8 novels that are delightfully self-aware about the writing process.

This weekend at Triangle Reads I interviewed author Elin Hilderbrand about her latest novel The Rumor.

Hilderbrand is known for her fun, well-written summer novels, but The Rumor was fun for me on a different level. One of the main characters in her book is Madeline King, a novelist who is on deadline to submit her next novel but is completely, totally blocked. She has nothing to write about, but then her best friend starts up a steamy affair with her gardener … and her next novel begins to write itself.

Authors are instructed to write what you know. Hilderbrand knows publishing inside and out, and The Rumor is packed with authentic nuggets from that world: the heated conversations with her agent, the favor-trading between parties, the manuscript that gets passed around before the author is ready. She references the notoriously cranky Kirkus reviews and authors who plagiarize their teenage children. If you’re a serious reader, you’ll eat it up.

Hilderbrand’s book got me thinking about other novels that are enjoyably self-aware about the writing process, whether their end product is fiction, history, or memoir. This is my list; I’d love to hear yours in comments.

8 novels that are delightfully self-aware about the writing process
The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale

When one of Britain's most celebrated novelists reaches out to the young and relative novice Margaret Lea, Margaret has one question: Why? While she decides whether to take on the assignment, she begins reading one of the author's works: Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is captivated by the stories, and puzzled by them because the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Margaret resolves to find out and takes the job. As she begins to write, all sorts of secrets begin to come out. Note: a few unsettling scenes if you're a sensitive sort. More info →
The Lake House

The Lake House

The bad news: this book doesn't come out till October 20. The good news: it's her best yet. In 1933, a young child disappeared without a trace. In 2003, a young detective stumbles upon the cold case and soon discovers its ties to one of England's oldest and most celebrated mystery writer. No spoilers here, but I will say that story is crucial to the plot, and the pages are filled with fascinating references to the fictional author's writing process and working life. Reminiscent of The Thirteenth Tale, for reasons you'll come to see. More info →
The Help

The Help

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan graduates from Old Miss in the 1960s and returns home to Jackson, looking for a topic to write about. She decides to tell the story of the Help. Skeeter was raised by a kindly black maid, as were many of her friends. Now they’re having babies and hiring black maids of their own. Skeeter interviews the maids of Jackson to find out what it’s really like to be a black woman who leaves her own babies at home so she can earn a living raising white women’s babies.

More info →
The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese

The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese

In 1991, while working at Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, Paterniti encountered a piece of a famous cheese reputed to be the finest, most expensive in the world. Ten years later, he embarks on a quest to uncover the story behind it. The story artfully weaves itself right into the heart of Catelonian Spain ... until the real-life story becomes terribly confusing. From that point forward, this book is as much about the process of writing the book—complete with the details of dead-end research rabbit trails, tense conversations with editors, and several missed submission deadlines—as it is about the cheese itself. More info →
The Rumor

The Rumor

In Hilderbrand's latest novel, Nantucket novelist Madeline King is on deadline but has a huge case of writer's block: she needs a story for her next novel, and she needs it fast. Then her best friend Grace starts crushing on her handsome landscape architect. Madeline knows a good story when she sees it, and her novel practically writes itself. Hilderbrand's story is filled with fun and spot-on references to the publishing industry, covering everything from contracts and deadlines to agents and editors to the notoriously cranky Kirkus reviews. Madeline's husband even makes a joke about "that other Nantucket novelist" who writes two books a year. I'll let you guess who that is. More info →
Angle of Repose

Angle of Repose

This enthralling story spanning four generations is based on real events, and offers a fascinating look at both one family's history and the history of the American West. The narrator is Lyman Ward, an injured, wheelchair-bound man who fills his days by working on a history of his grandparents, and much of this "history" is the novel the reader holds. This interesting structure invites the reader to come alongside the narrator as he tries to puzzle out what really happened between his grandparents many years before. More info →
The Word Exchange

The Word Exchange

This dystopian novel is set in the not-too-distant future, when print is dead and and much of the population relies on implantable devices called "memes" to consume information and communicate with each other. That sounds unsettling enough, but things get really scary when a virulent "word flu" is unleashed upon the population: the infected lose their ability to produce or understand speech. Much of this book is written in the form of diary entries that the characters write in their efforts to first fight off, and then recover from, the linguistic illness. More info →
Writers & Lovers

