Five Books for First-Time Novelists

By Michelle Chalkey

Writing a novel is no light task. It is an art, a craft to be learned, studied and developed. Luckily for us writers, improving our craft can come from one of our favorite hobbies—reading.

As a writer, I gain inspiration and ideas from reading fiction in my genre, but in reading advice from the pros, I also gain motivation to persevere through the rough patches and knowledge to hone my skills. When I set out to begin writing my first novel last fall, I turned to a number of books on plot, structure and character development to get me on my feet. Keeping a book on the craft of writing in my mix of reading material teaches me new things on a daily basis and makes me eager to implement what I’ve learned in my work. Let’s just say, it’s hard to avoid writing when you keep your brain busy with these encouraging books.

The following is a list of five books on writing that have stood out for me in the past year as I begin my first novel. Of course, I have read the known favorites such as Stephen King’s On Writing and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, but the five listed here are a fresh take for what I think are especially beneficial for new novelists.

  1. The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson

This one came recommended to me by another member of the Des Moines Writers Workshop, and I couldn’t be more grateful that she pointed me toward this book. For someone who reads all the time, it surprised me how unprepared I felt when I first sat down to outline my novel. Alderson expresses the four major “energetic markers” to base your plot around. This notion helped me break my novel into parts and keep my protagonist’s actions in line with her goals. In addition to this helpful book on the elements of plot, Alderson  has a workbook and a prompt book in The Plot Whisperer series, both of which I also recommend.

  1. 90-Days to Your Novel by Sarah Domet

The title is lustful to a first-time novelist. While I’ll readily admit that I did not finish my novel in 90 days, the assignments in this book are incredibly helpful to get your wheels turning in the beginning stages. The book’s chapters focus on different elements for each of the 12 weeks within the 90 days, the first three all dedicated to brainstorming assignments. I often refer to the character sheet and setting assignments from the beginning chapters. Whether you finish your book in 90 days (kudos to you if you do!) or not, the assignments are great when you’re figuring things out in your first draft.

  1. Write from the Middle by James Scott Bell

This was another recommendation from a workshop member. Bell offers a quick book for when you are stuck in the middle, and I’ll tell you, the middle is a scary place to be during your first draft of your first novel. The thrill and momentum of beginning the novel may come to a halt, and that’s where this handy work comes in to carry you through. Bell enforces the transformation that needs to happen to your protagonist and how your book really extends from the middle out, giving you that spark you need to get excited about reaching the midpoint.

  1. The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch

The book reflects every word of its title. It has everything you can imagine from the beginning to end of writing a book, with a whole chapter on revision and editing that blew my mind. In addition to advice on fiction, a whole chapter is dedicated to writing memoirs. Voices of several professional authors are heard throughout, resounding some of the best advice out there. Just when you think it can’t get any better, the last chapter is a complete guide of resources for any kind of help you need.

  1. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Turn to this book when you’re doubting yourself. Gilbert will pick you right back up and kick your butt until the end. 

Keep on writing, and when you get in a slump, try turning to one of these books and read yourself out of it!

How about you? What books have helped you in writing your first novel?

Beth Burgmeyer

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