On this page you will find lists of my personal favorite writer’s resource books along with a little information about why they are awesome!
Books on the Craft of Writing
Books with Exercises
As I remember, find, and learn about more books I will add them to the list.
Please comment with any of your favorites that I have missed!
*Note on how best to brows this page: Each list starts with a Title and each recommended book has a picture. If you are simply looking for titles to create a books-to-buy list your best bet is to scroll until you find a picture, write down the title and then scroll to the next picture. (Or click on the links and start a cart with all the books you want) I have a picture of the book (my copy of the book, in fact!) for each recommended title. If you don’t read all the words, don’t worry, you aren’t missing out on a recommendation.
These are the sit down, read through, and soak up all the being-a-writer goodness kind of book. They are the non-fiction novels of the writing craft. They are fun. They are informative. They get you into the mind and brain and energy of being a writer. They tell you what you need to do, what others have done, and what to expect in the life of a writer. And they give you solid writing advice along the way. They are well worth reading. And once you’ve read them once they are well worth reading again and again. Here are a few of my favorites.
Everyone knows that the best way to learn how to write is to read, read, read. We’ve all heard it a million times. You read a bunch of books and then through some sort of osmosis you’re supposed to magically write killer dialogue or something. And while I will admit that in some ways this does happen when you’re sitting there staring at your flat dialogue why it isn’t right “just read books” feels a little vague.
That’s where this book comes to the rescue. She doesn’t just say “read, read, read” she tells you how to read so that you get the information you are looking for. I’ve probably read this book four or five times. It is not only very informative, it is really fun to read as well. Here is a list of the chapters, just to give you a taste of how great this book is:
1. Close Reading 2. Words 3. Sentences 4. Paragraphs 5. Narration 6. Character 7. Dialogue 8. Details 9. Gesture 10. Learning from Chekhov 11. Reading for Courage 12-ish. Books to Read Immediately
(Yes! A books to read list!!! How great is this??!!)
COME ON!!! How exciting is that chapter list! A WHOLE CHAPTER devoted to paragraphs??? Another one for Gesture, and another for sentences?!? And in each chapter she gives example after example from the writers who have used these parts of writing to do things you never even thought that a paragraph could do. It’s kind of like getting a behind the scenes look at a magic show – how do the best of the best writers do what they do? That is what this book tells you – with actual examples from books written by the best of the best. It’s absolutely fascinating and motivating. Read this book and immediately re-fall in love with the nuances of language and all of its parts.
This is a classic. It is written as a guide for non-fiction writing but the principles laid out in this book work for fiction as well. If you are looking for a straight forward, easy to read, writing advice book this is a great place to start. It covers the basics. It gets you in the mind set of thinking like a writer.
Another classic. It’s the rare writer who hasn’t read this book. It is hard to tell people what to expect from this book. I’ve written and deleted this paragraph three or four times now because this just isn’t an easy book to describe. Let’s just say you get great both a glimpse into the life and mind of one of the greatest, most prolific writers of our time, and you get a bunch of solid writing advice. Basically, you get it all. What’s not to love?
* Side Note to those of you who have read this book: Is it just me or is it far less satisfying to drag form rejection emails into a folder labeled “rejections” than stabbing a paper rejection onto a nail?
This book is wonderful. It is funny and gentle and forgiving and motivating. If you are starting to doubt yourself, or scared of getting started, or feeling stagnated, this is the book to go to. There is even a chapter called Shitty First Drafts because they exist, they are part of the process and she embrace them just like she embraces every part of the process. And that is what they book reminds you: writing is a process and every step is there to be enjoyed in its own way.
The motivational book of all motivational books. I’m sure you’ve heard about this one as it is a recent release and everyone loves it. It stands up to the hype. It’s sort of page-a-day book in that each page has a single thought on it. There is no excuse not to read this book because if you have thirty seconds a day you have time to read this book. And once you do you’ll realize that you have way more time to focus on your creative work than you thought. It is direct, it is honest, it is straight to the heart, it leaves no room for discussion. If you read this book and don’t take on your creative challenges you will do so knowing that the only thing stopping you is yourself.
Books with exercises are some of the best writer’s resource books because they make you do something to remember what you’ve been taught. I learn better that way. Not everyone does (maybe?) but I think that, in general, getting out a pen and paper and doing some writing is always going to help a writer get better at their craft.
The Writer’s Portable Mentor – A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life By Priscilla Long is one of my all time favorite in this category. I found her exercises to be helpful and could intuitively see how completing them would help my writing. I highly recommend this book.
