UPDATE: See the end of this post for a complete list of recommendations given by the wonderful readers here at Write It Sideways.
Here’s an email I got yesterday:
I was wondering if you had any suggestions on books I should buy as a reader who wants to become a writer. The library close to me doesn’t have a very good selection so I’m hoping to buy these books, which limits me to about four. Do you have any books that you think I should have right now as opposed to later?
I feel this reader’s pain. At the moment I live in a very small and isolated town which doesn’t have a great selection of books on the craft of writing. Buying the books I want usually involves ordering them over the internet or downloading them to my Kindle.
I’m not sure what kind of writing this person is looking to do—fiction, creative nonfiction, freelance writing, etc. But, for the purposes of this post, I’ll assume the reader wants to learn more about writing fiction.
If I had to suggest the books that have had the greatest impact on my writing thus far, they would be:
1. Story Structure Demystified
Everything you thought you knew about how stories are structured might be wrong. Larry Brooks’s Story Structure Demystified is the book that has made the biggest difference to my understanding of how to write a novel.
Ever notice how storytelling wisdom seems to come in small, seemingly unrelated chunks of aesthetic opinion? How it almost never addresses the big picture of storytelling? Do you ever wonder what published authors know that you don’t? Especially when, after reading their work, you’re confident you actually write as well as they do? Possibly even better? Maybe it’s your storytelling.
You can read my review of Larry’s book here.
2. The Three Dimensions of Character
Another Larry Brooks title, The Three Dimensions of Character has opened my eyes to how to create amazing characters in my fiction.
A writer’s tool chest of definitions, developmental models, qualitative criteria, checklists and examples that take the mystery out of characterization. And, a kick-ass good time read, too.
If you want to learn how to keep your characters from falling flat, definitely check this one out.
3. Nail Your Novel
Roz Morris’s Nail Your Novel takes you from page one to done, breaking down the process of writing a novel into easily digested bites. It’s also filled with great activities to help you get unblocked if you get stuck.
I found this guide really helpful when trying to power through the first draft of my novel.
Your Favourite Books on the Craft of Writing
The three books I mentioned above are all ones I’ve bought in eBook format, which makes them easily accessible.
But, there are so many books on the craft of writing to which I haven’t had access, I have a very long list of those I’d like to read some day—ones that I’ll have to order from out of town.
So, instead of just sharing my own recommendations on the best writing books, I’d also like to appeal to all the other well-read writers out there.
What are you favourite books on the craft of writing? Which would you recommend as must-reads for someone just starting out?
Here’s your updated list. The following books have been recommended more than once:
- On Writing, by Stephen King
- Stein On Writing, by Sol Stein
- Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
- Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
- Elements of Fiction Writing—Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham
These ones have been mentioned once each:
- On Writing Horror, by Horror Writers’ Association
- The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman
- Zen and the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
- The Situation and the Story, by Vivian Gornick
- Writing FAST, by Jeff Bollow
- Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose
- Elements of Fiction Writing—Characters and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card
- Writing Well, by Donald Hall
- The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White
- The Fire in Fiction, by Donald Maass
- On Writing, by Ernest Hemingway
- How to Write a Novel, by John Braine
- How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card
- If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland
- Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg
- Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, by Elizabeth George
- On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
- You Can Write a Novel, by James V. Smith
- Teach Yourself Writing a Novel, by Nigel Watts
- The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing for Young Adults, by Deborah Perlberg
- This is the Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosely
- 10 Rules of Writing, by Elmore James
- The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
- The Writing Experiment, by Hazel Smith
- Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell
- How to Write Page-Turning Scenes, by Holly Lisle
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and David King
- Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain
- The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler
- How to Write a Selling Screenplay, by Christopher Keane
- The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
- Give ‘Em What They Want: The Right Way to Pitch Your Novel to Editors and Agents, by Blythe Camenson and Marshall J. Cook
- Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande
- MFA in a Box, by John Rember
I’ll continue to update the list periodically if others wish to make further recommendations. Thanks to everyone for taking the time to contribute!
Join the discussion
Jeff Bennington says
On Writing Horror, by the Horror Writer’s Association. You definitely do not need to be a horror writer to get excellent writing tips/information from this book. Written by dozens of best selling authors in the horror genre, this book has chapter after chapter of meaty information morsels that brought my writing to a much higher level!
I love On Writing, by Sol Stein for the art of writing. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman has some very solid advice on common mistakes for those getting started. And of course Stephen King’s On Writing is pretty amazing.
Thank you for this post. It is always great to extend your knowledge of those books that inspire and help other writers.
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Diane Travers says
Anne Lamott — Bird by Bird and Vivian Gornick — The Situation and the Story.
I write and teach essays/creative nonfiction but I think these are applicable to most.
