The best books on writing fiction

Max Griffin Author Of Timekeepers
By Max Griffin

Who am I?

A dozen years ago, I decided to publish short stories. I figured it’d be easy. After all, I’d published textbooks and countless research papers. It turned out I was wrong. Writing fiction is hard. My stories read like my math publications, but without the math. Then I had the good fortune to join a writing group that included experienced, published authors. Their guidance taught me the basics of the craft. I supplemented their mentorship by reading books on writing. It was like going to graduate school all over again. This list of books is the distillation of those dozen years of learning. I’m still learning. I expect I’ll never quit.

I wrote...


By Max Griffin,

Book cover of Timekeepers

What is my book about?

History is a fragile thing. Haakon's job with Timekeepers is to prevent Deviations that could change the past and devastate the future. But saving humanity comes at a high cost, especially now when destiny forces him to choose between the man he loves and the future he's sworn to protect.

The books I picked & why

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Techniques of the Selling Writer

By Dwight V. Swain,

Book cover of Techniques of the Selling Writer

Why this book?

I sold three novels before I found this book, and it transformed how I think about writing. If you want to write stories that grab your readers by the throat and makes them want more, this is the book for you.  Swain’s basic premise is simple: fiction is movement, action, and reaction. He deduces from this specific, actionable ways to construct compelling sentences that turn movement to action, action to scenes, and scenes to stories. Swain’s influence on screenwriting is everywhere, from The Rockford Files to The MandalorianHis influence on contemporary fiction is just as pervasive. His ideas about “motivation reaction units” and “scenes/sequel pairs” are now in many “how-to” books, but no one describes them better than the man who invented them.   

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

By Joseph Campbell,

Book cover of The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Why this book?

I first encountered Joseph Campbell through a series of PBS interviews with Bill Moyers. His insights about myths, modern and ancient, reveal truths about human nature, love, life, and death that changed my life. With this book, he reveals common threads to heroic myths from many ages and cultures. The book outlines universal elements and describes why and how these elements resonate just as much today as they did thousands of years ago. George Lucas used Campbell’s ideas in writing Star Wars. For authors, the hero’s journey gives a detailed blueprint for epic sagas, no matter what the genre. The hero’s journey resonates because it’s life’s journey, filled with hope and despair, success and failure, love, life, and ultimately death. It resonates because it’s everyone’s journey. 

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

By John Gardner,

Book cover of The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

Why this book?

I’m a mathematician. Mathematicians start with basic ideas—axioms and definitions—and use logic to deduce magical things called theorems. When I decided I wanted to write fiction, I looked for books on writing. I found lots of good books, but they left my mathematical brain unsatisfied. Then I found Gardner’s book. Gardner’s genius is that he provides a theory of fiction, a framework for understanding what makes writing come alive. Reading Gardner, I saw at once the difference between, say, Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King. They’re both geniuses, to be sure, but King’s writing draws you into his fictional worlds in ways Poe’s never does. The underlying theory, the fictional dream, makes all the difference. The fictional dream is the secret to compelling writing.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression

By Angela Ackerman, Becca Puglisi,

Book cover of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression

Why this book?

When I write, I use many different tools. For example, every author needs a good dictionary, a thesaurus, and the Chicago Manual of Style. I consult places like the APA Diagnostic and Statistical Manual to get personality traits right and take notes when watching movies to see how actors portray emotions. When I saw this title, I knew I had to have it. Like any thesaurus, it cross-references different emotions, but it does much more. It gives body language, intonation, and thoughts that accompany an emotion. It makes suggestions for dialogue and visceral responses. It provides multiple ways for an author to show what’s going on in a character’s head and heart, without telling. Most importantly, like any thesaurus, it helps writers avoid repeating themselves and thus add variety and vigor. 

Scene of the Crime: A Writer's Guide to Crime Scene Investigation

By Anne Wingate,

Book cover of Scene of the Crime: A Writer's Guide to Crime Scene Investigation

Why this book?

I love both science fiction and mysteries, so naturally I’ve written novels that combine the two. I know enough science to realize how annoying it is when an author gets a simple thing wrong, like confusing a measure of distance (ahem, a parsec) with a unit of time. When I needed to write about a detective investigating a crime scene, I knew I needed better background than watching Lenny on Law and Order. That’s where this book comes in. Wingate is a former cop and CSI investigator in addition to having a PhD in English, and provides detailed and practical notes, drawn from personal experience, on the scene of the crime. Besides pointing out an excellent reference, the point of this recommendation is to do the research and get the details right no matter the genre.

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