5 Great Books For Writers

I don’t have a lot to talk about at the moment, and the reality is I’m probably going to have to be absent from my blog for a little bit while I study for my kendo exam.

My time has been pretty equally divided recently between finishing the outline of Bone Wall and denying that I have any responsibilities in real life. I haven’t finished reading a novel since Beloved, so I don’t have much to review. In fact, the only books I’ve really been reading recently have been non-fiction. I also realize that, despite this being a writing blog, I actually talk very little about writing. Given the choice between discussing my deformed WIPs or my favorite writing related books, I’m almost always going to go with the latter.

So here they are, my top five favorite writing books:

1. Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

I’ve been fairly impressed with all the books in Writer’s Digest’s Write Great Fiction series (for beginning writers, this is a must read collection) but Nancy Kress’ Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint is my favorite. Kress delivers her insights in a to-the-point manner, without the patronizing or over-exuberant encouraging that some of the other books have. Discussing everything from reader expectations to character motivation, from which emotions are most useful in fiction to deciding which point of view is best for your particular story, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint gets to the heart of what makes a character memorable. Like the other books in this series, each chapter ends with a summary and a series of helpful exercises to do on your own. The book also offers character bio templates and answers to frequent road bumps along the road to building compelling characters. If creating believable, well rounded characters or gut-wrenching emotional scenes causes you problems in your writing, or if you just can’t decide on what point of view to use, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint will absolutely bring your writing to the next level.


2. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms by Chris Baldick

As the title says, this is a dictionary so it’s not exactly easy to read cover to cover. It is, however, a great resource for reminding yourself of all those literary words you learned in high school English and then promptly forgot. Covering the jargon of poetry, prose, theater, and rhetoric this 361 page book will most likely contain some concepts you didn’t even know had words. In addition to going into detail about rhyme and meter, diction and narrative, most entries have a cross-reference resource for further reading, and some have web-link access for a more in depth description.

This book is unlikely to help you with your actual writing (unless you’re writing poetry; it’s very helpful for poetry) but it is handy to have around to keep up with the language of literary circles and critics.


3. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White

It should be no surprise that this thin little volume is on my list. Most of the writers I know who are serious about their craft have read and/or recommend this book. The fourth edition has a foreword by Roger Angell that explains a bit of the history of the book and its authors, which I found charming. The Elements of Style is by no means an exhaustive guide to correctness in English grammar and form. Rather, it covers the most common errors and mix-ups of native English speakers in one easily portable book. Covering such topics as the correct use of commas and semi-colons, a defense of active voice, misused expressions, and some basic stylistic advice, having a working knowledge of the contents of The Elements of Style will save your editors headaches in the future.

4. 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias

The question of which drives the other, character or plot will be answered differently depending on who you ask. Personally, I start with a character and build my plot around their personalities, but by no means is that the best or only way to go about it. Tobias makes a good case for the importance of focusing on a strong plot, but also reminds us that there are no more untold stories, only old stories told in new ways. In his book 20 Master Plots he takes us through twenty of the most common plots found in literature. It isn’t a complete list, and as the author points out, some of these plots have been combined or divided by different sources, but all in all, it’s a good place to start if you’re trying to pin down what your particular story needs to make the plot well rounded and believable. Each plot is given multiple examples from which to understand the key elements, as well as the usual (though not necessarily crucial) steps that the characters need to take to satisfy each plot. Chapters end with a check list, either to make sure you’re still following the same plot you started with, to find out which plot is dominant in your story, or simply to recap what you just read.

5. Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us  by Jessica Page Morrell

Of all the writing craft books that I’ve read, this is still the one I like the most, both for its content and for the way it is delivered. Morrell, a developmental editor, shares with readers what elevates or sinks a manuscript directly from her professional experience. She gives examples of the kind of auto-rejection errors she has seen in her work and insights into how to avoid them in your own writing. Item by item this book rolls through each element of fiction and not only highlights the common mistakes of novice writers, but gives reasons why they are so cringe worthy for editors. Witty, snarky, and brutally honest, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us gives writers the tools for that final self edit before a manuscript goes off to be torn apart by other eyes.


And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I disappear into the despair that is constant, meticulous studying of a foreign language. Happy writing!


16 thoughts on “5 Great Books For Writers

  1. NJ: Shamefully I have only one of these books on my shelf: Elements of Style (though there are others.) This is a great list and one I will use to update my “edumaction” of the craft of writing (I like the Oxford for the poetry bent/info.) A couple of my faves are from Laraine Herring: Writing Begins With the Breath and The Writing Warrior, for the same reasons as you like #5 on your list.

    Good luck on the Kendo test!

    • Honestly, I think everyone should have a copy of ‘The Elements of Style’. I know I need to go back through it and re-read it to really correct some of my common errors.

      I’ll give ‘Writing Begins with the Breath’ and “The Writing Warrior’ a look, thanks!

      And yes, I’ll do my best!

  2. Good luck on that Kendo exam! Sounds very interesting, I would love to try that out someday. I used to do a fair bit of freestyle martial arts (from self defence to muay thai, karate, MMA, kombatan arnis, elements of krav maga, etc.) and wish I’d had more time with weaponry and related disciplines, but only got around to the occasional excercises with bokken and one formal bokken kata (though I can’t even remember its name). I’m sure there are heaps of Japanese terms to learn when studying formal Kendo. Hope you enjoy it and rock your exam 🙂

    • Kendo is a great sport. I’ve done martial arts since I was very young, and kendo is the one I enjoy the most. The best thing about it is that it’s incredibly international. Most places have places to learn and practice. If you get a chance to try it out, I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

  3. Interesting list, and I’m definitely going to check out that last one for a different perspective on what works and doesn’t.

    I’d recommend trying Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ if you haven’t already. It’s aimed at screenwriters but its advice on plotting is good for any story form.

  4. Thanks for the list. I have the Elements of Style and Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress, but not the book by her that you mentioned. I’ll have to look that one up. The others sound good too. Best of luck with your exam!

    • High five for The Elements of Style. I like the way Nancy Kress explains things, and she seems to have a handle on the character creation thing. 🙂

    • Yup! I’ve only ever done martial arts. It was part of my dad’s “My daughters need to know how to protect themselves” theory of parenting. Though honestly, my weapons training would be pretty useless in a real fight. No one is going to stand still enough for the five minutes it takes to properly nock, draw and release a Japanese bow, and let’s be honest, if someone is coming at me and I’ve got a stick in my hand, I’m more likely to use it as a baseball bat than as a sword. 😛

      Hope you find some of the books useful. I pick up a few new writing books every year, so I may update this list as time goes on.

  5. Two books I keep returning to are John Gardner’s On The Novel, and The Art of Fiction. I’ve just started On Moral Fiction and actually it’s quite thought-provoking.

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