The best and most essential books for writers

Who am I?

I’ve always wanted to write. It took years to get started, and after working in the library and information technology fields for over thirty-five years, I quit the day job routine in 2011 to write full time. I've learned two valuable lessons since I started writing which have been of immense help. The first is a quote from writer and activist Mary Heaton Vorse, who said, "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair." The second is from novelist Rachel Basch, who told me that "the story has to move down, as well as forward." Both sound simple. Neither is.

I wrote...

Road of Bones

By James R. Benn,

Book cover of Road of Bones

What is my book about?

Billy Boyle is sent to the heart of the USSR to solve a double-murder at a critical turning point in the war in this latest installment of critically acclaimed James R. Benn's WWII mystery series.

It’s September 1944, and the US is poised to launch Operation Frantic, shuttle-bombing missions conducted by American aircraft based in Great Britain, southern Italy, and three Soviet airfields in Ukraine. Tensions are already high between the American and Russian allies when two intelligence agents—one Soviet, one American—are found dead at Poltava, one of the Ukrainian bases. Billy is brought in to investigate is paired, at the insistence of the Soviets, with a KGB agent who has his own political and personal agenda.

The books I picked & why

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The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories

By Christopher Booker,

Book cover of The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories

Why this book?

This book is a masterwork of more than thirty years of research into why people tell stories. Booker breaks down literature into seven archetypal themes which occur across all types of stories. Using a wealth of examples ranging from ancient myths and folktales to plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today, he demonstrates how these archetypal themes have remained constant over the generations. Not everyone will agree with Booker, but everyone will learn from him—about reading, writing, and understanding. This fascinating read provides writers with a new way to look at their own plotting and tap into the hero’s journey.

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

By Jane Smiley,

Book cover of 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

Why this book?

Smiley classifies and defines the novel and provides a primer of supportive instructions to the struggling writer. She explores the reasons why some novels succeed and some don’t. She provides the reader with a list of 100 books she has read, from thousand-year-old texts to recent bestsellers, offering her own insights and assessments of each work. Smiley provides a glimpse into the creative process and gives writers and readers new ways to be aware of what goes on between the lines. This book contains important and joyful advice for aspiring writers and is a gift to lovers of literature.

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

By Francine Prose,

Book cover of Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Why this book?

This title is unique among books on writing in that Prose devotes a full chapter to eight critical elements of writing: words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialog, details, and gesture. For example, she explores concepts such as first sentences and their impact on the narrative. Prose suggests that “close reading” is the key to understanding and learning about literature, for the reader and writer. She takes her readers on a guided tour of the tools and the tricks of the masters―Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, Austen, Dickens, Woolf, Chekhov―and discusses why these writers have endured. Throughout, she cautions readers to slow down and pay attention to words, the raw material out of which literature is crafted. One of the most important books on writing I have ever read.

Writing Fiction, Tenth Edition: A Guide to Narrative Craft

By Janet Burroway, Ned Stuckey-French,

Book cover of Writing Fiction, Tenth Edition: A Guide to Narrative Craft

Why this book?

Now in its tenth edition, this book is for committed writers only. A highly valuable textbook on the writing process, Burroway covers story form, plot, structure, building character, place, and setting, and takes a detailed look at point of view. Each section comes with examples of how things do and do not work, as well as providing a list of suggested readings and writing prompts for further study. This book is a master class in creative writing that also calls on us to renew our love of storytelling and to celebrate the skill of writing well.

All Write: How to Start, Structure, and Sustain a Writing Group

By Deborah L. Mandel,

Book cover of All Write: How to Start, Structure, and Sustain a Writing Group

Why this book?

A writing group provides invaluable help for aspiring writers. I participated in a group for several years, which helped me hone my first two manuscripts that were then published as the start of the Billy Boyle WWII mystery series.

All Write focuses on how to organize a group and includes tips on writing and constructive critiquing. Mandel, with her background as a writer, copyeditor, writing group member, and psychotherapist, offers concrete how-to advice on how to maximize the effectiveness of a writing group for all members. This book is packed with writing tips, lessons, and group exercises that can be immediately put to work. 

(Full disclosure: the author is my wife.)

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in creative writing, Psychotherapy, and drama?

5,810 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about creative writing, Psychotherapy, and drama.

Creative Writing Explore 28 books about creative writing
Psychotherapy Explore 53 books about Psychotherapy
Drama Explore 27 books about drama

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like A Stranger's Journey, You Can't Make This Stuff Up, and Save the Cat! Writes a Novel if you like this list.