Practically every human being, at some point or another, has closed the covers on a satisfying book and thought: I should write a book like that.
That initial burst of inspiration is quickly followed by nagging doubt. Do you have what it takes to write?
After all, knowing how to write is only half the battle. The other half is finding the inspiration, the self-confidence, the grit to actually write something worth reading. And the fortitude to stick with it through months or years of rewrites, revisions, and rejection.
It’s not easy. But it can be done. The best advice on toughing it out comes from those who have cranked out hundreds or thousands of pages of prose, and shared their hard-earned insights on what it’s really like to be a writer. Here are five books about writing that inspired me most.
#1. The Fiction Factory by William Wallace Cook
In one of my favorite passages of this writing memoir, the author laments how it was so much easier to get published back in the 80s and 90s, when things were different in the publishing world. I hear that same complaint from aspiring writers all the time.
The difference is, this book was written a hundred years ago — Cook was reminiscing about the 1880s and 1890s!
William Wallace Cook (writing here under the pen name John Milton Edwards) was one of the most successful pulp writers of all time. He was nicknamed “the man who deforested Canada” because he cranked out more stories than any other writer in the world. On a manual typewriter, no less.
His inspiring rags-to-riches story will make you want to stand up and cheer. Learning that certain writing hardships are universal struggles gave me an inspirational boost when I needed it most. This book is tough to find, but it’s a real treat.
#2: The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham
Sometimes, the best inspiration comes from getting back to the basics.
Every time an aspiring writer asks me for fundamental writing advice, I recommend Jack Bickham’s books. He wrote 75 novels in his lifetime, and every single one of his books on fiction writing technique is a treasure.
This one in particular provides eye-opening tips and techniques delivered in short, easy-to-read chapters. To this day, there are times I turn to this book to help me get back into the writing groove. Bickham packs an amazing amount of wisdom into this basic primer. Every writer should have it beside their desk.
#3: Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds by Michael Hauge
Michael Hauge is not only a true gentleman and a scholar, he’s also a storytelling genius, and this essential book proves it. By focusing just on a handful of core elements of your novel, he helps you zero in on what’s really important in your story.
And as the title promises, he gives you everything you need to create a one-minute pitch for your novel that really gets people interested. Every time I have used his method to pitch a novel to an editor, their eyes light up and they ask for the manuscript. It doesn’t get any more inspiring than that.
#4: Plotto, the Master Book of All Plots by William Wallace Cook
Cook (the author of The Fiction Factory, above) was the most prolific writer of his time. His big break came when he spied a friend using newspaper clippings for story ideas. It was a lightbulb moment for him. Cook started developing his own intricate plotting system, using thousands of interconnected plot elements logged on index cards. Many years later, he published his Plotto system in this book.
Make no mistake: this book will not actually generate a complete and masterful plot on demand, even if you learn Cook’s complicated and tedious method. (Which I have. Trust me, it’s not exactly a barrel of fun.) But that’s not the point.
What this book will do, if you flip it open to a random page, is get your brain fired up in a fresh new direction. And that will break you out of a storytelling rut. You might even find an idea in its pages that inspires you to write a whole new novel and get it published.
(It worked for me. It Happened One Doomsday, the first book in my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, was inspired by a random passage out of Plotto.)
Plotto is especially handy for subplots. For example, I just now flipped the book open to entry 882, which describes a character’s charity facing financial ruin — and the character, a supposedly reformed gambler, decides to keep the charity funded… by rigging crooked card games.
It’s just the bare bones of the story, the very beginnings of a story idea, but it has possibilities. It could be a dark crime story, a comedy, or anything you want.
And if you don’t like the idea, flip the page and try another one. If you need a shot of story inspiration every once in a while, just keep this book handy.
#5. The Pulp Jungle by Frank Gruber
In the early days of pulp fiction, Frank Gruber moved to New York, penniless, with a burning desire to write for a living. His evocative descriptions of nearly starving in a cold-water flat during the Great Depression will make you thankful for your modern amenities. His grit and ambition will make you itch to write faster. And his astonishing story of building a pulp-writing career on wits alone will have you rooting for him in no time.
If, that is, you can find the book in the first place. It has been out of print since 1967, which is a crime. If you can’t find it online, try asking your local library about an interlibrary loan. It’s worth the wait.
What are your favorite books about writing?
I’m always on the lookout for new books to add to my shelf. What titles have you found to be especially useful, interesting, or inspiring? Leave me a comment below, or contact me on my author website.
Laurence MacNaughton‘s Forever and a Doomsday, the fourth novel in the Dru Jasper series, is out tomorrow, published by Pyr Books.