Recommended Books on How to Write Good Fiction

I have been doing a lot of reading lately. Some of it has been for pleasure, but a lot of it has been for work. There are many books about how to write and edit fiction, but these three have stood out to me because of how they tackle different aspects of the writing process:

  1. Story Genius, by Lisa Cron (best for before starting that draft)
  2. Intuitive Editing, by Tiffany Yates-Martin (best for big picture edits)
  3. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King (best for line edits)

Before You Start that Manuscript

Cron’s Story Genius has been around since 2016, and it follows her first book, Wired for Story, which talks about the science behind why the human brain craves story. In Story Genius, she talks about not only why the human brain loves stories so much (hint: it has to do with how our species survives by processing situational information) but also how to write an engaging story.

Throughout the book, she sets up the writer with enough background information on the science of story before outlining the steps for writing a manuscript. Instead of plotting out events, though, she asks writers to dig deep into the protagonist’s background to find out who they are, what they want, and what their misbelief is.

Once you have tackled all that, then you put together a blueprint (not an outline) for the story using scene cards, each layered on top of the last in a cause-and-effect relationship. As Cron puts it, “your goal is simple—build your story by creating a plot that will constantly force your increasingly reluctant protagonist to change.”

Easy, right?

If you can master the blueprint and really put your mind to it, following Cron’s book will give you a very solid manuscript.

Revising a Manuscript with, uh, Issues

My favorite piece of advice in Tiffany Yates-Martin’s Intuitive Editing is to “write like a dog; edit like a cat.”

The act of writing your first draft is akin to being a golden retriever: big, happy, and—usually—slobbery. Editing is like being a cat: not always clean, but calculating.

Tiffany Yates-Martin has been in the publishing industry for more than twenty-five years, and she works closely with Jane Friedman and other educational outlets to help teach writers how to write. Intuitive Editing came out in 2020 as a guide for how to revise your writing.

In this book, Yates-Martin looks at macro edits, micro edits, and line edits. However, all of her points touch on what I consider big picture edits: pacing, tension, character development, etc. She actually references Cron’s Story Genius a couple of times when discussing story development.

Her advice does trickle down from big picture ideas to the details of prose—and she looks more closely at line edits in the final section of the book—but I find this books to be most useful for someone who might be stuck with a partial draft, a full draft, or the idea of a draft that isn’t going anywhere.

It acts as a useful tool for finding and fixing the bigger problems with your manuscript before you jump into the finer edits.

Ready to Polish

The book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is one of the most approachable, easy-to-follow books on decluttering up your writing. Renni Browne and Dave King provide clear, straightforward advice based on their extensive experiences with editing fiction. They published the second edition in 2004, so it is a bit older but still relevant.

They divide the book into eleven categories of edits, which may sound like a lot, but making a checklist to tackle each is not too hard. They tackle big picture problems, such as point-of-view and character development, but their guidance focuses on the line-by-line edits.

For instance, they discuss the importance of having a well-developed character, but instead of telling you how to develop the protagonist’s backstory, they show you how to make sure the character’s backstory and characteristics are being reflected on the page through dialogue, narrative, and action beats.

Each section has so many good tips for beginning writers; I recommend everyone take a look at this book before querying agents or hitting that publish button on Amazon.

The Editing Journey

Self-editing is hard but necessary. We are all blind to our own errors to some extent. Even if you decide to hire an editor (which you should do!), you should try to edit your manuscript as much as you can first. Once you’ve gotten it as far as you can, then look for an editor to help you take it through the last stretch.

Published by Leah Boyer

I'm a professionally trained copy and line editor. I do both fiction (mostly speculative, fantasy, and historical) and nonfiction (academic) editing. When I'm not editing or writing, I am caring for my two youngsters, getting lost in a story, tending to my native plant garden, or enjoying the charms of San Diego with friends and family.

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