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The 7 Most Useful Books on Writing Fiction

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Getting Started

Laurence O'Bryan

After 133 rejections Laurence O’Bryan acheived his dream and The Instanbul Puzzle was published by Avon, a division of Harper Collins – and it’s now available in fourteen different countries with more to follow!Click to read Laurence’s full story.

In order to get his writing to the highest possible level Laurence worked hard – and read an awful lot of ‘how-to’ books. He says “These are the books on writing that excited me most when I read them. The ones I felt were going to be most useful to me. The Oxford dictionary defines useful as, ‘which can be used to advantage; helpful & beneficial.'”

Here is the list:

1. Solutions for Writers by Sol Stein. First published in 2005 this is the essential guidebook on how to write for our times. Broken up into sections and covering both fiction and non fiction it contains a mother lode of practical advice on issues from the writer’s job, to the Keys to Swift Characterisation, to adding Resonance.

What grabbed me about this book though was the focus on practical advice. Almost every page of my copy has a section underlined and a corner turned. This is the book I turn to again and again. If you can only afford one book on writing make it this one.

2. Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maas. First published in 2004 this is the workshop book for Mr Maas’s famous Writing the Breakout Novel book and training modules. Its three sections cover a wide range of topics under the section headings Character Development, Plot Development and General Story Techniques.

I went for the workbook version because I like to fool myself that I’m focused on the practical. The exercises at the end of each chapter made real sense to me too. They made me think about how to apply the excellent writing observations Donald describes so well. My copy of this book is heavily underlined and there are notes sticking out of it. I also return to Donald’s book at critical points in the development of a manuscript. This workbook should definitely be in your library, especially if commercial success is something you aspire to. If you want to write and then starve, you definitely won’t need it.

3. Conflict, Action & Suspense by William Noble. First published in 1994 this book provides step by step guidance on setting the stage, creating and building suspense and bringing it all to a gripping conclusion.

My copy is poodle eared. For me suspense is one of the most important aspects of any novel. It’s why I keep reading. It’s what keeps me turning those pages. It’s what Michael Connelly does to make me want to buy every book he writes. What Harlan Coben does to make every book he writes go to the top of the bestseller lists. If you want to write suspense well, this is the book for you.

4. A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman. First published in 1991 Diane’s book is a grand tour of the realm of the senses. In it she describes the evolution of the kiss, the sadistic cuisine of eighteenth century England, the chemistry of pain and a lot more.

Structured into chapters for each sense, including synthesia (yes, it’s the combining of constituent elements into a single or unified entity), this unusual and thought provoking book is a treasure filled garden for those who are interested in helping readers see what they see and feel what a character feels.

5. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Subtitled, A writer’s guide to staying out of the rejection pile, Noah’s book covers a lot more than just five pages.

Sensible advice about creating an opening hook, the use of phony adjectives and absolutely incredible adverbs is mixed with sage advice on how not to use metaphors, like stale confetti, and how not to turn melodramatic. The life and death of a writer are contained in these pages. For anyone who wants to avoid having their work head straight for the great landfill in the sky this is an excellent book.

6. Bullies, Bastards & Bitchesby Jessica Page Morrell. First published in 2008 Jessica’s book is dedicated to those who want to get to know a character’s sinister side.

For me, there is something endlessly fascinating about the dark side. You could ask my psychiatrist what that means, if I had a psychiatrist. But actually it’s simple. Great stories need great conflict. And great conflict often comes from situations where some of the characters insist on being bullies or bastards or bitches. If you want to understand the differences between unlikable protagonists, anti-heroes, dark heroes and bad boys read Jessica’s wonderful book. It may open up a whole new dimension for you.

7. The 3rd Act by Drew Yanno. Drew’s book helped me understand how to build a good ending. It’s mainly aimed at script writers and it features lots of references to many of the best movies of all time. But I don’t think that makes it any less relevant to fiction writers.

There are so few books about how to construct a good ending this one deserves a place on your shelf not only for that reason, but also because it makes planning the build up, the final battle and the denoument so much more pleasurable when you understand how the masters do it. The check list at the end of the book is worth the price of admission alone.

I don’t suggest slavishly following the rules in any of these books, but to know the rules is useful, particularly if you’d like to bend them, and then break them, with your fist in the air and your hair flying out behind you.

Thankfully my consumption of ‘how-to’ books resulted in an improvement in my writing.The Instanbul Puzzle has been described as:

‘This stylish conspiracy thriller is a Turkish delight…combines plenty of stirring action with fascinating historical detail about a city and a country [Laurence] quite obviously loves.’ Irish Independent

‘A brisk plot…which draws the reader into a conspiratorial rapport…He’s come late to fiction, clearly he means to enjoy it.’ Telegraph

Make up you own mind – here I am reading the opening pages:


Find out more about Laurence’s remarkable route to publication in 133 Rejections to Get Published

About the author

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