My Top 5 Writing Craft Books

Top 5 Writing Craft Books

Top 5 Writing Craft Books, because who doesn’t live a good top 5 list?

I am hard at work on a middle grade novel set in Bermuda, and my graduate lecture for VCFA on The Alchemy of Radical Self-Belief, and it’s fun! And tough. And fun!

For my lecture, I’m reading a particularly eye-opening book. Although not a writing craft book, it has powerful info on how to be a high performer in any field. It involves something called “deliberate practice.” Check it out by clicking below:

Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

The List of Top 5 Writing Craft Books

Now that you have the bonus recommendation, right up front, here is my list of great writing craft books, in no particular order:

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King

Straightforward and usable. Brings clarity to the revision process. Many aha! moments lie within these pages. Think you understand show don’t tell? Read this and you may be in for a surprise. Great stuff on leaving space for the reader to collaborate with the story.

What's Your Story? by Marion Dane Bauer

What’s Your Story by Marion Dane Bauer

Especially helpful when you are mulling your story over before getting it on paper or into the computer. Says it’s for kids, and it’s great for adults, too. Simplest and clearest description of plot and conflict I have ever seen.

The Plot Whispere by Martha Alderson

The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson

This is the most intuitive approach to plot structure I’ve found. Plus it includes the writer herself in the hero’s journey. Stories, Alderson believes, are about the writer going on their own hero’s journey. How else can we bring the reader along?

Reading Like a Wrier by Francine Prose


Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

How to take your favorite books and learn exactly how the author did a particular thing, then do it yourself in your own work. You can learn to write crowd scenes like Tolstoy, or Omniscient POV like Rowling.

Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins

Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors by Brandilyn Collins

When the writer feels what their characters are feeling, the whole story pops off the page and feels authentic. This book has so many great techniques for inside-out, method character development.

Hope this is helpful to all you writers out there! Have a great week!

Have a favorite writing craft book I didn’t mention? Comment below and let us know why you love your favorites.

Strong Characters Through Side Writing

Consider How Side Writing Could Deepen Your Fiction


Brandilyn Collins wonderful craft book Getting Into Character

If you don’t feel close to your characters, you can’t expect your readers to.

When you think of a friend, you don’t imagine what makes them like everyone else, do you? No, you remember their quirks, their contradictions, their particular turns of phrase, their noble traits, their flaws. These are the things that make you laugh, wonder, and bring you close.

But as a writer, how do you discover vivid character traits that ring true?

Creating Strong Characters

I’m reading a wonderful craft book that is helping me get in touch with my characters from an unusual creative source—acting.

Brandilyn Collins’ Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors has terrific techniques.  I’ll share just one with you. Really, you’ll want to read the whole book.

Blue Sky Thinking - Writing Your Story World
Blue Sky Thinking – Writing Your Story World

Side Writing

What is side writing?

Many writers find they can build strong characters through side writing. Side writing is anything you do as a writer that isn’t designed to go into your final draft. It’s the study, the inner exploration that helps you build your story world, the psyche of your characters, and the relationships between them that drive the conflict.

Side writing for a novelist is akin to an artist’s sketchbook. An artist tries out all kinds of techniques in their sketchbook. They draw studies of their subjects, they doodle, mess around, use pencils, or ink, or whatever medium they like, they tape in ideas. Sketchbook work doesn’t have to be good. It’s all fodder and inspiration for the final polished art pieces.

Your side writing should be your playground, where you flesh out and test your ideas.

Try this: Main Character Interview
  1. Set aside at least a half hour to try this exercise.
  2. Do a brief meditation in which you try to picture your main character. Close your eyes and visualize them sitting in front of you. Just take a few minutes and focus your energy on your protagonist. When you start to feel a little ridiculous, and like, wow, we writers sure are eccentric, then open your eyes and start writing.
  3. You can try writing by hand, or typing into your writing software of choice. If you are having trouble feeling in touch with your main character, I recommend trying doing this by hand, at least at first. It makes you slow down and pay attention.
  4. Start by greeting your main character like he or she is a real person. (This is a game of let’s pretend for grown-ups.)
  5. Then start having a conversation in which your goal is to chat and get to know each other.
  6. As you go along, get to the heart of what you really want to know about your character. Why are they so bent on revenge? Why are they so mad at their best friend? Whatever unanswered questions you have, ask them. You may not always get answers. Deflection is interesting, and you may want to ask again later.
  7. Get more specific and pointed as you go. Ask questions that will help you know the character’s big sticking points, their big terrors, their deepest most secret yearnings.
  8. Here are some suggested questions for after you are past the small talk: What would you die for? What do you live for? What is your biggest fear? If you won a billion dollars tax free, what would you do first? If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? (Big questions like these can help you see what matters most to your main character.)
What to Do with the Interview Text

Once you are done with your interview, you may find you like the process. You may want to begin each writing session with one of these, to warm up, to get into your character’s voice. Great!