Writers & Lovers

This novel follows aspiring writer Casey Peabody, who is mourning the sudden death of her mother plus a messy break-up in 1997 Massachusetts. Lost without direction, 31-year-old Casey waits tables to make ends meet while she works on her novel in a tiny, dingy rented room. While her friends have given up on their artistic ambitions in favor of stability and the next phase of life, Casey still harbors creative dreams and firmly grasps her youth. When she finds herself in the middle of a love triangle, it becomes all the more difficult to balance her art with "real life," and she just might reach her breaking point. This book was slow to hook me, but once I was in, I was IN. It also has one of the most satisfying endings I've read in ages. More info →



I can't do better than The New York Times, which wrote, "Ian McEwan's remarkable novel Atonement is a love story, a war story and a story about the destructive powers of the imagination." The story hinges on a horrible, life-altering lie told by a 13-year-old girl and its devastating ripple effects. I can't say too much about how the writing process plays into this story without spoiling it. But in a novel that's all about the dangerous power of the imagination, the characters' revealed imaginings for their own futures are breathtaking.

More info →

If you’ve read these, what did you think of the books? What would YOU add to this list? 

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  1. Ana says:

    I’m so glad to hear your positive review of The Lake House. I love Morton’s writing, and am counting down the days til it comes out! The Thirteenth Tale is also a favorite, although I didn’t like Bellman and Black, the author’s next book–couldn’t even finish it. (Am I the only one?) Atonement is beyond lovely as well (and I even liked the movie).

  2. Lisa says:

    There are hints of the writing world in Gone Girl- isn’t that what contributes to Amy’s insanity? That she can’t live up to the literary character her parents created even though it’s based on her.

  3. Heather says:

    You did a fantastic job interviewing Elin on Sunday! What a fun idea to think of other novels that are self-aware about the writing process. WHAT HAPPENED TO SOPHIE WILDER might qualify, but I don’t remember how much the main character’s occupation as a novelist plays into the story. Also perhaps THE BIOGRAPHER’S TALE and THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP?

  4. Karisa says:

    I read The Help while going to school in the middle of the Belhaven neighborhood in Jackson, MS. It was interesting and unnerving to know which street/railroad crossing/neighborhood she was writing about. A friend’s grandmother also claimed she knew exactly who the characters in the story were based off of. Added some more realism to the pot.

    • Anne says:

      I love it when I’m familiar with a novel’s landmarks. And that’s crazy (meaning: fun) about your friend’s grandmother knowing the characters who inspired the story.

  5. liz n. says:

    I love how “Atonement” is structured. I think it’s what takes the book from good to great. “The Word Exchange” intrigues me; I’ll definitely have to find that one!

  6. Lisa says:

    Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving is another one. Very specific about how the author in the book writes. And maybe how John Irving himself writes?

  7. Sarah says:

    If you’d like another book with a big meta-story about stories, I’d recommend If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. A friend gifted me this for my birthday and said, “You’re going to love it or really, really hate it.”

    I loved it — but it was interesting and challenging!

  8. Lee Ann says:

    I was engrossed in Atonement until I got to the last chapter. I don’t usually throw books, but this one somehow landed on the floor, several feet from where I was sitting. Such an infuriating ending!

  9. Nichole says:

    This reminded me of a series of books where the two main characters come to life in the author’s New York apartment. An English lord and his male servant. While much hilarity does ensue, the paragraph that made laugh until I cried was when the author character describes how by a certain chapter in each book she must write a scene she called, ” insert tab A into slot B”. And of course, that became even more difficult with the owner of tab A sitting in her kitchen drinking coffee. For some reason I think it’s called “Maggie By The Book”, but I can’t be sure. It’s been years…

    I definitely think of love scenes in books as very funny after that!

  10. Tamara says:

    If you can tell me without giving anything away, what kind of disturbing scenes are in the Thirteenth Tale? I’m interested to read it but I am sensitive about some things.

    About Kate Morton- Her plots really capture me. I don’t usually care for books written in that back-and-forth style (what’s that called?), but I get so invested in her stories that I just have to read her books anyway!

      • And one guy who kills himself, right? And the little girl finds his body, with a nasty description. Also there’s a scene where they open up his apartment (before he’s found) and find, well, nastiness. That actually bothered me worse than his body. So when you know they’re about to do that, just skip ahead a couple paragraphs and you’ll be fine!

  11. maggie b in nevada says:

    “Delightfully” I’m not sure about, but I remember that writer’s block and deadlines figured prominently in Stephen King’s 1998 novel “Bag of Bones”. He did win the Bram Stoker award for Best Novel for that year.

  12. Vanessa says:

    I am reading Angle of Repose right now and am enjoying it except for the modern bits. I do like that he is putting the story together as his research unfolds and he allows that he doesn’t really know how the characters feel about their lives, he is making do with some background and old letters. I also like the parts about California because I live there these days and have been trying to understand the weather, the land and some of it’s essence. Stegner seems to have an understanding of it.

