Read these four books, then go write an awesome novel

October 1, 2013 | 53 comments

I am super excited about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November. I don’t think I can participate because I’ve been doing NaNoWriLIFE for the past five years, but I’m all fired up about the idea of you participating.

I felt God nudging me to write this post, like he was saying, “There is someone out there who needs to write a book. I gave them this great idea for a story, and they keep talking themselves out of putting it down on paper. They read your blog due to an unfortunate lost bet situation, so please do a post about NaNoWriMo and I’ll use it as a sign to them to finally write this book.” (God uses “their” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, because that’s how it was supposed to be in his original plan.)

So if you have ever thought about writing a novel or a memoir, I strongly encourage you to do it this November! No, you probably won’t be able to get a flawless, ready-to-publish manuscript completed in a month, but you will be able to cover the canvass, and that’s what matters most.

We have a month until the start date, which gives you some time to sharpen your tools. I’ve read pretty much every writing book in existence, and I put all of that advice to the test while writing my memoir (a genre which, in terms of form, is very similar to fiction). Below are the four books that I found to be most helpful. Whether you’re going to jump into NaNoWriMo or write your book at another time, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to read each of these books.


1. The Authentic Swing

authentic-swing-steven-pressfieldHot off the presses, this new book from bestselling author Steven Pressfield is a gem. It’s a cross between a memoir and a how-to manual in which he walks the reader through the process of writing his first novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance. There is great stuff here on all levels: insights into how a legendary author puts a book together, as well as fascinating behind-the-scenes tidbits from the industry (he had to pay his own airfare to the premier of the movie!)

Please listen to me when I say this: if you read the section called Finding the Theme, on pages 47 – 49 of the current paperback version, you will have more than gotten your money’s worth out of this book. Honestly, you will have received more wisdom than is contained in shelves full of other books on writing. All great writers understand theme on a gut level, but Pressfield is one of the few who can articulate what it is, why it matters, and how you can find it in your own work.

2. Word Painting

word-painting-rebecca-mcclanahanIf you write any kind of stories at all — including blog posts, Facebook updates, or Christmas card letters — you will find that this book takes your prose to a whole new level. Author Rebecca McClanahan teaches us how to get the images in our imaginations down on paper in a way that it will resonate as deeply for the reader as it does for us, and she offers lots of examples from well-known books so that we can see the concepts in action.

If I could only recommend one book for writers of all genres to read, it would be this one.

3. Story Engineering

Story is an objective concept. If I run up to you and say, “I have the best story for you: yesterday, I got in my car!” you’d have an intuitive sense that that is not a story.

story-engineering-brooksLarry Brooks has done the world a favor by taking a look at the great stories of history and articulating what structural elements they all have in common. He then names each of these elements, and helps authors understand what they are and how they function in a book. He analogizes it to being like learning to draw a face: all faces have certain elements in common (two eyes, a nose, a mouth). Within that framework there are infinite possibilities for artistic expression, but you need to understand the basic components in order to be a master of face-drawing.

I would note that this book is just as important for memoir as it is for fiction. If you feel moved to record a real-life story, knowing the elements of story engineering will help you unearth the clearest narrative from your jumble of memories.

(The only circumstance under which I’d recommend skipping this book is if you plan to write a swashbuckling saga like The Long Ships, since sagas have different story engineering principles.)

(If you’re going to write a swashbuckling saga like The Long Ships, you are made of win.)

4. 2K to 10K

7qt222-2k-to-10kThe subtitle of this book is “Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love, ” and it delivers on its promises. Successful novelist Rachel Aaron shares her secrets for how she took her own writing output from 2, 000 to 10, 000 words per day, without a decrease in quality. I read the book in less than an hour, and I tried out her suggestions during my next writing time. I was astonished to see that I was able to quadruple my output, and it was some of my best work. This book has the best “time spent reading it”-to-“amount it improved my life” ratio of anything I’ve ever read.

. . .

I spent a long time thinking about which books to include on this list, and I’m confident that you’ll be thrilled with all of them. If you plan to participate in NaNoWriMo, you should have plenty of time to read all of them by November. (And if you need further inspiration, here is a list of a few NaNoWriMo novels that ended up getting published.)

If you’ve ever thought about writing a novel or memoir, I’d love to hear about it. What is it about? What inspires you about this story?


