by Kelsey Ford, May 5, 2022 8:43 AM
Short stories are enticing and prickly — so satisfying when done well, but so difficult to get right. In honor of May being Short Story Month, I thought I'd pull together a selection of craft books that speak to writing short stories in particular, as well as writing practices in general. Whether you’ve been looking to scratch that writerly itch, or just looking for some inspiration for your current works in progress, these books will help you find the words you’re looking for.
Craft in the Real World
by Matthew Salesses
We must reject the mystification/mythification of creative writing. The mystical writer uses the myth of his genius to gain power.
Matthew Salesses brings us a highly necessary craft book that approaches writing and craft “in the real world,” and not from the white-centric, workshop-centric view that’s often been considered the default. It’s a great untangling and redefining of so many craft terms — like setting and plot and believability — that reassesses what those terms might mean in a more diverse landscape. A really great book to read if you want to take a step back and decontextualize your work from the “accepted wisdoms” that don’t serve it.
Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative
by Melissa Febos
There is no pain in my life that has not been given value by the alchemy of creative attention.
This new release from Melissa Febos is a memoir and a craft masterclass rolled up into one beautifully written ball of insight. Through the lens of her experiences, Febos writes about how to write about trauma, bodies, relationships, desire, loss. She shows you how to write personal narratives via her own personal narratives; it’s an incredible affecting, powerful, and helpful book. But don’t just take my word for it: you should absolutely read bookseller Bry Hoeg’s great spotlight on Body Work.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
by George Saunders
The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.
In this collection, George Saunders dives deep in a series of classic Russian short stories by the masters, pulling out the lessons a writer can learn about how the story does what it does and how the story is effective (and sometimes how it’s not). Having access to the way a writer like Saunders approaches reading and how he incorporates those lessons into his own work is such a gift. (Added bonus: I listened to this one on audiobook. It’s got some amazing narrators, including Nick Offerman, BD Wong, and Glenn Close. I highly recommend you get your own copy through Libro.fm!)
Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction
by Benjamin Percy
Q: What’s the key to suspense? A: I’ll tell you later.
This is one of the most fun craft books out there, in my opinion. Percy breaks down the walls between genre and literary fiction (which I would argue is a genre in itself) and looks at classic works of genre, how they use different elements of fiction, and how a writer might be able to apply those lessons in whatever form they prefer. True to its title, this craft books works at how to bring the thrilling into your writing, and how important it can be to ignore that “no genre” bias so many writers come up against.
But don’t take our word for it: check out our interview with Benjamin Percy on the release of Thrill Me.
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction
by Jeff VanderMeer
As much as possible, allow yourself to be a raw nerve end that internalizes whatever is experienced in life.
This illustrated craft book is bright and fun and strange, just like we’ve come to expect from Jeff Vandermeer’s fiction. I’d argue that all writing requires a level of world-creation and imagination — whether it’s a work of autofiction or a sci-fi epic set on Jupiter — and this book gives writers the toolbox they need to confidently build out their stories, no matter how speculative or unwieldy. Accompanied by illustrations that chart out a story’s ecosystem, beginnings and endings, and narrative design, among many, many other topics, this book is an expansive, informative craft book that’ll inspire any writer’s daydreams.
Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew
by Ursula K. Le Guin
There are a limited number of plots (some say seven, some say twelve, some say thirty). There is no limit to the number of stories.
To call Ursula K. Le Guin a legend would be an understatement, so to have this book from her, filled with her thoughts and advice on writing, is a blessing. She covers so much in this slim but formidable book — from the sound of language to the use of verbs and adjectives, from point of view and narration to voice and “telling it slant.” A necessary addition to anyone’s craft book library.
The Art of Revision: The Last Word
by Peter Ho Davies
What is revision? Call it, for now, the sum of what changes, and what stays the same, and the alchemical reaction between them.
Peter Ho Davies has put together a slim, sharp, helpful book on the important process of revision and various strategies for approaching and improving a draft. He includes a number of illustrative examples taken from short stories, where he compares early drafts from Carmen Maria Machado and Raymond Carver (to name only two) to their eventual published form. This is an insightful guide that tries to make the revision process less daunting and more accessible.
How Fiction Works
by James Wood
Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, wheras literature teaches us to notice.
I’m including this one because it’s a classic, but it’s also a classic example of, “take what resonates and leave the rest.” Literary critic James Wood knows is smart when it comes to the machinations of storytelling — characterization, plotting, metaphors, dialogue, etc. However, Wood does hew pretty closely to literary realism, which, when it comes to being helpful, can only take you so far. If you pick this one up, be sure to grab a copy of Craft in the Real World as well.
Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
by Benjamin Dreyer
Only godless savages eschew the series comma.
If you (like me) love getting into the weeds with language, you will love this book. It manages to get so granular — what to do when characters leave a speech unfinished, how to use period-appropriate punctuation, when and when not to hyphenate — while also offering very practical advice for writers, like to always read the prose aloud when revising and to do the appropriate level of research around specifics that should hold true, even in works of fiction. I always find myself inspired by the grammatical nitty-gritties that make up this book; I think it’s an invaluable resource for any writer.
Looking for some short stories to dig into? Check out this list of 12 collections we think you should try
, or this list of 10 collections for short attention spans