Writing Your First Novel: Books You Should Read First

A common misconception about writers is that they should be self-sufficient. Cut off from the rest of the world. Secluded in a dark basement.

But before writing your first novel, it’s important to learn as much as possible from other, more seasoned writers.

There are the classics, of course. Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and Zissner’s On Writing Well. But those well-regarded standards are over 20 years old.

The following books, all published within the last five years, were immensely helpful to me in various stages of the writing process, from plotting and character development to style and market positioning. I recommend reading as many of them as you can before tackling your novel’s first draft.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Writing Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer
If you only read one of the books listed here, make it this one.

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
Truby’s master-class in storytelling can be applied to any narrative form, be it a novel, a screenplay, or a TV script. He describes the archetypal structures and devices that good stories use to create tension, suspense, and satisfaction. I consulted this book over and over again when writing my pilot script, “Liberal Arts,” and re-read it before starting the first draft of The Hidden City. If you have a great concept for a novel but need help plotting it out, this is the book for you.

Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon
Already plotted out your novel but having trouble getting it to sound right? Odds are you need help on the micro-level. Landon’s short style manual is a great way to streamline and improve your way with words. He encourages clean, concise prose.

Is Like Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months by John Dufresne
I once watched Dufresne improvise a detailed novel synopsis in front of a crowded AWP conference room. The man is a genius. His second “How-To” guide to writing not only gets you motivated to finish your first draft within a specific timeframe, it also gives you insights into Dufresne’s own writing process.

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
You won’t find any specific writing guidelines here, and by the end of the book you might feel a bit discouraged about the state of the publishing industry, but Lerner’s sobering look at what it takes to be a successful writer in the 21st Century is invaluable.

Wild Ink: Success Secrets to Writing and Publishing for the Young Adult Market by Victoria Hanley
This book won’t apply to everyone, but if you’re working on a Young Adult novel like I am, Brooks does a wonderful job of describing the current YA market and how to position your story within it, along with some dos and don’ts specific to the age group you’re targeting.

Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is known for his wildly popular novels, comics, and screenplays, but this text, taken from his 2012 commencement speech at the Philadelphia University of the Arts, is a rousing, inspiring call to action for writers and creative minds everywhere.


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