  1. Eva

    I wrote 2 really bad novels a few years ago when I left work to have my first baby. Really, really bad. I’d rather poke out my eyes than reread them, put it that way.
    Mind you I tend to delete my blog entries if I think that they’re too emotionally honest, so my perception maybe a bit skewed. There’s a fine line between poignant honesty and teeth gnashing self consciousness, I find….

    BTW, my absolute favourite book on writing is ‘On Writing’, by Stephen King. I’m a fan of his anyway, but it’s a great book regardless.

    • Leticia Adams

      Eva, I’m reading that book right now. I agree, it’s pretty good.

  2. Amelia

    While I have no desire to write a novel, I have been feeling more promptings from the holy spirit to write more articles and try to get more articles published. So, I’ll take this post as my Holy Spirit kick in the butt to get started…even if I’m not interested in writing a novel…I still need that kick just to write an article.

  3. Sandy

    I want to write a memoir about growing up with a WWII-combat-veteran father. He told a lot of stories about the war and it deeply impacted his (our) life. My vague notion is to alternate between his battle stories and memories of my childhood. The concept first developed about eight years ago when I stayed with Dad for a week and heard the war stories anew. I didn’t want to write it until he was gone and he died almost two years ago (at age 90) but I still have not started writing.

    • Julie

      I think this is a fabulous idea! You should definitely go with it!

    • Hannah Sadar

      I would definitely buy your book. That sounds sooo interesting. Please do write it!!!!

  4. Monica

    You wrote this for ME. OK, God. Leave Jen alone now. I got the message. Started the GREAT EPIC CATHOLIC NOVEL, for which I am wholly unqualified but felt definitively called to do… and it’s been sitting on my nightstand for the past 6 months, untouched. Time to get back to work.

    • Marilyn

      That sounds great Monica! I’ll read it!

  5. Sara McD

    About twenty years ago I thought about writing a memoir and shared the idea with my mother. She told me not to embarrass her.

    I’d like to tell my own story, but our lives are so intertwined with the lives of others that I think I’d find it impossible not to tell pieces of those as well and that’s not really fair – I mean some of those stories are not mine to tell and especially if they are incomplete as they must be. Plus, y’know, how to be honest and still honor my father and mother?

    Also, you’re wrong about “their.” 🙂

  6. Elizabethe

    Ok! Fine.

    Sometimes I imagine All the angels around me pulling out their hair in frustration as I talk myself, yet again, out of doing something I really want to do, have time for, and feel called to do.

    But angels aren’t like that.

    Glad to see Rachel Aaron’s book made the cut. It’s a GREAT book.

    So what are the characteristics of a swashbuckling saga?

  7. Amity

    Jane Austen used the singular “they” for unknown persons. I am a fan of that usage.

    After reading your post, I’m thinking about doing InHaWeMo in November – that would be Individual Hand Weaving Month.

  8. Karianna

    A few years ago, I started reading Christian Young Adult novels. While they are cute ans fun, I started thinking it would be nice to read a YA novel with more of a Catholic feel to it. Honestly, it wouldn’t be too different from Christian YA novels… Maybe that’s why I stalled?

    • Britt

      The Daughters of St. Paul have a few (and mine in January!). But this is great inspiration to get started on another!

  9. Kelly M.

    It’s so much easier to just talk about writing a book. Plus, the suspense and eager anticipation people feel is probably greater than how they’ll feel after completing anything substantial I could put to paper.
    But reading about writing, that sounds manageable, and then I can keep telling people I’m “working on a book.”
    And seriously, best bet I ever lost.

  10. Jess

    Thanks for this! I just reserved these from my library . .. working on that novel, slowly.

  11. Lynne

    Thinking of memoirs made me think of Sheldon VanAuken’s A Severe Mercy. This must be one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Not sure if it’s one you have recommended here? I get goosebumps even thinking about it. That’s nothing to do with NaNoWriMo, but it’s the closest I’ll get to the subjects of “writing” and “memoir”. I guess I’d rather read a great one than write a great one.

  12. Rosemary

    I have “2k to 10k” on my Kindle, haven’t started reading it yet though!

