Writers' Resources—In Print

"There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."
—Red Smith

A Powell's Books Partner You can buy books mentioned here on-line through Powell's Books. Last Updated: 29 April 2002.

A note on dates and editions: The dates and editions listed are for the most-available edition at this writing—not first publication. This is for your convenience if you decide to purchase a book through a local bookstore.

The Art, Craft, and Business of Writing Fiction

Gardner, John. 1991. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. Basic. Don't let the subtitle fool you—this book will help older and more experienced writers, too. Gardner was one of the earliest exponents of the "building block" approach to learning the craft of fiction. This book is far better than almost any of its successors.

Lamott, Anne. 1995. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and life. Basic. This is a wonderful "motivational" book about learning to be a successful freelance writer. Beyond the motivation, Lamott has some well-considered advice for budding writers, including ways to deal with both early market success and early market failure.

Shakespeare, William. Basic. Every writer should read Shakespeare. His masterly mix of plot and characterization provides lesson after lesson for writers, not to mention story ideas! Shakespeare's people are real, with real conversations. The tragedies and histories have high and low humor. Finally, the mix of "showing" and "telling" should help show when to use each (for a more detailed exposition, see Booth below). I particularly recommend five plays to start with, in the New Folger library editions:

Strunk, William, and E.B. White. 1995. The Elements of Style. 3d ed. Basic. An absolutely critical guide to good grammar and good writing. A few very technical points are somewhat dated. However, the first part of the book bears annual rereading. This book should be in every writer's personal library.

Card, Orson Scott. 1990. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Basic to Intermediate. One of the very few "how to write" books from a certain Cincinnati publisher worth the paper it's printed on. It's actually worth a lot more than that. Every budding writer—and too many established ones—should learn Card's explanation of process and of story types (his "MICE" quotient), if only so they understand how one of the leaders in the field works.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 1998. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Basic to Intermediate. This is similar in approach to Gardner, but more accepting of speculative fiction. The writing exercises are far better than those in any other book I've ever encountered. Le Guin's advice on critique groups is invaluable, too. One thing that I particularly like is her mixture of "mainstream literature" and speculative fiction examples, with no apologies for either.

Maass, Donald. 2001. Writing the Breakout Novel. Basic to Intermediate. Written by the President of the Association of Author's Representatives, this book successfully debunks a great many myths about success in the business of literature. It's worth study by anyone who writes at book length, but is particularly valuable to midlist writers. Again, there is an excellent mix of different literary categories in the examples. I also recommend Maass, Donald. 1995. The Career Novelist, which covers other topics of use to writers, although not quite as lucidly as the more recent one.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Intermediate. Unfortunately, this book is (at this writing) out of print. It's filled with insights, ranging from "why fantasy at all" to "what makes speculative fiction good." Le Guin's description of the nonsensical Jonathan Livingston Seagull as a plasticized children's book is worth the price of a used copy alone. This is a "pre-writing" book about what happens before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be)—and why.

Orwell, George. 1991. A Collection of Essays. Intermediate. Orwell's essays—particularly "Why I Write" and "Politics and the English Language"—are required reading for anyone with the ambition to do more than make a fast buck writing trash. like Strunk and White, Orwell's essays teach more with each rereading. Orwell's style bears some close attention, too—it's very clean without the excessive minimalism that careless readers have derived from Hemingway.

Scott, Melissa. 1997. Conceiving the Heavens: Creating the Science Fiction Novel. Intermediate. This book is a good follow-on to Card. It has a more 90s approach. That's great for now, but it's more likely to become dated precisely because it's a very specific approach to writing, and is focused on novel-length science fiction (a real surprise, given the subtitle).

