When I work with new, pre-published and aspiring writers, these are some of the resources I most often recommend. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, and I’ll try to come back to add more in-depth information and new resources whenever I can.
This page is a great place to start when “you don’t know what you don’t know.” I reference many of these resources when I teach writing & publishing workshops; and frequently send my coaching and critique clients here to get a foundation of knowledge for us to build on. I also recommend checking out these resources if you’re considering getting professional feedback, but the price tag seems too steep for the current stage of your writing journey.
Except where noted, I have only included resources on this page that I have read or used myself. In some cases, I may collect a nominal commission for purchases made using the affiliate links on this page (thank you!). This commission does not affect my recommendations in any way.
If you have questions or suggestions for this page, please reach out to me.
As writers, it makes sense that we should start and continue our writing education–whenever possible–with books. I cannot agree any harder with the assertion that to be a great writer, you must make time to read. That includes not only the books on this list, but books in a variety of genres, especially the one in which you write or intend to write.
I’ve included books in several categories that will make you a better writer, including several subcategories of writing craft, productivity, career, etc.
It’s important to note that story and character are inextricably entwined, and these first two categories are therefore somewhat arbitrary. The books listed under character will absolutely help you fix issues with your storyline, and vice versa. Many of these books could arguably go in both categories. I’ve split them in a way that I hope will give the most immediate, actionable help to someone struggling with a particular side of the equation.
Craft Books: Plotting & Story Development
Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody
Published in 2019, this book expands on the amazingly popular screenwriting book, Save the Cat, specifically for novelists. Brody taught the Save the Cat model for years before penning this guide, and her teaching expertise shines through in the easy-to-follow structure she’s created, as well as numerous useful examples from popular fiction to illustrate how stories work.
I snagged this book almost the instant it was released and have been using and recommending it semi-religiously ever since. It’s wonderful for beginning authors and seasoned veterans alike, and allows you to break down your story into its essential components/themes to master issues like structure, pacing, tension, and resolution.
Goal, Motivation and Conflict – Debra Dixon
Written by a bestselling romance novelist, this book has become a touchstone for writers in all genres for mapping out story using three key building blocks. Goal, Motivation and Conflict (GMC) have become shorthand for the tools needed to build stories, as well as a first place to look when scenes begin sagging on the page. This book is one of those foundational craft books every beginner should start with, and every veteran should revisit when you’re on the struggle bus.
Wired for Story – Lisa Cron
I’m a huge Lisa Cron fan, and became even more so when I attended a workshop she taught at a conference a few years ago. Cron looks at the art and science of writing through the perspectives of neurobiology, psychology and how stories get at the heart of what it means to be human.
As a trained mental health therapist, I’m keenly interested in psychology and human behavior. Wired for Story is the first book of Cron’s I fell in love with, because it explains so clearly why humans need stories–how they’re as much a part of our DNA as hunting and gathering–and how that translates to your story. If you’re a talented writer with a gift for prose, but your writing is getting lukewarm reception with readers, Wired for Story may be the best course correction.
(See also: Story Genius by Lisa Cron in the Character section below)
Hooked – Les Edgerton
Before you start writing, make sure your story will grab readers from the very beginning. The hook is what gets the readers’ attention and sets them up to keep turning the pages. It’s a critical part of writing a compelling story, as well as the eventual sharing and marketing that story with agents, editors and readers.
Craft Books: Character
Story Genius – Lisa Cron
Lisa Cron’s Story Genius is perhaps the best practical illustration of the indivisible relationship between character and story. Her method allows you to generate believable characters, powerful transformations and authentic conflict by asking a set of essential, targeted questions. The answers will help you understand who your character is and why, and determine how she will make the decisions that ultimately make your story.
Many character questionnaires or dossiers can leave you knowing superficial details–that your hard-boiled detective has blue eyes and perpetual 5 o’clock shadow, prefers black coffee, and secretly enjoys knitting on the weekends–but do nothing to answer key questions about how and why the story should move forward. Cron’s method reaches for the heart of what matters about the character in the story. Which, to be honest, is all that matters about the character anyway. (Not that there’s anything wrong with a knitting detective. I mean, that’s freaking adorable.)
The Emotion Thesaurus (and others) by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
This bestseller has become a staple among my writing friends of all ilk, because it does such a lovely job cataloging and demonstrating one of the most complex parts of effective writing: conveying human emotion. This reference defines more than 100 emotions, and gives writers the nonverbal/physical cues, internal sensations, related thoughts, and spectrums of behaviors to help you confidently show (rather than tell) each one. There are helpful tips for incorporating emotions into your writing throughout. It’s an essential guide for every writer, especially if you find yourself with characters who fall flat on the page, or naming characters’ feelings because you’re not sure the reader will ‘get it.’
The Emotion Thesaurus is the first in a larger series by Ackerman & Puglisi called Writers Helping Writers, which also includes books on positive and negative character traits, emotional wounds, occupations, and rural and urban settings. If you like having lists of possibilities and details at your fingertips, this series will seriously enhance your writer’s bookshelf.
