Throughout my coaching practice, I often recommend a number of books on the craft of writing to my clients. As a coach, I generally focus on the writing process itself, the sitting down to write and what is stopping you from doing that consistently. But there are times when there are other resources that can be helpful to a client.
Sometimes the reason a client struggles to write is because they need some resources on the craft of writing. Sometimes there are lessons we can learn from the lives and experiences of writers. And sometimes we just need a little extra motivation and inspiration.
I want to share my book recommendations with you. These are books that I have found helpful in my writing. As I’m always discovering new books and new methods to grow as a writer, I am sure that I will be adding to this list over time.
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Biographies and lessons we can learn from
I want to start off this list of recommendations with books from authors who are prolific, who are known world-wide, and who have years of experience from which we can learn.
Stephen King’s On Writing is almost always the first book I recommend to any writer at any level. It is part biography and part instruction on how to write. Two of the things I find most helpful are King’s discussion of his writing schedule before he became a full-time writer, and his dedication to being honest in telling stories — by that I mean letting the true nature of the character come out, flaws and all, especially the flaws.
Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks, like On Writing, is part biography and part teaching the craft of writing. Brooks is probably best known for his Shannara series, and has been around for decades. He is a hard outliner and talks about his outlining process. While I believe everyone writes differently — some of us outline, some of us don’t — I love that his outlining process generally means several months of simply dreaming and thinking about the story before he puts anything on paper. And of course, my most favorite quote that motivates me and ispires me to write, comes from this book. “Writing is life, breathe deeply of it.”
Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell. Like the previous books in this category, this is part biography part teaching. Morrell had a huge impact on me back in 2008 when he was giving a talk at the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary. He is the one who said that there are no guarantees in writing, not even for him, a New York Times Bestselling Author of First Blood (which became the movie Rambo: First Blood). He said if there are no guarantees, you have to come up with reasons, both personally and professionally, for why you are going to spend up to a year, maybe even more, on a manuscript. In this book, he also goes into detail of his “Plot Talk” process which is also something I often recommend my clients do.
Plot and structure
Let’s move on to the craft-specifics of plot and structure. Right now I don’t have books on character, conflict, description, etc. Thouh I expect to be adding those in the future.
Goal Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon is one of those pivotal books. If you read no other book on plotting, you must read this one, and keep it close. It breaks down how goal, motivation, and conflict, are key to any plot, and how to stay focused on those three things. Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, or GMC, are crucial to the over-arcing plot of any story, but also for each character and each scene. They are what shape the story, not just moving from point A to point D and the two stops in between. What happens with the GMC as the characters leave point A will affect how and if they get to point B, or if they need to find an alternative.
Story Trumps Structure by Steven James is a liberating read. In the past few years there has been a lot of emphasis on the Three Act Structure. I hear it all the time in workshops and in conversations and with clients. And yet when there is a book that grabs us and we fall in love with it, chances are, it isn’t because of the structure, it is because of the story itself. James’s basic principle here is that if your story needs three acts, great. If it needs seven acts, great. Write the story that needs to be told, had here’s how to make that story its best possible, whatever structure you use.
If, however, you want to learn the basics of plotting first, and how to make that plot work for you, then I recommend the The Plot Whisperer and its related workbook, The Plot Whisperer Workbook by Martha Alderson. This covers the essentials of plotting from inciting incident to wrapping up the loose ends and the key turning points needed in between. This does primarily focus on the three act structure, which you really can’t go wrong with, and walks you through the necessary conflicts and world and character building you need to make your story the best it can be.
A slew of thesauri to help you with your description, world building, and emotional impact
The Emotion Thesaurus, Angela Ackerman and Becca Pugusi have done incredible work pulling these Thesauri together. They began with The Emotion Thesaurus, now in its second edition (and expanded). These thesauri not only help you find the word you’re looking for, but also how to better describe the situations. If a character is mad, you will find a better, more specific word for the emotion, and how that character might physically act and feel with that emotion. There are several other books in this series for various needs including character traits and settings. Most clients already have The Emotion Thesaurus, but I highly recommend all of these be added to your library: The Positive Trait Thesaurus; The Negative Trait Thesaurus; Emotion Amplifiers; The Urban Setting Thesaurus; The Rural Setting Thesaurus; and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus
Elevate your writing, motivation, and inspiration
Donald Maass is probably best known for his Writing the Breakout Novel, it’s accompanying workbook, and workshop. His books Writing 21st Century Fiction and The Fire in Fiction delve deeper into the crafting of a story. They look at creating subtext and the use of imagery, and how to make each sentence powerful in its own right, to keep the reader hooked. I come back to these books quite often as I’m writing. Each manuscript I write is different, and the methods in these books are implemented differently.
I HAVEN'T GONE DEEP INTO THESE BOOKS BUT THEY LOOK INTERESTING AND HELPFUL
This next set of books, as the heading suggests, are ones I haven’t read too much of, or they are on my shelf waiting to be cracked, but they look really interesting and helpful, so I wanted to mention them here.
The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass looks really intriguing. From the little bit that I’ve read so far, this is another of his deep dives into a specific part of the craft of writing, this time on writing to produce an emotional impact in your reader, through character development, conflict, etc.
The Writer’s Compass by Nancy Ellen Dodd is another book on plot and story structure. This one looks to take you through the entire writing process from first draft to finished draft. I can’t say much more, so instead, here is what the blurb on Amazon says:
This book will show writers how to develop their ideas into a finished novel by working through it in 7 stages, while learning how to mapping out their story’s progress and structure so they can evaluate and improve their work. It teaches writers to visualize their story’s progress with a story map that helps them see all the different components of their story, where these components are going, and, perhaps most importantly, what’s missing.
The book simplifies Aristotle’s elements of good writing (a.k.a. that each story should have a beginning, a middle and an end) into easily applicable concepts that will help writers improve their craft. The author helps readers strengthen their work by teaching them how to focus on one aspect of their story at a time, including forming stories and developing ideas, building strong structures, creating vibrant characters, and structuring scenes and transitions. Thought-provoking questions help writers more objectively assess their story’s strengths and weaknesses so they may write the story they want to tell.
And something a little fun
These books I have read, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. I wanted to share them with you because writing doesn’t have to always be a serious thing.
The 101 Habits of highly successful Novelists: Insider Secrets from Top Writers. The title is pretty self evident on this one. It’s a great way to see that we are all different. We all have our own writing style and process. There is no single path to success.
SH*T Rough Drafts is just pure fun. It takes book titles and scenes from all kinds of books from Shakespear to Harry Potter, and plays with them, imagining what their first draft might have looked like, sometimes with editors notes. It is fun, you can flip to any page at any time, and even though it isn’t real, it helps to remind us that even the so-called greats had to start somewhere, and maybe this was it!
I hope you have found this list of books helpful and have found a gem or two among them. I will add to this list every now and then, and likely move some books around as I go through them. Let me know which books (on this list or otherwise) that you find most helpful in your writing!
As always, if you want to know more about me and my coaching, you can go here. And if you want a quick resource to help you break through the writer’s block, to jumpstart your writing, and to boost your motivation, check out my free guide here.