Booth, Wayne C. 1983. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2d ed. Advanced. A large, somewhat intimidating look at the theory of "showing" and "telling" that, unlike the garbage foisted upon budding writers and through "creative writing" programs, explains when and why each is appropriate without damning either method. Requires some literary background, but the writing is very accessible.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 1997. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. Advanced. A refreshingly unpretentious, yet sound (in the scholarly sense) discussion of writing, feminism, personal identity, and the relationships among them. Unlike all too many feminist tracts, this book does not treat bearers of Y chromosomes as somehow defective.


Writing what you know is a trap for the ignorant. All writers must have certain basic knowledge. Speculative fiction writers also need specialized knowledge to speculate intelligently.

As an example, it's inexcusable to write a story, however beautifully told, that describes the deep seas and lovely climate of a tropical Venus (unless you're writing about massive terraforming!), because:

This example is pretty obvious. But there are a lot of other pitfalls waiting out there for the ignorant. Somebody, somewhere, can find a nit to pick (suggestion: look up "nit" in a good dictionary) with any speculation. A well-conceived, well-written story—whether that story is a short-short or a multivolume series—at least makes grouchy skeptics like me work hard to find the nits!

And, for you fantasy writers: You're not off the hook. As a rule, fantasy tends to be much worse than science fiction about its research. As poor as the typical American's knowledge of science is, it's better than her knowledge of pre-20th century history. For example, there have been at least three fantasy novels in print during the 1990s that screwed up (or ignored entirely) the different calendars used in Europe prior to adoption of the modern calendar in England. One of those three books put a crucial plot event that was to take place on Passover in the wrong Western-calendar month!

Boorstin, Daniel J. 1983. The Discoverers. Basic. This book is about change. All speculative fiction is founded upon controlling such change, whether of the philosophical, the technological, or the physical aspects of a society (or, at a finer level, a specific character). Boorstin's theories aren't currently fashionable with academic historians, but they're solid and as-yet unrefuted.

Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls. 1995. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Basic. If you're serious about writing science fiction, you owe yourself a copy of this book. Come on, it's a deductible research expense that will last for years. I recommend only the paperbound edition, with the errata. For the same reason, I suggest waiting until the corresponding Encyclopedia of Fantasy comes out in paper—the website for its errata is huge.

Connolly, Peter, and Hazel Dodge. 1998. The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome. Basic. A superb, illustrated guide to the development of the major cities of the ancient West—a vastly underused model for fantasy. The illustrations include ruins, maps, and recreations of the buildings and settings as they were. What sets this book apart from most others is its consideration of change and development. Most books on Athens, and particularly on Rome, illustrate the cities only at the respective height of their powers. Connolly and Dodge demonstrate growth, stability, and decay throughout.

Keegan, Sir John. 1998. The Face of Battle; ———. 1998. The Mask of Command. Basic. If I could impose a prerequisite course of study for writing about military issues—it is indeed a rare work of speculative fiction that does not intersect at all with military issues—it would definitely include reading these two books. Although they are not heavy on military theory, neither are they mere diaristic travelogues. Most bad military fiction ignores the lessons Keegan has to teach.

Williams, Trevor I. 1987; Schaaf, Jr., William E., rev. ed. 2000. A History of Invention From Stone Axes to Silicon Chips (rev. ed.). Basic. An absolutely invaluable reference that should be read through at least once by authors with any interest at all in plausible webs of technological change. Although the point could be clearer, the timelines that lead off each chapter show the ripple effects of technological changes. More importantly, this book extends beyond such efforts as The Way Things Work by putting the technology in its social context, both causally and effectually.

Frazer, Sir James G. 1922. The Golden Bough (abridged). Basic. Stories are just a special case of myth. This is the classic work on the structure and workings of myth in human history. The abridged editions hold up better than the full multivolume treatise, because many of the particular examples Frazer cites have been undermined by more recent anthropological research. The main alternative—Joseph Campbell's work—is somewhat intellectually dishonest, shoddy in its scholarship and fact-checking, and far too simplistic. Stick with Frazer.

