Anyone who was with me in my MFA program can tell you: I notoriously hate craft books. That's why I'm listing ones I've found particularly useful, across various levels (as judged by me). Please note, I am not getting a commission from the sale of any of these books, nor have the authors asked me to talk about them. (In fact, they don't know who I am!)
Although at first glance it appears to be a hodgepodge of whacky diagrams, cute cartoons, and other arts, Wonderbook's organizing logic makes sense upon reading the introduction. Each chapter often comes with at least one writing exercise in the middle, given in a bubble to the side, often with an accompanying image as part of the prompt, and the book ends with an appendix with some interviews, essays, and other writing exercises. Part a coffee table book to flip through and part a book concerning building block but big-picture elements of fiction, particularly speculative fiction, Wonderbook is a great tool for any young writer who wants to understand culturally conventional tips to crafting a story that can stand on its own legs.
Although I disagree with Percy's dislike of dialogue, I found Thrill Me to be among one of the most useful craft books I read during my MFA. He ultimately argues that one can take the best lessons of literary fiction—beautiful sentences, rhythmic wordplay—and those of genre fiction—plot and excitement—and merge them to create writing that, as one of his professors once advocated for, thrills. Broken into standalone essays, Percy draws from film and TV in addition to books in order to illustrate his points.
Level: Intermediate (with some beginner-friendly chapters)
Craft in the Real World is an absolute game-changer. It's less a craft text and more a "how to think about craft" text, shifting the focus from the dominant paradigm to a more inclusive view of writing, discussing the relationship between culture and craft. Although this book feels mostly geared towards fiction writers of color who are in or have gone through an MFA, and people who either teach or want to teach at the MFA level, others will find the first section of the book, which reimagines craft and craft terms, indispensable.
To sample, check out "25 Essential Notes on Craft," published on LitHub.
If you're hoping to craft literary-leaning stories, Meander, Spiral, Explode is a must. At once both literary analysis and a craft text, the book examines the structural possibilities of (mostly fictional) narrative. In the introduction, Alison challenges the conventional wisdom of narrative as an arc, arguing we do not necessarily need to apply it to all narrative, that in fact, the arc's predominate mode of Western storytelling for centuries is a disservice to all the other possibilities for narrative shapes.
Do you always reach for the same hackneyed expressions to describe body language, internal feelings, and other expressions of emotions? I know I do. The Emotional Thesaurus is one of the most useful books I've purchased. With over 100 different emotions and their corresponding physical, internal, and mental tells, plus a list of "power verbs" associated with them, this text is useful to anyone who wants to vary up their descriptions along this line. I've since explored the other books in the series, and while I think this is the strongest one, I've found those useful too!
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© 2022, Naseem Jamnia
Photos of Naseem by Jennie Kaplan, 2018, and Jeramie Lu, 2022