Another of my all time favorite books in this category – and I book I would credit with pulling me out of a deep emotional and motivational rut – is The Artist’s Way ~ A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron. It is worth it to note that there is quite a bit of “spiritual” language in this book. I didn’t find it distracting despite my not-highly-spiritual view of the world. If you complete the 12 week course that this book lays out you will not only be a better artist or writer, you will be better at living life and enjoying it to the fullest. I cannot recommend this book enough!
If you are attempting humorous or witty writing and finding that you are dreadful at it (or good at it but want to get better) then I would recommend picking up Word Hero ~ A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines That Get Laughs, Go Viral, and Live Forever by Jay Heinrichs. It has some good exercises and examples and really helps train your brain to create humor with written words.
I’ve heard great things about Writing Fiction – The Practical Guide From New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School. But something about the really tiny font or the fact that I bought it at the same time as a couple other writing books has meant I haven’t gotten around to trying it out. I’ve read through a few exercises though and they look fantastic. (Note to self: Read and Complete Writing Fiction)
It’s always good to have a few good reference books on hand.
I know I do much of my reference work on-line when I’m actively writing (in part because I usually write in coffee shops and lugging a bag of reference books around with me would be awkward), but nothing is better than browsing a real live book for words and names and emotions you didn’t even know you needed.
A Dictionary is always nice to have around. The one pictured above is the one my Grandma gave to my mom when she got married and then my mom gave to me. If you can’t tell, it weighs about 200 lbs. I love it. When I was a kid we would press flowers between it’s pages. (Those are the good memories – this is also the dictionary my mom had me use to look up words I didn’t know how to spell!)
Obviously my heirloom dictionary is a little much to brows casually beneath a tree at the park on a sunny day. For that kind of experience I like this little book: 1000 Most Important Words by Norman Schur. Clearly there are many, many important words missing from this little book. But it’s a nice place to start. And I like the extended definitions.
Aaaand Another Dictionary
Seeing as words are the medium with which we writers work, it should come as a shock to no one that dictionaries make up a large part of this reference-book list. In this case I’m throwing in a Spanish/English English/Spanish Dictionary. For me this is a great tool because I’ve had a few characters who spoke Spanish as a second language. Obviously you’d want to get one for whatever second (or third or fourth) language your character speaks.
Plus it’s just fun to brows. And it will come in handy when I finally get around to learning Spanish…
A Grammar Book
And let’s not mess around. Just get Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It’s the widely accepted final word on grammar and you should have it. Plus it’s really small. So the “I already have so many books I just don’t have space any more” excuse isn’t going to work. (Does any one use that excuse? I don’t know. I just made it up because I couldn’t think of any excuses for not buying a book.)
A Name Book
The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon. I actually bought this book when I was looking for baby names because I was too embarrassed to buy a real baby name book. I’m just kidding. That’s not true. I just used the baby thing as an excuse to buy another writer reference book because I love them. This is a fun book to look through because it has names listed in two enjoyable forms:
1. By Nationality, and
2. Top Ten U.S. Names by Year (#1 girl name my birth year: Jennifer)
A Book That Speaks Body Language
Do you ever get halfway into your story and realize that your character has smiled or grinned about 100 times but you just can’t think of another way to show that they are happy? Or maybe they are constantly scowling or sweat is always beading on their forehead. Then this is the book for you (And me, and every writer – because this kind of brain fart happens to every one of us at some point).
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi will save you from getting stuck in an emotional-expression rut.
Each emotion gets two pages to itself. On those two pages you will find lists of: A Definition, Physical Signals (approximately 40!), Internal Signals, Mental Response, Cues of Acute or Long-Term (Emotion), May Escalate To, and Cues of Suppressed (Emotion)
Here is a small example of what you can expect:
Physical Signals: Lips parting, Slack or soft expression, leaning forward, rapt attention, still posture (to list a few)
Internal Sensations: Quickening heartbeat, mouth drying, tingling nerve endings
Mental Response: A desire to move closer or touch, Ignoring distractions
Cues of Acute or Long-Term Adoration: Obsession, Fantasizing, Stalking, Poor sleep patterns
May Escalate To: Love, Desire, Frustration, Hurt
Cues of Suppressed Adoration: Avoiding conversation about the subject, Creating chance run ins, Watching or Observing from afar
– You can see how this book could be useful! And it’s also just fun to read while sitting on the toilet. Becoming intimately familiar with how our bodies respond to various emotions is great for writing and great for life!
Are there many more absolutely wonderful reference books out there? Absolutely. And someday I hope to have them all. I’ve listed all the ones I currently have on my bookshelf and use regularly. If you have a favorite reference book not listed here tell us about it in the comments below!
And of course we must never forget the other soldiers of the writers craft: Notebooks, Other People’s Novels, Writing Implements, and Coffee.