When I first decided to write a novel, I checked out every writing book the library had. Most of them were well written, but not exactly what I was looking for. Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, for instance, was inspiring and a good example of nice writing, but I was already inspired. What I needed was the nuts and bolts. I found the help I needed with two authors.
First, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. (Gardner also wrote On Becoming a Novelist, which is more inspiration than nuts and bolts.) I have to admit, some of The Art of Fiction was a little too abstract for me, but there’s a lot of useful stuff to digest in it. One thing I love about Gardner is that he thinks it’s important not to depress people unduly. His own fiction is far from light, but he always keeps in mind that his readers might be on the brink of suicide, and he doesn’t want to push them over.
Second, Sol Stein. Stein on Writing and How to Grow a Novel have even more concrete advice to improve your writing. Dialogue, description, action, you name it, Stein will improve it. It’s been a while since I read these, so I went to the Goodreads reviews to refresh my memory, and I had to laugh. A few people complained that Stein was pompous and used excerpts from his own novels to demonstrate certain techniques. I remember thinking the same thing when I read them, but now that I have written my own nonfiction book and researched how to get permission to use copyrighted material, I completely understand his using his own work as examples.
By all means, read other writing books, too, and search for articles on specific topics like dialogue, plot, subplots, and characterization. But make sure that your reading includes these two classic writing teachers.