Storyville: Three Essential Books On Writing

Today I’m talking about books on writing. I know that there are a million of them out there, but these three are the ones that I’ve read and re-read the most, the books I pick up when I get stuck or am looking for inspiration, the books that speak to me most as a writer. Yes, I own all three.

"On Writing' by Stephen King

This is probably one of the first books I read on craft. It’s a classic, one that you should definitely own, even if you aren’t a big fan of King or horror. He speaks across genres, and the advice he gives is from the heart—based on his many years of experience. What’s also fascinating about this book is that it’s a mix of lessons and craft discussions blended with a bit of memoir. When he talks about the early years, being so broke, getting a check in the mail from one of the “men’s magazines” he published in, and deciding if he should have a phone, heat, or water, it kind of breaks your heart a little. So many authors have struggled like this to break through. When he gets the phone call about Carrie, it all changes, and I always get a little teary-eyed—that’s the phone call we all dream about, yeah?

I’ve never been big on plotting, so it was refreshing to see that he isn’t either. He feels that, for the good writer, plotting is a last resort, and an easy first choice for the obvious writer. And I tend to agree. It can feel artificial and labored pushing a story in a certain direction, just moving the pieces around the board, from one room to another. I prefer the emotion, tension, and atmosphere of that inciting incident, the clock always ticking, something coming, character revealed on every page—that sense of discovery. I want people to really care about my protagonist. I think I’ve probably cried over more King characters dying than any other author.

If you want to be a writer you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

He also talks about ideas, where he gets them, and how he develops them. For him it’s always a case of “what if?”, and he chases that rabbit down the hole every time. What if vampires invaded a small New England Village? (Salem’s Lot.) What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation.) What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)? (Dolores Claiborne.) When you go after the ideas, these stories that keep you awake at night, the scenes playing out as you lie in bed, then that’s probably something you should pursue.

He talks about dialogue and character, about theme, and even includes a revised copy of his story, “1408” complete with all of his edits. There isn’t much he hasn’t covered. And even though it came out in 2000, it still feels pretty fresh, and is a book you can revisit over and over again. I must have 20 Post-It notes in this book.

'Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques For Exceptional Storytelling' by Donald Maas

If you haven’t heard of Donald Maas, he is what you might call a super-agent. He is the real deal, the big kahuna, and the head of his own agency. I was reading this book when my OWN agent suggested it as well, and it’s definitely a contemporary look at writing, structure and technique.

Maas references a ton of books that have been written in the last 10 years or so, which gives the instruction a very current feeling. You’ve probably read a great number of books he references, as they are mostly commercially successful titles. He talks about everything from Mystic River by Dennis Lehane to Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro to The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.

If you look at the chapter titles alone, you get a good sense of what he’s talking about: “The Death of Genre” and “The Three Levels of Story” and “The Elements of Awe,” for example. He talks about the inner and outer journey, what it means to be an author and novelist in the 21st century, and how to craft beautifully written prose, that still advances the story.

Get out of the past. Get over trends. To write high-impact 21st century fiction, you must start by being highly personal. Find your voice, yes, but more than that, challenge yourself to be unafraid, independent, open, aware and true to your own heart. You must be your most authentic self.

What I liked most about reading this book, which is funny and straightforward, very conversational, is that I found myself nodding my head constantly. He really understands what sells, and what makes for a hypnotic read. He sees that there is writing going on that defies genre, that crosses lines, taking the best of literary and mixing it with popular fiction, picking and choosing the intellect, the tension, the setting, the world building, the magic and wonder and risk. To say that Maas has his thumb on the pulse of publishing would be an understatement. This book just came out in 2012, so it’s pretty recent.

This is not a dry book, even though there is a lot to digest, tons of exercises to try out. He will push you, for sure, challenge you to really put it all on the page. But he’s as honest as he can be, an authority on contemporary fiction, and the insight he provides couldn’t be more powerful, accurate, and prophetic. I should also mention that he has a few other books out, which I have not read yet, Writing the Breakout Novel (2002) and The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great (2009), so consider those as well. They are a little older, especially the first one, but I’m sure they have a lot to offer. I mean, how often do any of us get to pick the brain of one of the most successful agents out there? Not every day. Paired with On Writing, these two books should keep you busy for a few weeks, if not months. The next book, that one is really going to speak to your imagination, and that’s a good thing.

'Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide To Creating Imaginative Fiction' by Jeff VanderMeer

This book just hit the streets a few weeks ago, and is one of the most original books on writing fiction that I’ve ever seen. It is beautiful, with so many compelling drawing and illustrations, photographs and charts—you really can’t pick it up without smiling.

