Writing advice Writing Books

My Collection of Best Books on Writing

By James Van Pelt
Feb 13, 2020 · 708 words · 3 minutes

Time to hit the books

Photo by Debby Hudson via Unsplash.

From the author: I've been writing and teaching writing for several decades. Along the way I've found the books that told me the most about this interesting and complicated activity.


I'm a compulsive collector of writing books.  Hundreds of dollars on texts, memoirs, self-help and idiosyncratic approaches to writing.  Currently I'm working on my own book to add to the collection.  I bought a new one today that I'm looking forward to perusing, The Art of the Short Story by Dana Dioia and R.S. Gwynn (ISBN 0-321-33722-0).  It's an anthology of 52 renowned authors with representative short stories and accompanying essays from each, including Sherwood Anderson, Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver and many others.  Too many beginning SF/F/H writers avoid looking outside the genre for advice.  For example, the idea that reading Joseph Conrad might help with literature of the fantastic doesn't occur to them.  I love books on writing.  Here are what I think are the very best of them (for me):

Paragons ISBN 0-312-15623-5 and Those Who Can ISBN 0-312-14139-4 edited by Robin Wilson. Both from St. Martins Griffin, 1996. Robin Wilson has gathered science fiction and fantasy stories from the very best in the field: Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Ursula K. Le Guin, Greg Bear, Pat Cadigan and numerous others, following each story with lengthy commentary from the writer. An invaluable look at the best in short fiction with insight from the writers of each.

Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by David Gerrold. Writer's Digest Books, 2001. ISBN 1-58297-007-6. Hugo and Nebula award winning author, David Gerrold, has broken SF/F writing into interesting, informative and entertaining chapters. His examples are particularly helpful. Not just a beginner's text, the chapters on style, metric prose, memes and mastery offer advanced lessons in writing.

The 10% Solution by Ken Rand. Fairwood Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-9668184-0-7. News writer, radio reporter, copy editor and science fiction author Ken Rand's short, no-nonsense approach to editing your own work, properly applied, will do more to make your writing appear professional than anything I've seen like it. Ken's style is funny and concise. He shows you how to go through your manuscript to tighten it, emphasizing accuracy, clarity and brevity.

How I Work as a Poet & Other Essays by Lew Welch. Grey Fox Press, 1983. ISBN 0-912516-06-2. Welch says, "If you want to write you have to want to build things out of language and in order to do that you have to know, really know in your ear and in your tongue and, later, on the page, that language is speech. But the hard thing is that writing is not talking, so what you have to learn to do is to write as if you weretalking, and to do it knowing perfectly well you are not talking, you are writing." I return to his collection of thoughts about writing and the nature of language over and over again.

Science Fiction 101 by Robert Silverberg. ibooks, 2001. ISBN 0-7434-1294-X. A book by one of the bedrock writers in science fiction that includes the stories that turned him on to the genre with his commentary about why he thinks each story works. The book can be read as an anthology of great stories, a collection of essays on the writing of science fiction, or an autobiography of Silver Bob himself.

I also enjoyed a great deal Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Ray Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing, Ted Hughes' Poetry in the Making (which is just as much about fiction as it is poetry), Bruce Holland Rogers' Word Work, Jane Yolen's Take Joy, Ralph Fletcher's What a Writer Needs (all of his examples are from elementary school writers, and it's just brilliant), Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter's What If?  Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, Annie Dillard's Living by Fiction,  and Ursula Le Guin's Steering the Craft.

Then, there are tons of snippets that I've gleaned here and there from books that overall didn't do much for me (as well as what I've heard listening to panelists at conventions--I think it was Terry Pratchett at AussieCon who said on a panel that too many characters in failed fictions suffer from "plucklessness," which is a piece of advice that has stuck with me since--talking to writers over dinner or drinks, overheard at room parties, etc.)

Also, I'm waiting for the books on writing that haven't been done yet, like Connie Willis on plotting (or dialogue!), Neil Gaiman on writing the mythic, or Kelly Link on writing slipstream but still telling great stories.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."