories

James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny (Eds)

ISBN 0451628721
Multiple editions available. Excellent resource of stories by famous authors presented as a study of point of view. Worthy of purchase—any edition.
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Two Books The Structure of the Novel

Edwin Muir

ISBN-13: 978-1406725582

A succinct view of the novel (1928) from a series of lectures by Muir–valuable mostly as a window in time to view the development of the novel.

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Four Books Lectures on Literature

Vladimir Nabokov

ISBN 0-15-6027755

Simply delightful. And informative!
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Four Books Western Wind

John Frederick Nims

ISBN 0072819596

For poets and so good. But it can also help storytellers. First, it hones appreciation of words and their usage. Second, it commands a knowledge of the essence of poetry. Poetic language in literary stories is tricky to use. Poetics is different than prose, and to mix the two without knowledge and talent can kill the potential of a great literary fiction story. This book can help shape a prose-author’s sense of poetry and help direct the restricted use of poetic ideation in prose.
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Two Books Conflict, Action, and Suspense

William Noble

ISBN 0-89879-634-2

Useful ideas about writing but ideas that are better presented, and more easily grasped, in other books.
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One Book Fiction Writer’s Workshop

Josip Novakovich

ISBN 1-884910-39-4

Not recommended for a serious literary writer. The tone of the presentation is more getting-published than creating art.
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Four Books Art and Ardor

Cythia Ozick

ISBN 0-394-53082-9

Erudite (to extreme at times) essays that are a pleasure to read. Not for learning craft, but essential for learning to think about writing.
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One Book Story and Structure

Laurence Perrine

ISBN 0-15-583786-9

Stories by published authors organized by fiction elements such as plot and character. Quality of stories varies. Comment is minimal and not worth seeking copies out for purchase unless you need some of stories for your reference library.
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Three Books Writers (2nd in a SERIES)

George Plimpton (Ed)

ISBN 0 14 00.4541 4

This is the second of four books of the collected interviews of famous authors from the Paris Review. Hemingway, Moore, Porter, Ellison, and Huxley are among fourteen included in this book. Other books in the series include Forster, Faulkner, Warren, Bellow, Welty, Dinesen, Steinbeck, and many others.
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Five Books Beyond Style

Gary Provost

ISBN 0-89879-314-9

With so many books on fiction, it is amazing that this provides well stated and well thoughtout ideas. Can be essential in a writer’s growth with fiction skills.
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One Book Writing the Natural Way

Gabriele Lusser Rico

ISBN 0-87477-9618

Filled with pseudoscience and aberrant psychology as a basis for writing technique and success. This book would not be recommended by any serious writing who loves the literary fiction story.
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Five Books Techniques of Fiction Writing: Measure and Madness

Leon Surmelian

Doubleday, NY: 1968

A compact, clearly stated book on fiction writing. Difficult to find.

Two Books Making Shapely Fiction

Jerome Stern

ISBN 0-393-02929-8

About fiction, but is organized “Accuracy to Zigzag” alphabetically. Some topics are not really shapes, and the book’s striving for originality with unique presentation–and only some educational value for the student of fiction–is not worthy to recommend.
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Five Books The Elements of Style

William Strunk and E.B. White

ISBN 0-205-30902-X

The essence. Every writer can use a reread of this pocketbook every few months.
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Two Books One Writer’s Beginnings

Eudora Welty

ISBN 0-674-63925-1

Musings that were originally delivered as lectures at Harvard. Interesting but not directly helpful for a serious writer’s improvement.
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Five Books Structure, Style, and Usage: Rhetoric and Reasoning

Hulon Willis

ISBN 0-03-003386-1

About writing and not specifically about literary fiction. But a most valuable adjunct to the improvement of writing for any purpose. Highly recommended.
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Four Books The Common Reader

Virginia Wolff

ISBN 0-15-602778-X

A collection of essays (copyright 1925), a few which some may find arcane, that have a number of useful thoughts for contemporary writers. “‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights'” has thoughts to ponder.

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Three Books How Fiction Works

James Wood

ISBN-13: 978-0-312-42847-1

A valuable discussion on “unidentified free indirect style.”

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Two Books Description

Monica Wood

ISBN 0-89879-681-4

This is one book in the creative writing series, Elements of Fiction Writing. The author gave a good try at providing valuable concepts and interpreting them in the context of description, a category assumed to have been assigned by the series editors. The effect of including sentimentality, point-of-view, and other seeming unrelated terms under the broader topic of Description was not successful for clear understanding.
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Three Books Plotting for Every Kind of Writing

Jack Woodford

Garden City Publishing Co. Reprint Edition 1948

Although less useful for contemporary writers than when originally copyrighted (1939), it has thoughts about plotting structure that are excellent for the literary fiction writer trying to mature thinking about character-driven plots, and the importance of structure in writing in general.

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5 thoughts on “Books on Writing

  • Sanchyeta

    Sir, will you please tell me which books out of all the above mentioned books are appropriate to begin with. I know they all are very good. Will you rate the books in terms of first reads, and obviously the rest will follow next.


    • admin

      Thanks for your request. I’ve recently recommended Story in Literary Fiction: A Manual for Writers (for an idea of how to identify reading stimulated by p[roblems that occur as you are writing) and Aristotle’s Poetics (to begin to embody the essences of storytelling that have directed serious creative writers for almost two mellenium). I won’t rate how-to books. These books should be as reference. I will direct, however, your reading of a specific book (usually a portion) as an aid to improving work submitted or questions posed on website.

      Best regards,

  • Alexandria Constantinova Szeman

    Mastering Point of View, originally published by Story Press (2001), is coming out as an e-book. Would you like me to submit some of the original reviews? Alexandria Constantinova Szeman (formerly writing as Sherri). p.s. Very nice to see a site on literary fiction.