    I used to participate in NaNoWriMo every year (and I hit 50k every year too!). But once I started grad school I had to focus on my “real” writing … and this November I’m due with twins. So I don’t think it will happen. 🙁 But thanks so much for posting about this … you’ve definitely got me thinking, and maybe I will do some writing in November. It’s been too long. 🙂

  13. Micaela @ California to Korea

    I don’t know if I have any ideas for a novel, or even if my (self-diagnosed) ADD will ever allow me to complete one. However, I HAVE been wanting to work on my writing, so thank you for sharing these.

  14. Anne McD

    Sunday night I was out with the Hubs at Barnes and Noble. I pointed to a random table full of books and told him, “this will be me. I’m making a plan, and next year, want my book to be published, and right here.”. Then he checked to make sure it wasn’t the clearance table. :p. Thank you for recommending these–i know I’ll put them to use!

    • Caroline M.

      What would your book be about?

  15. Mary

    I am writing a memoir about my journey with my now 21 year old special needs daughter. Life has been quite the adventure. I have the first draft up on my blog and have been working over the course of these last two years to actually finish it. Much harder than I ever thought it would be. (

    Can’t wait to read your Jen! So excited for you.
    Blessings and Grace…

  16. che

    I have 3 of these and I have found them to be very helpful. I get Steve Pressfield’s newsletter already (it’s great). I’ll have to check his book out now. I attend NaNoWriMo every fall, as well as both NaNo summer camps. I’ve never won, but I have such a fun time that it doesn’t matter. Those of you who think you can’t write a novel, don’t be afraid. Jump in and enjoy the effort instead of focusing on the end goal! Thanks for giving us the nudge Jen.

  17. Kendra

    I would love to finish my novel in November, but I think I’m going to have this baby instead. But maybe if I read these books I can do both! I love the last one, which I read on your recommendation.

  18. Amelia

    These look great. Thanks!
    This month, I am polishing up my novel, Wyrmholes, to start submitting to agents.
    (When heir-presumptive Rhalyn cooperates with the dragons’ suit for peace, he earns the chance to undo the night he betrayed his beloved Kahja’s trust…and unknowingly, undoes the conception of their son. Kahja wants what she misses but cannot remember returned, but that means finally facing the past, the man she still loves, and the God who allowed her sufferings to happen. Both the dragons and the Interraphym, a long-banished religious sect, want to help, but can Kahja and Rhalyn find the answers without surrendering themselves either party or losing each other again?)
    This story inspires me because I have long been interested in theodicy, the study of suffering in relation to the existence of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God. Next month, while I wait anxiously, errr, patiently for replies, I plan to dive into book two which focuses on the balance of justice and mercy.

    I’m not sure I’m who God told you to talk to today, but I was definitely on your target audience list last week. Last Tuesday, I was just about to google “discouraged+Catholic mom large family+writing” (for real) when I remembered reading Simcha Fisher’s and your blogs long ago. Your Pursuing your Dream post was exactly what I needed, and I’ve really enjoyed catching up on your blog since then!
    P.S. Today, I put three of my seven children under the age of eleven in a play yard with a fitted sheet over it (tent, not cage; really), and it still took five hours to write this comment. I think I’ll go read that post and the twenty-one tips again. 😉

  19. Andi at Bringing the Sunshine

    Oh. My. Goodness. This post was for me. I’ve already read 2k to 10K and I have Story Engineering on my Amazon Wish List. I started a memoir as part of Camp NaNoWriMo in July and got 30,000 words down in spite of a back injury and publishing my ebook. As I was driving the kids to school this morning, while we were saying our daily decade of Hail Marys, I thought to myself, “NaNoWriMo is coming up in November and today is October 1. I should try to finish my book – I’ve got a month to make a plan.”


  20. Leticia Adams

    Me: Babe! Fulwiler just wrote a post about four books I need!!
    Stace: Me and Jen need to talk.

    Bwahaha! True story. (They are already loaded on my iPad.)

