Bookshelf: 3 how-to books on novel writing to keep your project moving

Vintage postcard: Moonlight on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, “America’s Super Highway.”

Working in tandem with a how-to book on the craft of novel writing can keep you connected to the big picture of your project. Writing creatively and critically at the same time can inch your novel project closer and closer to a satisfactory conclusion. Yay, a book!

Companion craft books (how-to books) can be lifesavers. They can keep you from drowning in detail or drifting wildly off course.

For example, sometimes you’re driven to figure “it” out. “It” may be big or small—from fixing the whole plot (big) to researching a telling character or setting detail (small). Depending on your tolerance for uncertainty, skipping a day (or more) of writing could become easy. Too easy. Weeks or months may pass since you’ve worked on your so-called passion project because you can’t figure “it” out.

Another example is that you may approach a novel project by writing and writing and writing. You think (hope) that one day your hefty word count will make great-American sense. However, you can end up with a hundred-thousand sprawling words that don’t fit well into current publishing models, unless you’re Diana Gabaldon or Thomas Pynchon.

Whether you’re just getting started or you’ve encountered one of those days when you don’t know what to do, how-to books on the craft of novel writing can keep your project moving forward. Nonetheless, while the following books, workbooks, and videos are great resources, the key is you. You need to keep working, keep trying.

Here are three how-to books on novel writing I recommend:

Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Story Genius by Lisa Cron. This 2016 book’s subtitle and sub-subtitle explain Cron’s approach, “How to use brain science to go beyond outlining and write a riveting novel* [*Before you waste three years writing 327 pages that go nowhere].”

Story Genius chapters on novel-craft include “What To Do” tasks that prompt you to examine the parameters of your current project. The tasks help writers avoid common glitches, such as neglecting to identify a main character or forgetting why your protagonist wants what s/he wants.  

“The reason that the vast majority of manuscripts are rejected—either by publishers or by readers—is because they do not have a third rail,” writes Cron. “Story is about an internal struggle, not an external one… [T]he internal problem predates the events in the plot, often by decades.”

Also check out: Curious to learn more about the “brain science” aspect of storytelling from the subtitle? Check out Lisa Cron’s 2014 TEDx Talk “Wired for Story” or her previous book by the same name, Wired for Story.


Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody. Brody adapts lessons originally intended for screenwriters to the needs of novelists. To make a story worth telling, Brody says you need “plot, structure, and character transformation. Or what I like to call the ‘Holy Trinity of Story.’”

The book provides exercises, checklists, and examples of how novels (and later movies), such as The Help, The Kite Runner, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, follow the 15-beat structure at the center of Blake Snyder’s 2005 screenplay-writing book Save the Cat! Brody adapts Snyder’s beat sheets, four-act structure, A- and B-stories, and more to the needs of novelists.

Brody includes manuscript percentages to help novelists know “What Goes Where.” For example, the “All Is Lost” beat should occur at about 75 percent of the manuscript with the “Dark Night of the Soul” following at 75-80 percent. Whether you’re writing novels for schoolchildren or adults, genre manuscript lengths can range from 160 manuscript pages to almost 600 pages. That’s why Brody’s percentages are useful across genres.

Also check out: If you have access to LinkedIn Learning, check out Brody’s course, “Write a Bestselling Novel in 15 Steps.” By using the Save the Cat! Writes a Novel book along with the online LinkedIn course you can speed up or slow down, as needed, to run your novel project through the “Save the Cat” method.


Writing the Breakout Novel & Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

Writing the Breakout Novel’s subtitle, “Insider advice for taking your fiction to the next level,” refers to the author’s background as the president of Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York and the broker of publishing deals with “six- or seven-figure advances.”

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, published three years later in 2004, offers “hands-on help for making your novel stand out and succeed.” By going beyond reading and notetaking with Maass’s “breakout” book, the workbook satisfies the need to dive into planning and drafting. Both the book and the workbook offer eye-opening information that can shake you out of the leisurely sail that you think might be a novel. Following the workbook lessons helps you to write smarter and stronger to create a more marketable novel. 

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