Often when I teach a writing workshop, my students ask for my favorite books about the craft of writing. So here’ s my odd list—a combo of books about writing prose, screenplays, and even musicals to help you find the kinds of books you want to read to improve your craft (I have a shelf full of these kinds of books, so I can’t name them all here, but I’ve tried to pick a range of books to help you solve a range of problems. Oh and I left out Elements of Style, just because, well YOU SHOULD HAVE ALREADY READ IT. If not, got get it. Now).
I hope these books help you tell better stories, create stronger characters, and get published.
The Writers’ Journey by Christopher Vogler — If I have a writing Bible, this is it. TECHNICALLY it’s a screenwriting book, but Vogler’s Hero’s Journey (based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces) is invaluable for storytellers working in any format (movie, TV, new media and even good old-fashioned books!)
Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit — if you want to know how to write love stories, there is no one better. This book is meant for screenwriters, but you can apply the structure and tips to prose, too (If you want a book specifically designed for writing romance NOVELS, Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes is probably the best eight dollars I ever spent)
On Writing Well by William Zinsser — Technically this book is for writing NONfiction, but the most of the advice would improve the prose of novelists, too. Need help with brevity or trusting your own vision? You can’t beat Zinsser.
Structuring Your Novel by KM Weiland — Many novelists struggle with structure, and this book is filled with easy-to-use tools to help you navigate the vast expanse of writing a novel. As far as practical NOVEL writing books go, this is probably my favorite.
Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama by David Mamet — yes, this one is about the theater, but you can’t beat Mamet when it comes to distilling down why we tell the stories we do and why they are so important.
The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel — But I don’t write MUSICALS you say? Doesn’t matter. This book which breaks down the structure and rhythms of musicals is a great handbook for anyone who wants to learn to tell better stories.
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark — This is an invaluable tool kit that covers everything from grammar basics to helpful habits. And my favorite part? Roy provides exercises that will help you implement each of his lessons.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose — This book changed the way I read. To write, you must read — and this book will give you the tools to make sure that every page you read will help you become a better writer.
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby — This is another screenwriting book (Hey, I’ve worked in Hollywood for over 15 years, what do you expect?), but it’s still a brilliant way to look at and deconstruct story for ANY writer.
Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein — Having trouble developing characters? This is a great book for understanding human psychology and behavior. I use it to spark ideas when I’m feeling stuck.
On Writing by Stephen King — This writing book is also part memoir, but Stephen uses his experiences as a master class for aspiring writers. I agree with those who call his advice “tough-love,” but sometimes, a little bluntness is what we all need.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert — Now that you’ve read all of these books and done all of this work to improve your writing, give yourself a treat by reading Big Magic. It’s an inspiring read about the creative life!
I left out so many of my favorites! What are yours??