October 9 – 15: “What’s the one fiction writing guidebook that every writer should have?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re joined by ITW Members Carole Lawrence, Kaira Rouda, Dorothy St. James and Martin Roy Hill to answer the question: What’s the one fiction/writing/craft guidebook that every writer should have, not on his or her shelf, but right there on the desk always within reach? Scroll down to the “comments” to follow along!


Carole Lawrence (Carole Buggé) is a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright and poet whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). Edinburgh Twilight, Book 1 of the Ian Hamilton mysteries, is a best seller on Amazon.  Titan Press recently reissued her two Sherlock Holmes novels, The Star of India and The Haunting of Torre Abbey.  Her Lee Campbell thrillers, under the name C.E. Lawrence, include Silent Screams and its sequels, are about a criminal profiler chasing serial killers in New York City.


Dorothy St. James, known for the White House Gardener Mystery series, is going back to her roots and setting a mystery series in a Southern beach town much like the one she’s called home for the past 20 years. The Southern Chocolate Shop Mysteries combine her love of fine chocolates, quirky Southern charm, with a dash of danger. Asking for Truffle (September 2017) and Playing with Bonbon Fire (March 2018.)


Kaira Rouda is a USA Today bestselling, multiple award-winning author of contemporary fiction, including Here, Home, Hope, and The Goodbye Year. Kaira is also the author of Real You Incorporated: 8 Essentials for Women Entrepreneurs and the creator of Real Living, one of the nation’s most successful real estate brands and the first national women-focused brand in real estate. She now lives in Southern California with her family, where she’s lucky enough to write full time, and enjoys the beach whenever possible. Kaira’s latest novel, BEST DAY EVER, is one of the major launch titles for Harlequin’s new imprint Graydon House, available September 2017.


Martin Roy Hill is the author of the military mystery thriller The Killing Depths, the mystery thriller Empty Places, the award-winning DUTY: Suspense and Mystery Stories from the Cold War and Beyond, a collection of new and previously published short stories and EDEN: A Sci-Fi Novella. His latest mystery thriller, The Last Refuge, was published in March 2016.


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  1. Like most authors, I have a shelf full of physical books dealing with writing trade craft, as well as a Kindle full of virtual books on the same subject. Most of them are well known, and should be no surprise to anyone.

    I write thrillers and mysteries. During my journalism career, I worked as a police reporter. I was also involved in law enforcement in the military and, to a lesser extent, civilian life, including completing what was then the California police reserve course. I already have several manuals and handbooks on law enforcement. But I also have many L/E reference books written specifically for writers.

    Among the latter are Anne Wingate’s Scene of the Crime: A Writer’s Guide to Crime Scene Investigation, Keith D. Wilson’s Cause of Death: A Writer’s Guide to Death, Murder, and Forensic Medicine, and the Mystery Writers of America’s Mystery Writer’s Handbook. I also have a copy of Michael Newton’s Armed and Dangerous, and Benjamin Sobieck’s The Writers’s Guide to Weapons (with a forward written by ITW co-founder David Morrell) so I don’t get my weapons confused.

    For literary trade craft I have Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II: Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling, and Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Dave King and Renni Browne. Recently, I have been studying Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Though Snyder’s book is written for screenwriters, it is a useful resource for teaching novelists how to develop a plot that moves.

    But the two books I turn to regularly are David Morrell’s The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing, and Bob Mayer’s The Novel Writer’s Toolkit. I have the Kindle version of each book, and they are both highly annotated. When I’m stuck and need advice, inspiration, or education, I turn to these two books.

    As a side note, I recently read Mayer’s book Write It Forward, a companion book to his Writer’s Toolkit. This is this is one of the best—if not the best—books on the business side of writing, covering everything from the mindset and discipline of a successful writer to the hard work of promoting your books.

    In today’s contracting publishing industry, most authors are forced to assume more responsibility for promoting and marketing their books. In that respect, there is very little difference between mid-list authors and independent authors. I think this part of being an author is as important as learning how to plot a story and write well.

  2. Hi!
    I’m happy to be here and to be asked to answer the question about what one writing guidebook should authors have at hand. As Martin so eloquently noted above, there are so many to choose from and the guidance you need as an author depends on your background and strengths. I agree with all of his recommendations. As an English major and former journalist and marketing exec, I’ve been writing all my life. I have a stack of books on writing and craft, but my favorite books are inspirational.

    Right now, I’m reading Donald Maass newest, The Emotional Craft of Fiction which explores how to make sure you’re writing the emotional story below the surface. I would recommend all of Don’s craft books. I’m also a fan of Southern Lit, and treasure Eudora Welty’s On Writing. As the book description explains: “Eudora Welty was one of the twentieth century’s greatest literary figures. For as long as students have been studying her fiction as literature, writers have been looking to her to answer the profound questions of what makes a story good, a novel successful, a writer an artist. On Writing presents the answers in seven concise chapters discussing the subjects most important to the narrative craft, and which every fiction writer should know, such as place, voice, memory, and language. But even more important is what Welty calls “the mystery” of fiction writing—how the writer assembles language and ideas to create a work of art.” If you haven’t read On Writing, do!

