30 best books on writing and getting published

I was recently asked to recommend some books on how to write and on any related topics. I started to trot out the obvious suggestions, then realised there was a real trove of material out there. So, with some short comments, here are my top suggestions.

1. Getting Published by Harry Bingham

2. How To Write by Harry Bingham

Let’s get the two most obvious ones out of the way to start!

How To Write gets excellent reader-feedback. It doesn’t pick out one single aspect of technique or pretend that you can learn how to write in a couple of months. It’s a big, meaty, book on every part of a writer’s toolkit.

Getting Published is a reliable guide to traditional publishing and finding an agent.

3. On writing: A memoir of the craft by Stephen King

You needn’t be a fan of Stephen King’s to enjoy this honest, compelling tome – and I know it has legions of fans. For me, the most striking part was King’s list of the books he read in any given year. That list is intelligent and eclectic and goes to show that good writers simply can’t read too much or too well.

4. Story by Robert McKee

A book for screenwriters, but still one of the best analyses around. This book belongs in the pantheon, no question.

5. Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran

6. Write. Publish. Repeat. by Johnny B Truant and Sean Platt

Both key texts for the new generation of self-published authors. David’s book should be read in conjunction with his Let’s Get Visible. The strategies in the Write. Publish. Repeat book won’t work for most writers. Those authors’ basic mantra is to write heaps and heaps of material and build a career as much from the volume of output as from its quality. I can’t, as something of a purist myself, really get excited about that approach, but you still need to read the book. It’s got a lot to say, and it’s usually right.

7. Aspects of the Novel by EM Forster

8. 10 Rules of writing by Elmore Leonard

9. The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler

10. The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera

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11. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

These aren’t quite how-to guides. The Chandler essay (and it’s an essay, not a book) is a vastly important milestone in the development of crime fiction: a manifesto for a new age, and a manifesto that has echoed well beyond the walls of that genre.

The Elmore Leonard piece is a brief (and somewhat tongue in cheek) list of suggestions. You could probably break all of Leonard’s rules and do just fine – and indeed, I do quite often break them.

But it’s important to read what writers have to say about writing – and a variety of writers at that. (Hence the Kundera, Nabokov and the EM Forster.) You won’t always agree, and you don’t have to. The important thing is that you run the arguments in your head.

12. How Fiction Works by James Wood

Wood is arguably today’s most influential critic – and he writes beautifully. My comment above that you need to run the arguments in your head applies here too. Wood’s book offers a personal and partial view. (He loves sentences and doesn’t, astonishingly, even mention story.) But he’s so good that his partial is worth most people’s everything.

13. Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

Not really the how-to book that most people think it is. But it’s still fun and still worth a look.

14. Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

15. Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Both books are part of a new wave of popular neuroscience. I prefer the Lehrer book, which is not specifically about writing but which is, for my money, very illuminating indeed about the creative process. But if you like something with more how-to-ish ambition, you’ll certainly get more from Cron’s book.

16. The Elements of Style William Strunk Jr.

17. Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose

18. Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan

19. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

20. Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

Then, in a cluster, some other favourite books of mine. Sol Stein was a very respected editor (as well as being a novelist himself). Stein on Writing is his attempt to set down the rules by which he’s lived. It was the first how-to book of this sort that I read, and I still have a soft spot for it, although the tone can be a little self-important at times.

Julia Cameron’s is an approach to creativity more than, directly, a how-to-write-a-bestseller type book. But it’s great, heartfelt.

The same sort of comments go for Word Painting and Reading like a Writer. Both well-written, thoughtful, gently inspiring. Elmore Leonard would presumably want to kill Rebecca McClanahan, but I’d be on Rebecca’s side.

As for Strunk – well, you need it on a list like this.

And finally, some other books that have, at the very least, been thought-provoking and helpful ones for me:

21. Plot & Structur, by James Scott Bell

22. Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon

23. The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

24. Outlining your Novel by KM Weiland

25. Where Do You Get Your Ideas? by Fred White

26. From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler

27. A Dash of Style by Noah Lukeman

28. The 4 a.m. Breakthrough by Brian Kitely

29. Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris

30. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

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