This is a very different beast than the first two. If On Writing talks about the basics, and gives you inspiration from King’s own life, and Maas gives you the contemporary tools you need to succeed in today’s ever evolving world of publishing, then this book is all about keeping the juices flowing.

I think there are a couple ways to read this book—start at the beginning and plow through, taking it all in order, or pop it open when you have a moment and read a chapter or essay by itself. It’s such an intense book that I almost prefer the latter. Filled with essays, sidebars, and numerous examples and excerpts, not to mention assignments and exercises, this book is full of inspiring material.

…even the most mundane moments of our existence can be inhabited by hidden complexity and with wonder. Some of my favorite books on creative writing acknowledge that fiction is one way of making sense of a complex, often mysterious world, and that stories exist in every part of the world.

The default setting on this tome is fantasy, not reality, which is also a nice variation. Everything in this book touches on how you can make your writing more magical and horrific, more speculative and surreal. You don’t have to write fantasy and science fiction to appreciate this book however—it has lessons for every genre and style.

If you peek at the table of contents, you can get a hint of what’s to come: “Chapter 1: Inspiration and the Creative Life” or “Chapter 2: The Ecosystem of Story” or “Chapter 3: Beginnings and Ending,” which is just the tip of the iceberg. He talks about characterization, narrative design, world building, revision, and much more.

There are some fascinating essays in here too, such as “A Message About Messages” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “The Beginning of American Gods” by Neil Gaiman. He taps into a ton of successful authors, as well as some lesser-known and emerging voices, and utilizes their experiences to add layers of knowledge and experience. Of course VanderMeer talks about his own work, quoting passages from Finch, and other work, so his opinion and stories are just as important, his voice the one constant through the maze of images and examples.

All you have to do is take a look at the Best American Short Stories anthology to see that there is a movement at hand that involves work that is grounded in fantasy. Whether it is satire, magical realism, or dystopian, the genre-bending writing that is succeeding today is the same work that we hear King talking about, and Maas—and of course, Vandermeer.

In Conclusion

I’m going to keep this short and simple—you need to own each and every one of these books. If you are serious about being an author, each one of these books provides a different building block for you to stand on, and with these three bibles, three voices, three seminal titles, you will certainly evolve as an author.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of eight books—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Staring Into the Abyss, Herniated Roots, Tribulations, Spontaneous Human Combustion (Turner Publishing), and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). His over 175 stories in print include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), Lightspeed, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Shallow Creek, The Seven Deadliest, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), PRISMS, Pantheon, and Shivers VI. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker (twice), Shirley Jackson, Thriller, and Audie awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor. He was the Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press and Gamut Magazine. For more information visit or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.

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Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On February 10, 2014 - 12:22pm

Great list, Richard. I've read 'On Writing' several times, and I just started 'Writing the Breakout Novel.' I plan on getting the other two Maas books you've mentioned, plus VanderMeer's book, which sounds awesome. Since I'm gonna start my own novel in the next couple of months, it would be good to have this ammo going in, plus to refer back too when I get stuck.

Sanbai's picture
Sanbai from the Midwest is reading The War of Art February 10, 2014 - 3:38pm

I started reading "Writing the Breakout Novel" and it just didn't click for me. I found Anne Lamott's "Bird By Bird" to be much more effective - I'm kind of sad it isn't on the list! She addresses so much the mental paranoia of being a writer sometimes... ;D 

Johann Thorsson's picture
Johann Thorsson from Reykjavik, Iceland is reading Echo Lake February 10, 2014 - 4:33pm

I just finished my first pass of Wonderbook and am deeply in love. I'd seen it before and thought it was a comic of sorts, not the complete kick-ass writing manual that it really is. 

So much solid advice, inspiration and how-to. I find it hard to read it without having to put it down to write.... which is a good thing, I suppose.

Benjamin Joseph's picture
Benjamin Joseph from Southern U.S. is reading Knockemstiff February 11, 2014 - 12:32am

Great, like I need more things to spend money on. Thank god I got a free copy of On Writing back when I worked as a bookstore. Still, even checking out the "look inside" option for Wonderbook I'm not sure if I'll be able to make it payday before picking that one up.


Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies February 15, 2014 - 9:43pm

thanks, guys. hadn't heard of that one, sanbal, i'll have to check it out.

Repo Kempt's picture
Repo Kempt from Newfoundland April 8, 2014 - 3:59pm

Just getting caught up on your essays from the past little while. On Writing is one I've plowed through several times and given away to other writers a couple of times. The other titles sound fantastic and I will be sure to give them a read asap. Thanks, Richard.

P.S. Storyville is always a great read! 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies April 8, 2014 - 5:59pm

thanks, repo!

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies November 14, 2017 - 10:16am

I'll add THRILL ME by Benjamin Percy to this list. Fantastic book.