  21. Caroline M.

    I took various creative writing courses in college, and the hardest (by far) was the fiction writing. It was for short stories, which is different because you have to be punchier, but I found it difficult, even though my other writing came easily. This is an intriguing test though – kind of a second chance. 🙂

  22. Caroline M.

    Also, if anyone really wants a good example of a memoir, read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. She has a great story, and she tells it well, partly due to her background in journalism. Her childhood was incredibly difficult and crazy (among other things, her “stick it to the man” father encouraged his small children to pet a tiger through the bars at the zoo). Most of us don’t have such a fascinating story, but it’s a good study in story pacing. And the intro. The first sentence is: “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”

  23. Lynn

    I have always wanted to write, and I think I could do ok at it, but I wonder if I have what it takes. I have a few ideas floating around in my head, but nothing that tells me what comes next, or that I think anyone else would really want to read. When I first saw your post I thought, gee, that could be meant for me, and then I talked myself out of it, lol.

    I read about these authors that say, oh, the characters just did this, or I didn’t want it to go that way but that is where the characters or plot took it, and I have NEVER felt that way when writing. I have to plan the story out in my head and then figure out how to make it work!

    Maybe I need to pray on this….

    • sara McD

      I just started reading that Story Engineering book Jen listed. It seems to be very freeing because it says there are must haves in every story, but how you get them varies.

      I wonder if it’s like losing weight – there are probable absolutes such as eat less/move more, but HOW that gets done can vary from person to person. Some don’t eat after 6 pm, some go low carb, some count calories, some wear a pedometer, lift weights Me, I just discovered that happiness and sunshine is my weight loss secret. I wonder if it’ll help my writing.

      • Lynn

        It is good to know that Story Engineering book might help. I like your analogy about losing weight – what works for one person might not work for another.

        Thanks for that!

  24. federoff11

    I don’t want to give too much away, but I have about 1/3 of a young adult novel written that teaches the Faith in an exciting way. My husband loves it, and keeps bugging me to FINISH it so he can use it with his RCIA/ Confirmation class. I’ve even been writing a study guide to go with it.

    Its got time travel, real saints (and Saints) and a HIspanic angle to it, since we live in the Southwest. Heck THREE of my friends from FUS are published authors, how hard can it be to write a book? 😉

    But what with 11 children (the youngest of whom is 10 months old and NOT SLEEPING. EVER.) and homeschooling, I just don’t have the time. Maybe November is “find the time” month.

  25. Rakhi @ The Pitter Patter Diaries

    My husband continues to “encourage” me to write a memoir about my conversion from growing up Hindu to coming into the Church. I don’t think it is all that interesting or profound compared to most of the conversion stories out there, so we shall see what comes of it. Just a little Indian girl growing up in Iowa looking to belong somewhere.

    The other book I started years ago and never made much progress on is a novel based on my parents’ lives. Starting with their childhoods in India and early years of their marriage leading to their move to the US and how that changed them. It would have a lot of run on sentences like that one there. 🙂 I’d have to interview my mom quite a bit to fill in some blanks too, and her story changes as the years go on.

    That’s about it here!

    • Smoochagator

      Um… I would LOVE to read about your conversion!

    • Becky Castle Miller

      I would enjoy reading both of those books, and I know three fairly recent Hindu-to-Christian converts to whom I would recommend them!

  26. LarryD

    You’ve read my last post, so you know one of the reasons why I’ve stopped blogging: to focus on the story I believe God has put on my heart to write. Working on the outline this month, and jumping in loaded for bear once NaNoWriMo starts. So I look at your post as another sign from the Holy Spirit that I’m walking the right path.

    Can’t tell you what it’s about. I’m one of those sticklers who refrains from talking plot & story while the creative and writing process is underway. If you want to be one of my proofers once it’s done, though…

    Thanks for the book suggestions – will get them on my Kindle right away.

  27. Jane M

    I always assume comments like — I’d love to hear from you–, are not addressed to me. However, I have written about 45,000 words of what I call in my head, a novel with a little murder. It features a six year old with cancer and his aunt who quits up her own job to help her widowed sister take care of him. Then people in the hospital start dying and she is afraid for her nephew. Oh well. I know a lot about little boys with cancer because I had one ( who is now fine). There is a lot of effort to understand different kinds of suffering but hopefully not too didactically.

  28. Amanda Johnston

    I’m finishing up my second novel, so November 30th sounds like a great goal to wrap up edits and start on that proposal letter. I will check out these books for the creative writing class I’m teaching in the spring, too. Thank you!

  29. DarwinCatholic

    What, no pitch for Writing the Breakout Novel? I read that one when you mentioned it a few years back and found it hugely helpful, both in analyzing books that I read and in writing my NaNo last year.