  3. Like probably everyone else joining in on the conversation, I probably have too many books on the craft of writing. In fact, I have a bookshelf (right next to my desk) that is nothing but books on writing. While I’ve read every single book on my shelf as well as several that live on my Kindle, there are a few that I go back to again and again. They’re like old friends who can give me sage advice when I’m feeling stuck.

    Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver was a watershed book for me. (Don’t we all have one of those?) I read this book at the right time to hear what was being taught. The book is all about how to craft scenes that are compelling and that feel immediate to the reader. Reading it gave me that light bulb moment. From that moment on, my writing changed. The next manuscript I wrote sold almost immediately and was my first published book. I come back to this book to read the examples to keep my writing crisp. One suggestion that Cleaver gives is that before writing a scene map out its purpose. Who is your POV character? What does that character want? What is the obstacle to gaining that want? What action does the character take? What is the result? Doing this for every scene really helps me keeps the pacing of my writing moving forward.

    A book I lean heavily on when plotting is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a screenwriting book. Yes, we’re writing novels not screenplays, but stick with me on this one. Screenwriters know how to plot tight. Also, people are used to watching movies and television shows and want their novels to move at the same pace. This book breaks down several popular movies and shows how to write a compelling logline (one line pitch) and how to use the beat sheet he provides to create a plot that follows the 3 act structure. The beat sheet is super for writing the dreaded synopsis. My synopses have actually become interesting. I love this book and recommend it to everyone!

    Finally, I’m a big fan of the Writers Police Academy (great for getting hands on experience) and keep Lee Lofland’s book, Police Procedure & Investigation close by to help me avoid sounding like a novice when it comes to the police end of things.

    I look forward to hearing what books everyone keeps close at hand and why this week.

  4. This may not be a popular opinion, but the one writing book essential to my library is Story, by Robert McKee. I’ve read it five times cover to cover, underlined extensively, and I even created a three page summary of the main points to study. I know it’s nominally about screenwriting, but his principals are universal, imo.

    1. I have heard great things about Story. I’m putting it on my TBR list. As I mentioned above, I think screenwriting books translate really well to helping writers write books that modern readers want.

    2. No need to fear, Carole, any suggestion is welcomed. I think there is much to learn from screenwriting techniques. I think their “tricks of the trade” translate to novel writing more easily than the other way around.

      1. I have Save the Cat which I think is excellent and Story which I haven’t read yet…
        I’ve been to two workshops by screenwriting teacher Michael Hauge and he also did sessions more recently at one of our Romance Writers of Australia conferences. He’d tailored his method more towards romance for that which was useful. I have a bookmark sized handout of his Six Stage Plot Structure propped up on my desk for easy reference. It’s excellent for pacing.

        The other way round comment…Hmmm maybe imagery? Writers can convey a sense of place and character essence with well chosen words which maybe directors try to emulate on film? Hard though.

        1. The commonality between script writing and novel writing centers on plot, pacing, dialogue, and, to a lesser extent, on character. Creating a movie is really a collaborative endeavor. The screenwriter creates the story, but it is up to the set designer and photography director to create the setting, and the director and actors to bring the story and characters to life. A screenplay is also a very tight medium, around 100 pages for a script compared to around 300 pages for a novel. So I think we novelists can learn more from screenwriters about tightening our writing, improving our pacing, and so on, than screen writers can learn from us.

          For instance, take the airport scene from the movie Casablanca. The script probably said something like: “Airport. Night time. Heavy rain and fog.” The director, set designer, director of photography and, maybe, the special effects people created what we see on the screen.

          Now as a novelist, how would you write that scene? You would describe how the rain was falling, what it sounded like striking the tarmac or Bogey’s fedora, or the smell of aircraft fumes, etc. All that, I think, is more important to the set designer than the screenwriter.

          I may be wrong; it certainly wouldn’t be the first time, Heaven knows. Perhaps a screenwriter would have a different view

  5. I hope you find it useful, Dorothy – what I like about screenplay form is that it is such a distilled form of storytelling. In novels you can get away with all kinds of indulgence that just doesn’t cut it in screenplays. Your darlings will eventually kill themselves – if you want to make money. And yes, you made a great point about that in your comment, which I only read today, since I think we all posted early.

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, Martin! That’s an interesting question as to whether techniques of novel writing work in screenplays at all.

    Anyone else have an opinion on Roy’s intriguing comment?

  6. Martin,
    I’ve written quite a few screenplays, and you’re entirely right – setting is minimal, and everything has to be communicated through action and dialogue. And only Aaron Sorkin seems to get away with verbose, talky dialogue these days – generally in screenplay if your dialogue is more than two lines long, you think about trimming it.

    However, if you read some of Ingmar Bergman’s screenplays, they read more like novels. There’s a lot of rumination, description, backstory, etc. – but these days people don’t do that.

    I always tell my students if they don’t enjoy writing description, then write a screenplay!

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