This isn’t meant to be an
exhaustive or a qualitative list of the “best” books on writing short fiction.
It’s a list a books I consulted and found useful, intriguing, inspiring. Some I
simply found entertaining, and that’s as good a reason to read a book about
writing as any.
As I said at the outset,
most good books on the writing process are telling you the same basic things;
the authors just find different ways to present this information, or they will
emphasize one aspect of the process over the other. You may find a favorite of
yours on the list. You may also find a book or two (or three) that you
encountered that was no help at all. That’s okay. As long as you get the message,
one way or another (and that includes not reading any books about writing, period – just reading, and reading, and reading, and
reading the work of other writers), you are
headed in the right direction.
Some Further Reading
Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, Capra Press, 1990 (editions available from other publishers).
Some excellent advice along with some silly advice, but his little pep talks work like a shot of adrenaline for me.
Reginald Bretnor, Ed. The Craft of Science Fiction, Barnes & Noble, 1976.
Out of print, but still available online. A collection of essays about various aspects of the process of science fiction writing. Worth looking up if for no other reason than to read Katherine MacLean’s brilliant and prescient “Alien Minds and Nonhuman Intelligences.”
Algis Budrys, Writing to the Point, Unifont, 1994.
Brief, clear and essential essays on short story writing, including “Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy,” the single best essay on the subject I’ve read so far.
Samuel R. Delany, About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters and Five Interviews, Wesleyan University Press, 2005.
Read the introduction, “Emblems of Talent.” Much of this will strike you as esoteric, but in many places Delany is clearer than anyone else I’ve read on what makes for good writing and good fiction.
Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers, second edition, Oxford University Press, 1973, 1998.
Not an attempt to phase out my job, but a book with a wealth of information about the writing process and the sort of “teacherless” writing groups that have become the model for many critique groups and workshops.
E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, HBJ, first published in 1927.
A book on the novel for a short story class? What Forster says is pertinent to any writer of fiction. The two sections on “People” are especially valuable.
John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, Vintage Books, 1985.
Very literary, but very clear, and more passionate than most books that come from the literary/academia neck of the woods. The exercises at the end of book are quite ingenious and worth trying.
__________, On Becoming a Novelist, W. W. Norton Company, 1999 (first published in 1983).
Okay, this is a list for short story writers, but much of what Gardner has to say here applies to all writers of fiction. Look especially at the sections “The Writer’s Nature” and “Faith.”
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (expanded edition), Shambhala Publications, 2005.
It took me a while to get to this book, though it’s been recommended to me a number of times over the years. It is a collection of exercises and explanations, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but is very much worth exploring.
Henry James, “The Art of Fiction,” an essay available in many anthologies and collections.
No matter how you feel about Mr. James’ writing, what he says about fiction is remarkably incisive and generous. If nothing else, remember his admonition to the young writer: “Try to be one of the people upon whom nothing is lost.”
Damon Knight, Creating Short Fiction (revised), St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Down to earth, extremely helpful, knowledgeable and sensible. The sections on “Voice and Persona” and using your unconscious (which he calls “Fred”) will save you at least ten years of wandering through the wilderness.
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Pantheon, 1994.
Sympathetic, hilarious “instructions” from someone who is intimately familiar with every writer’s neuroses inside and out.
Ursula K. Le Guin, “Some Thoughts on Narrative,” essay in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Harper and Row, 1989.
How narrative works in life as well as in art.
______________, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.
Just what the title says. The focus of this book is on improving a writer’s style rather than structure, but it contains a lot of material pertinent to all facets of fiction writing.
______________, The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination, Shambhala Publications, 2004.
Some wonderful insights, as one would expect by now, from LeGuin on the creative process. Most pertinent in the section “On Writing.”
C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Cambridge University Press, 1961.
This is more a book about literature than writing, but what Lewis says about “popular” versus “literary” fiction should be read by all writers.
Barry B. Longyear, Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop I: An Introduction to Fiction Mechanics, Owlswick Press, 1980.
Out of print, but still available from the publisher. Even if you’re not interested in writing science fiction, the opening chapters are pertinent to the writing of any short fiction.
Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers” and “The Art of Literature and Commonsense, both in Lectures on Literature, HBJ, 1980.
Again, these lectures are not directed specifically at writers, but they contain things everyone interested in fiction should know.
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1969.
Most directly the essays “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” and “Writing Short Stories.”
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, Harper Perennial, 2006.
For all these classes, all these workshops, all these books, writers learn most from reading. Prose (yes, that’s her real last name) does a commendable job in demonstrating how this is done.
John Schultz, Writing from Start to Finish, Boynton/Cook, 1982 (A revised “concise” version came out in 1990).
Designed as a freshman rhetoric book (well, so was The Elements of Style), but it’s loaded with precise explanations and examples of basic prose forms. I dispute half the title, though, and offer this caveat: it’s good on “start” but much weaker on “finish.”
William Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, fourth edition, Allyn and Bacon, 2000, 1979.
This book needs no introduction. It’s the winner and still champ. The single most consulted book on the art of good, clear writing ever written.
Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story, Random House, 1978.
All the essays in the section “On Writing” are interesting and thought-provoking. In 2002, Modern Library published those essays separately in a volume titled, appropriately enough, On Writing.
___________, One Writer’s Beginnings, Harvard University Press, 1984.
Three autobiographical essays, but each one makes a point about how she became a writer of fiction and about fiction writing in general.
Kate Wilhelm, Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Small Beer Press, 2005.
Kate Wilhelm and her husband Damon Knight were running writing workshops before most of us even knew what they were (and before many of us were even born). This book gives us a small portion of what Wilhelm has learned, but in that portion is more than you’ll find in ten other books.
Nancy Willard, Telling Time: Angels, Ancestors and Stories, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993.
Another shot of adrenaline for persons who have outgrown Bradbury. Wonderful reading, wonderful advice, fun and enchanting, which is what this business of telling stories and writing fiction is all about.
Robin Scott Wilson, ed., Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader New American Library, 1973 (reprinted in 1996 by St. Martin’s Griffin).
A collection of stories paired with essays about the works by their authors. Candid and generous in giving readers a look at how science fiction writers look at and think about the world.
William Zinsser, On Writing Well, HarperCollins, 2001 (twenty-fifth anniversary edition; other editions available; first published 1976).
Written specifically to treat non-fiction writing, but Zinsser is especially strong at reminding all writers to strive for clarity. I especially commend to you Chapter 10, “Bits and Pieces,” which has enough good advice in a few pieces to be worth a dozen other books of similar length and intent.