  30. Clare

    I am 18 and did NaNo 3 years in a row. I got to 50k all 3 years, but finished any one of my novels. So this year I’m not doing NaNo (as much as this breaks my heart) – I am going to finish the novels I’ve started instead. Thank you so much for encouraging people to do NaNoWriMo, and for the awesome book suggestions – I’m excited to check them out!

  31. Jenna@CallHerHappy

    “God uses “their” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, because that’s how it was supposed to be in his original plan.”

    Can I get an Amen?

  32. caroline

    Thank you for this post. Really.

  33. Smoochagator

    I did NaNoWriMo a few years ago and every year I contemplate doing it again, but I have plenty of excuses not to… well now I have no excuses and God is CLEARLY using the oracle of Jennifer Fulwiler to speak to me so OKAY FINE I’LL WRITE THE DANG BOOK I’VE BEEN SAYING I’M GOING TO WRITE ARE YOU HAPPY NOW???

  34. Lacey

    I see that there are several of us God asked you to speak to. He’s been beating this drum at me for a while now and I’ve been consistently ignoring it, but you’ve posted a few things lately that have really made me think it’s time. This procrastinator’s got some headway to make.

  35. Becky Castle Miller

    I read 2,000 to 10,000 the last time you recommended it. Very helpful! Thanks!

    My friend Amy, who has finished NaNo several times, is writing a series on 31 Days of NaNo Prep this month, if anyone wants some guidance during October to get ready:

  36. Lauren B

    Thank you for this post! I was just thinking about how I used to think a lot about writing a book.

  37. Amy of Writing Hope

    Hi Jennifer! Been a while since I last came ’round here. (actually I read your piece on being a mental neat nik, and sent my friends to it saying, “You always wanted to know what it’s like in my head, right?”

    Thanks so much for putting that stuff into words.

    (Used to be — starting a new ‘brand’ ;])

    I am *so* looking forward to this NaNo. I’ve finally embraced “long form fiction” as my ‘thing that fits.’

    It is a giddy thing to delve into something you were created for– to know that what I am doing is an act of love and worship and obedience.

    This year’s story is another pro-life theme (probably. Theme is clearer/confirmed after the first draft). It’s a world-crossing (think Narnia-ish) fantasy with college students.

    A scholarship piano student lands in a new world and must enlist the help of a reluctant fisherman to get back her infant that was stolen by the sidhe (a faery race).

    Total fantasy, with some romance thrown in. Totally jazzed.

  38. Beth Anne

    Instead of Nanowrimo in november I’m doing 31 Days of Blogging in October. I think it’s more my speed as right now I don’t really have a plan for a book or writing 50,000 words. Plus it gave me the push to write for a month on a topic i’ve been wanting to write about.

  39. Jason

    I’m finishing up a very long overseas deployment with the military, and have had very different experiences from your typical Afghanistan/Iraq warrior. I feel like, since I don’t have any great “war stories,” just a lot of unique experiences, I could tie them all together using their common thread – coffee. Every good story I have gets tied to a cup of coffee at some point. That’s my general outline.

    • Hannah Sadar

      Please write it! I’d love to read it. And the coffee thing makes sense.

  40. Erin

    Do you have any books you didn’t get much out of? There’s a dizzying array of these kind of books and while this list is helpful, I’d be curious which ones to avoid, too, and why.

  41. Kim

    I’m among those you may be speaking too, among those working on Catholic YA fiction. Re-re-re-re-re-re-restarted (newly strongly-Catholic themed, as opposed to the Catholic “aside” I’d given it in high school and college versions) during last year’s NaNoWriMo, which I abruptly stopped working on a week or so before I found out I was pregnant and had morning, er, life sickness (especially heavy in the evenings, i.e., writing time). Going back to work next Monday from maternity leave (writing software, not writing books). My 10-week-old daughter rarely lets me put her down to make a sandwich, much less work on my novel (typing a comment one-handed is easy…ish; a novel, not so much). Excuses! I’ll keep brainstorming and hopefully get back to work on it soon. I would be breaking the rules, I think, if I officially participated in NaNo with this novel, even with 50,000 new added words–not ready to restart again yet. 🙂 But maybe I’ll use it as a kick in the rear, and maybe Dad can give me a few hours a week to work on it while he bonds with baby. Thank you. 🙂

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