Book Recommendations for Aspiring Writers
So you’re interested in becoming a writer? Or perhaps you’ve already tried your hand at a few short stories, maybe even a full length novel. Now you’re ready to hone your craft, develop it, get better. **rubs hands together** Boy have I got some great recommendations for you! Strap in!
Over the years I’ve read a handful of books on writing. Some have been better than others. Some have downright transformed how I write, or inspired the way I approach writing, or given me a new lens to regard this craft. I’m going to list out the books that left their mark and why. I will also include a couple of bonus books that have been recommended to me, which I haven’t gotten around to yet, but come highly recommended.
Let’s dig in.
1) Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker
Want to be an epic storyteller? Look no further! This is your book.
Ever notice how all great stories follow a tried-and-true story structure? For example: You’ve got your hero, let’s call him/her Andy. Andy wants something. So Andy tries to go after what he/she wants. A villain, let’s call him “meany-head,” tries to stop Andy. Andy is either successful at defeating meany-head, or Andy isn’t. Sound familiar? This is the backbone for nearly every story in existence. Storytelling is an art. No one wants to read a book that wanders aimlessly with no obvious beginning and end. A book that lacks transformation.
Take Off Your Pants discusses the difference between planning a novel (planner) versus writing aimlessly without any direction (panster), which is akin to flying by the seat of your pants. I—ladies, gents, or otherwise—used to be a HUGE panster. I never planned anything. I argued that it takes away the mystery and joy of writing. Oh, how wrong I was! TYOP offers great methods for outlining a story. Moreover, it doesn’t just give you some dry template to follow. Instead, it explains story structure, and the reason for each plot point, what it does for the story, and how you can manipulate these.
This book completely changed how I approach storytelling. It helped me understand that there are some extremely important plot points that MUST be included for a story to fell like…well…a story. Now I use it for all my writing. It has also saved me a lot of time later down the road, fixing plot holes and rewrites, simply because I did the work beforehand.
I love this book. I refer to it regularly. I have both an ebook and physical copy. It’s inexpensive. Worthwhile. And it will teach you something, even if you decide this method isn’t for you.
2) Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Ever wish you paid more attention in all those English classes over the years? You know, the ones where you dissected classics and talked about all the methods used by the author to convey a meaningful message? Well, you can’t go back in time and repeat those courses. BUT, you can read this book. Francine Prose teaches her readers how to approach book reading from a critical eye.
Reading goes hand-in-hand with writing. To be a good writer, you must be a good reader. Not simply an avid reader. You need to gain something from each book you read, be it an idea, concept, story element, prose technique, etc. And in this book, Francine methodically addresses topics like sentence structure, building a paragraph, wording, and more. She uses real examples and breaks down why the author wrote something in a specific way to create a feeling or idea.
I thought I would be bored reading this, but I was fascinated. It was thoroughly enjoyable. One of my favorite books on the craft. I’m hoping to re-read it again in the near future. I know I’ll learn even more the second time around.
Most importantly, I’ve become a more critical reader. And that has helped my writing tremendously.
3) On Writing by Stephen King
This is more of a memoir than a how-to. Yet, some of King’s advice was transformative. He’s considered one of the greatest writers of our time. His first real book, Carrie, landed him a $400,000 contract. I mean…come on. To hear his experiences, what shaped him, and the techniques he employs was inspiring. It was also important to see how hard he worked to get to the level he is at. It reminded me that if I really want to be successful in my craft, I can’t just sit on my behind. I need to really put in the effort and make some sacrifices.
I didn’t read this until I was 5 years into my writing journey. It was exactly the inspiration I needed to refresh my passion for writing. I approached my work with new fervor and changed some of my techniques, too. I think every aspiring—and even seasoned—writer will enjoy this one. Highly, highly recommended.
4) The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
This duo has a whole series of writing thesaurus books, but this is the one I use most heavily. I keep it with me when i’m writing. Literally AT ALL TIMES. I have both a physical and ebook copy. It’s that important. This book is more of a reference guide, as are their others. But some of their others actually have informative pieces on key story elements like negative traits and crafting character wounds.
This one focuses on emotions. Ever get tired of reading the same hum-drum reactions? He gasped. Her eyes widened. He fidgeted. …the list goes on. You get my point. Every emotion has a number of physical reactions. The authors break down each emotion and offer a list of physical reactions for them. Not only that, they offer a small list of internal sensations, and long term effects too. This book is soooo freaking helpful. I love it, and refer to it when I’m writing, especially if I get stuck on portraying a character emotion.
Add this one to your toolbox.
5) The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
Ahhhh this book. Now this is one I was required to own for English in college. I didn’t realize what a treasure it was. Had to buy a new copy when I started writing. I’ve read it cover to cover and now I refer to it regularly. This is another “toolbox” book. It’s gold.
All good writers should have some backbone of good grammar. Sure, casual writing is full of no-no techniques, poor punctuation, bad grammar, etc. And that’s okay. But it’s important to know the rules so you know when you’re breaking them.
You should break rules purposefully, not simply because you aren’t aware of the bad habit you’re exhibiting. All rule-breaking should be intentional, used for flare, style, or to add emphasis.
Granted, none of us is perfect. And people care less and less about this stuff. A good story is more important than good grammar. There are some sticklers out there. But most importantly, you cannot call yourself a good writer if you don’t know the rules of writing, and what’s worse, you’d hate to see an agent trash your manuscript because they got turned off by a few bad examples on your first page.
6) The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference by a bunch of people from writer’s digests
This one was mediocre but I read the whole thing. It’s mostly for people who want to write specifically in fantasy, and more specifically, old fashioned epic fantasy. It covers a wide range of topics like clothing, politics, setting, etc.
Not much to say about it, other than some people might find it useful for their own writing. It was a bit harder to get ahold of.
I’ve listed it here for niche writers but it’s certainly at the bottom of my rec list.
NOW WE MOVE ON TO BOOKS I’VE NOT YET READ BUT COME HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
7) Several Short Sentences about Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
I’ve heard great things about this book. The reason it caught my interest is because it’s rumored to be for a specific style of writer: Writers who go for quality over quantity. Know what I mean? Not someone who pounds out 2000 words in an hour, but someone who likes to write slow, spent a few minutes thinking about each paragraph, and even re-read every few paragraphs before moving on.
I adopt both styles depending on the type of book I’m writing.
The back cover claims that it helps writers learn how to become more involved in the act of writing. How to learn more about writer’s block, topic sentences, outlining, etc. So it sounds like it’s an all around book on the craft.
I’m really looking forward to reading it.
8) Wonderbook (The illustrated guide to creating imaginative fiction)
This book looks great. It’s got tons of illustrations. It has contributors from great works of fiction like GRR Martin and Neil Gaiman. It was a little tricky to track down but I’m eager to read it.
I can’t say much more other than it appears to be a fun illustrated interactive approach to crafting fantasy and science fiction. At first glance, it looks like a children’s book, so I know I’ll love it.