Sun Signs – Linda Goodman
You don’t have to be a believer in horoscopes to benefit from a book like Sun Signs. Basically, any reference that catalogs characteristics of humans can be a goldmine for writers. But I will say, this book was recommended to me by the amazing bestselling romance author Cherry Adair, and I’ve been surprised at how useful it can be. Cherry recommends choosing your main character’s star signs before writing, and using the traits and compatibility information from the book to guide you in building their personalities and interactions.
Whether or not you think it actually matters that your leading man is a Virgo and your heroine is a Sagittarius, one critical element the star signs provide is specificity. It’s often too easy to write characters in a too-general way, or all positive or negative. The strengths and flaws presented in Sun Signs give you great starting details for creating a fleshed-out human character. A fleshed-out character is more believable and relatable, and ultimately make for a better story.
Other Great Craft Books
- The First Five Pages – Noah Lukeman
- Take Off Your Pants: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing – Libbie Hawker
- 179 Ways to Save a Novel – Peter Selgin (Writer’s Digest Books)
Books: The Writing Life
In these books, legends of the trade tell their personal stories and share hard-won wisdom about the writing journey. There’s a reason these authors are titans, and the books are absolutely worth reading. Twice, even.
That said, I do feel compelled to include a post-2010 caveat on many wise words from well-established authors. While there is SO much to learn from King, Lamott, and others about the creative process and writing in general, I recommend taking with a giant grain of salt any business advice from an author who “broke in” to the industry before circa 2010. Their stories of publishing their first novel or their relationships with their editors simply don’t reflect the landscape most new authors–traditional or self-published–will encounter today.
It doesn’t make them any less geniuses, or their perspectives less worth your time. Just understand the limits of their viewpoint, and don’t put them in charge of managing your portfolio. 😉
On Writing – Stephen King
Aside from being one of the most well-known, prolific and popular authors of our time, Stephen King is truly a writer’s writer. On Writing was written two decades ago, and has since been updated more than once. It’s accessible, funny, authentic and encouraging. Truly a cornerstone book, it belongs–not just on your bookshelf–but in every writer’s toolbox.
Good fiction always begins with a story and progresses to a theme; it almost never begins with a theme and progresses to a story.Stephen King, On Writing
Steering the Craft – Ursula K. Le Guin
Another gorgeous and elegant book by a legend, Steering the Craft by the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin is a didactic guide to the nuts and bolts of writing. It includes simply-titled chapters on grammar and style (“Repetition,” “Adjectives and Adverbs”), with exercises at the end of each chapter.
But don’t let the straightforward structure and short length (135 pages) fool you: This book is a master work for storytellers. I’ve been through it several times and I still learn something every time I open it.
Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott
Reading Anne Lamott on writing craft is a little like having a long afternoon tea with your brilliant, eccentric aunt who knows everything about writing and is also, possibly, a *teensy* bit drunk. It’s a funny, insightful, sometimes surreal experience, with genuine warmth and some surprising confessions.
But when you leave, you’ll be deeper and wiser, and absolutely glad you gave her your time. If nothing else, Lamott codifies the absolutely essential practice of Shitty First Drafts, and for that we all owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Write Naked – Jennifer Probst
Accessible, practical and without an ounce of pretense or snobbery, Write Naked is a breezy, humorous and highly pragmatic guide. This contemporary writing perspective is written by a modern romance powerhouse, and offers a relevant take on the business and writing life — without those pre-2010 concerns I mention above. This book is funny, easy-to-read and especially good for romance, women’s fiction and genre fiction authors.
2k to 10k – Rachel Aaron
(Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love) This book is an excellent resource for writers seeking to improve their writing speed and focus, without compromising the quality of your vision. Aaron’s approach incorporates key aspects of story planning as well as daily productivity strategies.
5,000 Words Per Hour – Chris Fox
Also in the realm of increasing daily word count, Fox’s has some similar approaches, with more emphasis on data, rewards and tracking. In general, I prefer Aaron’s book for its overall approach and integration of story planning, but for data nerds, Fox’s spreadsheet alone is enough to make this read worthwhile.
The Productive Writer: Tips & Tools to Help You Write More, Stress Less & Create Success – Sage Cohen
If this resource page made your writing journey a little easier or gave you some new ideas, pay it forward by writing something amazing! Then take the time to help others who follow.
And… if you’re so inclined, I always appreciate gratitude expressed as a warm beverage. It may seem a small gesture, but I promise it will make my day (and yours) a little brighter. Thank you!
Buy me a coffee
Coming Soon: Beyond Books
Watch this space for information on the most useful software for writers, as well as podcasts, courses and blogs to help you on your journey.
Get tips, publishing perspectives and occasional rants delivered to your inbox. Sign up for my newsletter (click the “Tips for Writers” checkbox). And don’t forget to Like & Follow The Distracted Writer Facebook Page for updates and tips in your feed.