On writing by Sol Stein was quite an eye-opener, but it was very exciting for me to find Writing F.A.S.T. by Jeff Bollows. it was the first time I read about the writing process in detail.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose – I like that it gives you the tools to turn every book you read into a writing workshop.
I absolutely love Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Not only does she have great advice, but I’m totally entertained by her sense of humor. Another favorite is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I’d say both of these books fall under the “general advice to writers” category, rather than specific instructions on craft, but they definitely provide inspiration and support for writers at any level.
My favorite is Stephen King’s On Writing. My favorite quote from the book (which I use in my writing classes — I teach freshman writing at a university) is “Writing is refined thinking.” He writes with verve and color about his own learning curve when he started to write, including the days when he had young children and had to retreat to the laundry room for some peace and quiet, and with self-deprecating humor.
I have found Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card helpful. He details how to create characters. And He illustrate how to write in 1st person and second person point of view.
Gary Eugene Howell says
Writing Well by Donald Hall is a book I read once a year.
fOIS In The City says
Strunk and White … The Elements of Style; Donald Maass … The Fire in Fiction
and Stephane King on Writing (can’t remember the title and am too lazy to turn behind me and find him)
Each of them concentrates of another aspect of writing … The Elements of Style is the shortest book with a huge punch. Picks up on every “newbie” and all writing mistakes, points out lazy writing and is a wonderful all around guide to creating a solid structure for your story.
Donald Maass puts a great deal of emphasis on PACE … he stresses economic and susinct writing with a punch. How to put a fire under you and your reader. He is worth reading for any genre.
Stephane King is the practical and methodical writer. He stresses discipline (recommended Strunk and White for anyone serious about writing) and he talks a great deal about the importance of the edit, rewrite, BETA readers and how to craft a story you can be proud of.
Great post idea. Hope my selections helps someone as much as they helped me.
The Red Angel says
Oh wow there are so many that I’ve read it’s hard to choose just one book. Well, I absolutely love On Writing by Stephen King. It’s part memoir part how-to on writing, and it’s so interesting and helpful…written by one of the most popular writers of all time!
Karl Holden. says
Earnest Hemingway on Writing – a collection of everything he said about the craft edited by Larry W Phillips if you are a fan of Hemingway’s style , published by Scribners NY. Stephen King definitely as recommended by one of your earlier posts. John Braine, Writing a Novel, the first book I read on the craft, interestingly dated by me1982 iin the fly leaf
Andrea Di Salvo says
Several other people have mentioned Stephen King’s On Writing, with which I absolutely agree. Another genre-specific gem is Orson Scott Card’s On Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy. It delineates what makes writing speculative fiction, outlines the differences between sci-fi and fantasy, and provides excellent guidelines for writing either. It also has wonderful hard-core advice regarding character and general prose construction. Loved it!
Thanks for the suggestions. Many of my favorites have already been mentioned so I’ll add these:
If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland – published in 1938 the information contained is still relevant for writers today.
Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg – if you liked Writing Down the Bones try this one. It opened up my writings in unexpected ways.
Write Away by Elizabeth George – George is a popular mystery writer. Her writing process is fascinating and she give great useful advice.
On Writing Well by William Zinsser – I place this book right up there with Sol Stein’s On Writing. It’s a classic.
You Can Write a Novel, by James V. Smith, Jr. Has a lot of straight-forward advice for beginners. I mostly recommend Ch. 2, Invent the First Critical Pieces of Your Novel.
Writing a Novel, in the Teach Yourself series, by Nigel Watts. I found this book to be informative and inspirational. This author was not afraid to address the big picture. At the end of each chapter were some interesting exercises.
Don’t be put off by the name of the series it’s published under. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing for Young Adults, by Deborah Perlberg, is a very comprehensive guide for the first time writer, also has writing exercises at the end of each chapter.
Anthony Casson says
On Writing by Stephen King — no doubt about it
Stephen King’s On Writing is a terrific book on the topic. I highly recommend it.
This Year You Write You Novel- Walter Mosely
On Writing- Stephen King
10 Rules for Writing- Elmore James
As for those who are isloated and in need for books I use paperbackswap.com
Thank you for this post!
Having many recommendations for the same books makes it a lot easier to find a starting point. I can’t wait to see the list in a few days~ this is very helpful to me as someone who has no idea where to begin. 🙂
Michael D. Pollock says
Gotta say Pressfield’s “The War of Art.”
Rob Kennedy says
Thanks for the this S. The Three Dimensions of Character, sound like a book it self.
My favourite book on writing is The Writing Experiment by Hazel Smith. This one’s for thinking outside the normal box of writing. Much more than just the nuts and bolts, some of the experiments help develop unique writing.