Gillett, Stephen L. 1996. World-Building. Basic. Creating new worlds—ranging from interstellar societies to isolated, non-technological planets—is not just a matter of whim. This book contains both significant formulas and lucid explanations of how to use them. And, fantasy writers, this means you, too—those multiple moons and greenish sunsets have geophysical and geochemical explanations and consequences that will (or at least should) affect your societies, your characters, and your stories.

Dyer, Christopher. 2002. Making a Living in the Middle Ages. Intermediate. Most authors think of "medieval Europe" in terms of stagnation, and ignorance, and dominance by a Disneyfied vague noble class. Far from it. Dyer's book is not copiously, but carefully illustrated to support the text. Unlike most of the books on "medieval life" (such as the shoddy works by Gies and Gies), Dyer names his sources, discusses interpretations of sources, as isn't afraid to leave issues unresolved when there is not adequate evidence. These unresolved issues provide the greatest opportunities in "medieval" worldbuilding. Highly recommended.

Erickson, Jon. 2001. Plate Tectonics: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Earth. Intermediate. Mapmaking shouldn't be just a random "put a mountain range over here because it looks cool" exercise in unconstrained creativity. This book shows how mountains form, continents drift, plant and animal life gets distributed, and several other issues that should concern someone who wants to make a plausible map. It won't enable an author to produce an exquisitely detailed simulation of tectonic plate movement resulting in the geography of Middle Earth. However, it will give the author enough detail to put mountain ranges in the right places, put plants and animals in the right places, and develop appropriate ancient prehistories when they're needed. Recommended for both science fiction and fantasy writers.

Landes, David S. 1998. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some Are So Poor. Intermediate. World- and society-building require at least some understanding of economics. Trying to get that understanding from an economics textbook will lead only to frustration, because textbooks concern themselves with the ideal. While Professor Landes's writing is at times overly academic, and his political inclinations sometimes get in the way of clear reasoning, this book does a very good job of putting economic development in context. It's useful for both science fiction and fantasy writers, concentrating as it does upon the effects of change.

Liddell Hart, Sir Basil H. 1954. Strategy (2d rev. ed.). Intermediate. This is one of the classic works of military theory. The vast majority of military-oriented speculative fiction is simply garbage because it ignores basic military principles. liddell Hart's theories have their flaws, but they're not significant for fiction writers at the level of abstraction in this book. I particularly recommend the Meridian paperback edition for the clarity of its maps. Do not bother with any edition prior to the second revised.

Silver, Brian L. 1998. The Ascent of Science. Intermediate. Too much science fiction (and fantasy, for that matter) involves lone scientists who make breakthrough discoveries to immediate, universal acclaim. Tain't so. Silver's book is about the progress of theory and learning. So is Kuhn's classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but Kuhn largely neglects the human element in his sterilely theoretical (but nonetheless important) work. Silver's book gives an important sense of character and discovery that is vital to creating better scientists—and wizards.

Cantor, Norman. 1993. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. Intermediate. There are a lot of myths floating around about how "medieval" societies function. (For one, that there is such a thing as a prototypical "medieval society"!) Cantor's readable work does a nice job of putting things in context.

Black, Jeremy. 1997. Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past. Advanced. Most people forget that the victors make the maps. Why else, for example, does the Prime Meridian pass through the nearly-forgotten naval observatory in Greenwich? Why do maps of landlocked areas exist at all? Black's work does a nice job explaining a variety of problems inherent in mapmaking, many of which are food for thought for the careful worldbuilder.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Advanced. Anyone who intends to play with government structures should at least try to read Rawls. It's not easy going, but it's very rewarding. Rawls succeeds in questioning the prevailing wisdom about governments and dispute resolution without dictating the answers through ill-chosen questions. Ultimately, governments exist only for controlling disputes, ranging from individual property disputes to total warfare. Structuring a government without adequate attention to these issues will lead to serious problems. That may be purposeful in your stories, but you should try to know why.

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