  13. Liesl says:

    So excited for Kate’s new book – got it on pre-order!

    Love Atonement – it’s one of my favorites. Ian McEwan is such a gifted storyteller.

    I bought The Thirteenth Tale at a library sale, but haven’t read it yet – I’ll have to add it to the pile!

  14. Breanne says:

    The Rumor was my favourite Hilderbrand book thus far for all the reasons you mentioned. I’m just fan-girling over here after seeing the picture of you interviewing her, sounds like such a great weekend!

  15. Ron says:

    Can men comment too? 🙂 James Michener put out a book in the early ’90s called The Novel. It’s a fictional work that looks at the writing, publishing, sales, and marketing of one book through the eyes of different business segments. The same book but looking at it through the minds and priorities of each individual group. It’s one of his lesser known works and it really got far worse reviews than it deserved. I think critics and readers took shots at him and the book because it wasn’t Michener-ish enough. I stumbled upon it when I was looking for a book in a REALLY small library. Fortunately, the lack of selection forced me to it, and I loved it. That in itself taught me a lesson. If you like reading about the business of books and publishing, I think you’ll enjoy this one. It’s really a fun read and it’s a lot shorter than his epics.

    • Anne says:

      Comments from men are always welcome! Bonus: you stand out because you’re a rarity. 🙂

      I thought I was familiar with Michener’s work but I’ve never heard of The Novel! Thanks for the recommendation.

  16. Tina says:

    There are many books on this list I look forward to reading. Thank you! The Rumor is one of them. I must gently point out that in the main blog text refers to an affair with a “gardener” but then in the main description of the book it says “landscape architect.” As a licensed landscape architect I feel obliged to point out that those two professions are quite different. It’s the equivalent of calling an architect a contractor. Related, yes, but also very different. I haven’t read the book so I’m not sure how this character is portrayed. For anyone interested in learning what landscape architects do, I invite them to visit the website of the American Society of Landscape Architects at asla(dot)org. Landscape Architects work on a variety of projects from urban revitalization, campus planning, memorials (like the 9-11 Memorial), ecological restoration, transportation, parks (like the Highline in New York and Millennim Park and Lurie Garden in Chicago), green roofs, and yes, residential design. It’s a vast field that can touch our everyday lives and it would be wonderful if more people had an accurate understanding of the profession.

    • Anne says:

      Ha! Busted. Although in my defense Elin Hilderbrand summarized the book on Sunday using the term “gardener.” 🙂 I tend to geek out a little about your profession: I’ve had a little bit of an obsession, especially with the Olmsteds, ever since I read Witold Rybcynski’s A Clearing in the Distance.

  17. Katie says:

    It makes me very, very uncomfortable that white women continue to promote The Help even though our black sisters have repeatedly decried it as a racist book. I would love to see your response to the many astute critiques by black readers, critics, and historians.

  18. Thursday Next! So glad Leigh mentioned that series. I just read Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson, which is all about what happens when a woman writes a novel about her fellow villagers. I also recently read a delightfully “meta” novel called How to Write a Novel, by Melanie Sumner. What a great list!

  19. M.E. Bond says:

    I know I’m late to chip in here, but The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an entertaining (and educational) epistolary novel that deals with the process of writing and promoting books. I didn’t know anything about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands before I read it. This description makes it sound dry, but it’s witty and quick to read. I just reread it, so I don’t know why I didn’t think of mentioning it earlier!

  20. Vanessa says:

    Update on the Angle of Repose – I just finished it today it was only 555 pages for me. Wow, what a lot of frustration, endless dry hope, suffering and repenting for one book. Susan didn’t deserve all of that and Oliver should not have forced that on everyone. I kept wanting to talk to him, “what are you thinking?” Stegner wrote Susan’s character as if she was modern but although she earned their keep through her work, she never got to live the way she needed to, only the way he needed to. So sad.

  21. So, all i can think of are movies, but Stranger than Fiction and Alex & Emma both come to mind. Also, I recently read Where’d You Go Bernadette, based on your recommendation here and it’s one of my favorites of the year! With a slight stretch I think that might fit here. And it’s just amazing! I’ve gotten so many good book recommendations here in the last couple weeks, I’ve exhausted my holds limit at the library and had to start adding them to a “list” on the library site instead!

  22. Liesl says:

    Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan also fits into this category – to tell you why would be to give away the ending, but let’s just say it was a good ending that I was surprised by (and I am not often surprised by endings)!

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