Keep everything and refer to it later, before you write scenes from this character’s point of view. You can start a writing session by asking a character what they want in this upcoming scene. You can even ask them advice on how to write future scenes.

This side writing exercise has a distinct advantage over the commonly recommended character questionnaire. In this exercise you are talking to your character directly, so you get to speak and hear their voice. And you are answering as your character, so you will get new information about how they feel. They may even share new secrets with you.

Your novel’s world and people begin to live inside your imagination long before the plot swings into action. Side writing exercises the one above can be a terrific way to start sketching out that world and those people, so that your main character starts off vivid and strong.

Book of the Day: The Little Prince

Notre Dame, Paris, France, Margaret Mayo McGlynn

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves and it is rather tedious for children to have to explain things to them time and again.”

The Little Prince
The Little Prince

It is the rare book that breathes loving kindness from its pages. The Little Prince is such a book.

I didn’t read it as a child. I read it, or rather, heard it, as a twelve year old at summer camp in the Adirondacks, at a Girl Scout Camp called Eagle Island, which occupied the grounds of an old hunting compound built by one of those wealthy adventurers who fancied himself another Teddy Roosevelt. The main building had a lodge with a high pointed roof and criss-crossing beams cut rustically, the walls packed with mounted antlered heads of dead animals that had moldered there for half a century.

I was in the Sailing unit, with the older girls. We slept in canvas tents attached to wooden platforms on metal beds with a mesh of springs. My sleeping bag at night was either too hot or too cold, and bugs landed on my face, making sleep scarce. I remember the coolest most popular girl in our unit had actual boobs, wore high-waisted jeans, and somehow, even though we had no electrical appliances, was able to make her hair look like Farrah Fawcett’s every single day. To me, she was another species.

We learned the parts of the boat, how to capsize safely, how to come about, trim the sails, and jibe, all in Sunfish and Lasers. After working hard to memorize the names of all three corners and edges of the sails, tie complex knots, to sail along all of the reaches, after passing a written test, and undergoing a live sailing examination, we were ready. The counselors jerked us awake in the middle of the night, tied around our necks turk’s head necklaces each one made of a single marble and string dyed navy blue. They told us we must never take them off. They chanted and dubbed us Sisters of the Sea, aka, S.O.S. This was my first actual initiation rite, and it retains in my memory the solemnity, terror, and glee of a Secret Society ritual.

But on normal nights, the C.I.T.s read books to us. No television for miles around, and so we engaged in the petty intrigues that girls get up to during the day, and at night, the unsullied pleasure of hearing a book read aloud. Some volumes they read were more grown up—this was around the time that Jaws was published, and I think I first heard it read aloud at Eagle Island. But one counselor, the sweet chubby one who wore her wiry black hair tucked under a red bandana like Baba Yaga, decided to read us The Little Prince.

“People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden… yet they don’t find what they’re looking for… 

They don’t find it,” I answered.

And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water…”

Of course,” I answered.

And the little prince added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.” 

Even then, just a few paragraphs in, it made the tears well up in my eyes. Every sentence conveys what it feels like to be a child of around three or four, when all you can do is ask about everything you see and hear, “Why?” That sense of wonder, of hope, possibility, and joy, of everything being new and sacred and so clear it almost hurts. How did Saint-Exupéry do this? It is a bonafide magic trick. I will never forget it—this book that made me nostalgic for childhood when I was still only twelve.

If you haven’t read this book, it’s time. Get a copy and go somewhere nice, perhaps where you can look at water, or flowers, but nowhere too far from a patch of open sky. Leave your phone behind.

Read it.

Please let me know what it does for you.

Thank you for reading my blog. Be bold and add your comment below! Comments are welcome!

Unforgettable Love Story: Eleanor and Park

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell reads a bit like poetry and is my favorite book of the last six months. It’s set in the 80s. A boy and girl meet on the school bus and don’t speak. Instead they silently bond over his comic books, which she reads over his shoulder. It drew me right in with it’s searing authenticity.

It called forth in me that intense feeling of love, a sharp ache, that maybe only 15 year olds can feel. That’s quite a feat, since it’s been a long time since I’ve felt quite that. I was up until five in the morning finishing it.
I got the book on Audible, which is read by two different readers, male and female, as the chapters alternate beween Eleanor and Park’s point of view. Very effective.
Don’t you want to feel that crazy intense love again, but without actually having to live the agony? 
Wow. Just read it.