Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Tip O'Day #400 - Books on Writing

Guest blogger Seeley James on some writing books that were very helpful and others – well, not so much.

I’ve read many books about the craft of writing. Some I cherished and underlined and marked up. Some I abandoned after a few pages. Each of them taught me something. A few were amazing. Oddly enough, the highly recommended books were not that good. I jotted down my thoughts about the three I found most helpful and two that made me think, what happened here?

First, understand my slant: I like to read and write thrillers. My goal is to entertain as many people as possible. If your goal is to write character-driven, world-changing literature, or romance or epic Sci-Fi, these reviews may or may not mean as much to you. However, I think good advice transcends genre.

Second, I like to read books that tell me how to be a better writer. How to improve my action sequence. How to pace my highs and lows. Why no one feels my main character’s pain. When to do this instead of that. I like to read a book and immediately launch into notes for improving my manuscript. If the book I’m reading doesn’t stimulate my creative process, then I’m not enamored.

Third, on my blog, I’ve written my ideas on the craft of writing in a series called The Architecture of Writing because the one thing all these books have in common: they’re too freaking long. The points made in each could be summed up in a PowerPoint deck and dropped on us to take or leave as we wish.

Two popular books that taught me far less than I expected:

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass -- While Mr. Maass is a top agent who cites great works of literature and describes why they were great, it rarely says anything about how to actually write a breakout novel. I found myself nodding and thinking, ‘yeah, he’s right, that was a great book.’ But only jotted down two or three notes to follow up on later. My takeaway: some writers wrote some really good books.

On Writing, Stephen King -- Yeah, blasphemy, I know. I’m a heretic. It’s a great book about a literary celebrity. I was fascinated by his story and his life experience. He has one passage about his editing process. And he railed against plotting. Otherwise, it was a memoir. (OK, so he’s been writing since he was 10 and he plots intuitively. Does that mean the rest of us are pond scum?) My takeaway: Always have a book in your hand.

Three books that drove my imagination and made me take notes:

Techniques of the $elling Writer, Dwight Swain (1965) -- Yes, I am recommending an obscure writer who taught at the University of Oklahoma fifty years ago. The references to starlets long gone are amusing and younger readers will have to study some of his literary references but he explains technique at the sentence and paragraph level. With right way and wrong way examples, no less. Read this and you will have a much better grip on why your last story flopped and how to make your next sing. My takeaway: Tactics.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King (1991) -- Another oldie but goodie. And I mean goodie. This one explains story structure and pacing with a little more meat on the bones than Swain’s work. Where he gives you paragraph tactics, this offers concepts for story strategy. At the same time, this book picks nits that will have you running for your editing notes. And the best part is — the authors formed a company offering indie authors professional services. Their story was so compelling that I’ve hired The Editorial Department to handle my editing, artwork, layout, and marketing. My takeaway: Strategy.

The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler (1998-2007) -- This is the most important book a novelist can own. Mr. Vogler presents it as the foundation for every story ever told. Not true. However, it is the most comprehensive explanation of classic stories like Star Wars and Wizard of Oz. You do not need to follow his example. You do need to understand the structural underpinnings that have formed classic stories from Odysseus to Harry Potter. My favorite author, Lee Child, has never applied this method. My second favorite author, James Rollins, always applies this method. Whether you use it or not, knowing how it works helps you form a stronger story. My takeaway: Structure.

There are many more good and not-so-good books out there. I’ve only listed three of my many faves. What books taught you the most about the craft?

Seeley is the author of short story collection Short Thrills, and his novel Geneva Convention will be released later this year. He was a Finalist for the DeMarini Award in fiction, and was short-listed for the Fish Publishing Award and the Debut Dagger Award.


  1. Interesting and informative post. Thanks

  2. Maybe I am not with the program, but this article confused me. I think all of the article is sarcastic and I am not to believe there is anything in any of these books to better a person's writing. So I am going to treat all of it as useless and rather ridiculous!!! Thanks for the entertainment.

  3. Janice, I'm sorry you were confused. I thought Seeley made it clear that the first 2 books he discussed were interesting, but did not offer writers any suggestions on how to improve their craft. For the other 3 books, he gave specific examples of how they had been helpful to him, and he offered a "takeaway" on the area of writing craft that they concentrated on. I certainly agreed with the Vogler book, and plan to track down the other two.

  4. Wow! James even i love to read thrillers, it makes the people very curious about the story, It makes the people to stay active. I have red some of the thrillers and would like to know the nice thriller books.

    1. As it happens, my thriller THE ASSASSINS CLUB is available on Kindle for a mere $2.99 at this link: http://tinyurl.com/7fav44l

      Also, Paul D Marks has published WHITE HEAT, an excellent thriller set against the backdrop of the L.A. Rodney King riots. If you like your thrillers sprinkled with horror or the supernatural, try anything by Scott Nicholson.

      Hope this helps, Kelly.