What Are the Top 5 Writing Books in Your Arsenal?

Writers have several important tools they lean on: a great keyboard, a trusted laptop, maybe even a lucky red pen. But there’s usually a stack of dog-eared books, too, that are sitting on the desk — ready to provide tips or inspiration as needed.

Here are the books I grab over and over again. They’ve been my bibles. But, you know, even if you don’t write fiction, I honestly bet you’ll get a kick out of all of these. They’re all great fun:

  1. On Writing, Stephen King: I love this book. The first half is King’s own personal story of how he came to write fiction, but you can jump right into the second half if you want. (That’s where he tells all his secrets.) I absolutely love how he breaks down the drafts, and tells you what to look for in each one. It’s really an outstanding book.
  2. The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes, Cowden, LaFever, Viders: The eight hero archetypes and the eight heroine archetypes are as old as time, and this book explains each one (with modern-day movies and books as examples). This book shows you how each archetype you’ve selected for your story might interact with the others, and what conflicts may arise when you put them in various situations. Fun stuff.
  3. GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict, Debra Dixon: I would never be able to tell a 100,000-word story if I hadn’t read this book. Dixon really breaks it down: how every character needs an external goal, motivation and conflict, as well as an inner one. She shows how they criss-cross, meet, and make for fabulous plots.
  4. Love Planets, M.J. Abadie and Claudia Bader: Wondering how your Taurus heroine might get along with your Capricorn hero? Wondering what might drive them apart and what they might argue over? This book isn’t designed for fiction-writing, but I often assign my characters signs and then look them up in this book to get ideas for conflict and possibility. Great fun.
  5. The Baby Name Wizard, Laura Wattenberg: This is, hands-down, the greatest book for naming characters. Not only does it list names by gender, but it tells you in what era those names were popular (so to name your hero’s father, who was born in 1951, you’ll have a more reasonable name). It also gives you suggestions for brothers and sisters for each name (“Lily,” for instance, would most likely have sisters named “Sophie,” “Ava,” “Isabel,” and “Ivy.”) It also gives nickname possibilities (“Laz” for “Lawson” or “Fin” for “Phineas”). Sometimes I get carried away just reading this book for fun.

So those are my all-time faves. What great writing books would you recommend? What top 5 are in your arsenal?

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11 thoughts on “What Are the Top 5 Writing Books in Your Arsenal?

  1. 1. On Writing by Stephen King
    2. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
    3. The Elements of Style by Strunk & White
    4. Get Known Before the Book Deal by Christina Katz
    5. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

  2. Great post. I have so much trouble getting through writing books. I agree with On Writing and I have Bird by Bird and The Right to Write. I love inspiration books.

  3. Jennifer — Great list! That Donald Maas book has been recommended to me a couple of times. I think that’s a must, huh? I’ll put that on my “buy next” list. …

    Kwana — Thanks. Yes, sometimes inspiration is what we need more than “tool” type books, huh? “Bird by Bird” is also terrific, I agree. I’ll look for “The Right to Write.”

  4. I have three so far. On Writing, Grammar Girl, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. My grammar/punctuation is a major WIP so I’m reading more of those right now. On Writing is very inspirational and will probably always be my favorite.

  5. Crystal — good list! Do you like Grammar Girl? I believe I read that “Self-Editing for Fiction” one too (it was a coworker’s, so I gave it back and can’t check). Is that the one that has cartoons leading into each chapter? If so, the chapter on “beats” was my fave — truly helpful stuff!

  6. Good topic! I’ve just had _Writing to Sell_ recommended to me, but haven’t tracked it down yet.

    And I’ve just stumbled on a copy of _The Basic Formulas of Fiction_, by Foster-Harris. This is interesting, because he has an entirely different way of looking at plot and character. It’s not the classical model.

    It’s out of print, though, and it’s difficult to find, and there’s no mention of it on the web. The funny thing is that you can really see how his writing system would apply to different stories you know.

    I’ve started to put a synopsis of the system up, but I need to take a break. Thanks for the list — I’m going to look these up.

  7. Hi, conradcook! Glad you liked the list. You would especially love “On Writing,” if that’s one you haven’t read yet. Regardless of what genre you write, King really hits so many salient points. And he does so with a great sense of humor — it makes for a fun read.

    “The Basic Formulas of Fiction” sounds very interesting … Thanks for sharing that. Come back and tell us if you get the synopsis of the system up (and where).

  8. Hi, Carla! Oh, “Story” is another one I have to put on my “read it right away” list — I’ve had several people mention that one, also. Thanks!

  9. Pingback: Another ‘Best Book’ List

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