But is that a good thing today, I hope it is.
My favorites are Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, How to Write Page-Turning Scenes by Holly Lisle (it’s an e-book), and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.
Clare Bear says
On Writing, Stephen King!
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain is an older one, but fantastic. Got me through my first draft of my first novel.
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler was fantastic, too. Kind of follows along with Joseph Campbell’s theories on myth and story.
Sarah Hemmings says
Stein on Writing by Sol Stein was a real technique eye opener for me when I purchased it some years ago now. Stephen King on Writing is still a favourite amid my many books on writing and both are enjoyably readable as well.
Dawn Brazil says
I got the idea for reading a book on screenplays from a blog post by Larry Brooks. I immediately went to Amazon to purchase the book. Brooks said to buy the sreenplay writing book by Syd Field, however, it was too costly for me. So, I bought “How to Write a Selling Screen-play by Christopher Keane. It was awesome! I love it and refer back to it often. Of course, I had to go back to all my WIP’s and revise. It was also economical which was by far the best part for me.
As a long time student of Syd Field’s work and as a short time student of Larry Brooks’ work, it is my humble opinion that Larry knows more about screenwriting than Syd Field does. It’s true. So, the economical thing to do is to go to Larry’s blog and start reading from the bottom up, oldest posts first to the newest. He covers all his main points. I am doing the same thing while I await his book to come out next month.
But, why study screenwriting at all? Because it teaches the novelist how to create a “spine design.” Or, that’s what it should do. Like Larry does, studying films is the real way to learn that, but you need a guide to explain how it all lays out. Syd Field was the premier guide in that regard, but Larry understands it and explains it better.
Lots of screenwriting authors also include various techniques on writing and story design, and they are good. I have learned much from such authors. But in my opinion, they are a bit like blind men describing an elephant. One talks about the foot, one talks about the trunk, one talks about the tusk. All well and good, and good things to know. But Larry sees the whole elephant. His work has the context of a unified point of view. Within that POV his work is systematic. That’s its value, in my opinion. It’s a systematic approach to the whole elephant.
Have enjoyed so many of these. I’ll mention one more since it’s not listed here: Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I know it’s not so focused solely on writing, but it does require you to look at who you and what you do in a new way. Good starting point for every type of artist.
Catherine Johnson says
Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham, mainly for novelists but handy across the genres.
Eleanor Patrick says
I’d go with Jack Bingham too – plus the whole series that one is part of. They helped me more than anything else years ago, and I believe they’re no available in two larger volumes.
Give ‘Em What They Want -by Bylthe Camenson & Marshall J Cook. It is really more about how to pitch your novel after you have written it, but that can be even more difficult for a new writer. I’ve had this book recommended to me by two other writers as well, so I’m not the only one to get something out of it.
Mike O'Mary says
Hi Suzannah. Nice post and good recommendations. I would add to this list “Becoming a Writer” by Dorothea Brande, and a new one called “MFA in a Box” by John Rember, which one critic described as “the best book on creative writing since Stephen King’s “On Writing.” (Full disclosure: I have known John Rember for 25 years and I am his publisher. I have no relationship wit Dorothea Brande other than that her book helped me become a writer.) Thanks!
Saffina Desforges says
I think that list just about covers it! I am reading SK’s ‘On writing’ for the third time!
Angela Perry says
No one has mentioned Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson yet? Oh good, I get to be the first 🙂 This book is fantastic. It covers everything, from world building to pitch lines to character motivation to satisfying endings.
My all time favorite book on writing is The Novel Writer’s Toolkit by Bob Mayer. I don’t write without it.
Brigitte Morys says
John Truby, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller.
Written for screenwriters, but gives a good insight into the art of building a plot.
Reetta Raitanen says
I second your recommendation of Larry Brooks’ Story Structure Demystified. It really helped me to grasp how stories work and the examples given are great.
Another awesome story structure book is James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure. In addition it gives you ideas on how to come up with ideas and how to make your story high concept, that little extra something.
Holly Lisle’s courses and classes have also been really influential on how I plan my stories. I highly recommend them all. So count me as a supporter of her How To Write Page Turning Scenes.
Joe Haldeman says
Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel (the version published alongside the book he was writing, East of Eden)
Boswell’s London Journal
Various articles from Writers at Work, the Paris Review column. The Hemingway one is classic, but later ones might be more relevant to contemporary writers.
Stephen King’s On Writing
Recent editions of The Writer’s Market, for the essays where editors try to articulate why they publish some things and not others.
Ottone Riccio’s The Intimate Art of Writing Poetry
Obliquely, Zen in the Art of Archery – and Bradbury’s spin-off Zen and the Art of Writing isn’t bad, either, for all its gosh-wow-ness.