My seven (OK, nine) best books for writers…

Josie Lynn  
Controversial opinion alert…
"Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." Thomas Edison.

There’s an evergreen question that pops up almost daily on social media. It goes something like this:

Do I need to be a reader, if I want to be a writer?

If one could actually have an adult conversation on Twitter without it turning feral, I’d answer this question with another question, and maybe three more after that:

Is your purpose for writing solely self-expression, for example personal journalling? If “yes”, just write and to hell with it.

If the answer to this is “no”, then my supplementary questions are:

How can you understand the genre you’re writing in, if you don’t read it?

Why would you not want to be the best writer you can be? 

And, to me most importantly…

If you don’t enjoy reading, why should you expect someone else to read your words?

Maybe humility comes with age, I don’t know, or maybe it’s my family’s blue-collar work ethic. But I will do anything I can, read anything, do the exercises, go to classes, work, work, work to get better. I’ve been writing for years, trying for years to improve my craft, and the thing is, I know how much better I am than I was… and how much further I have to go before I’m anything like satisfied with what I put down on the page. Here are some of the best books I’ve read on my writing voyage, the ones that sit on my desk like supportive friends, watching me like my own personal little cheerleading squad, telling me that “I can do it!”

1. Best books on genre.

I’m starting with a two-for-one here. I’m a romance author, dyed in the wool, and one of the best books I’ve read for understanding the structure of romance that I have recommended time after time to people, is Gwen Hayes’ Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels (Amazon Kindle, paperback, Audible). Hayes takes you lightly and clearly through the “beats” or plot points a recognised genre story needs to hit. Recently I have moved into romantic comedy, and a great book on this is Billy Mernit’s Writing the Romantic Comedy(Amazon Kindle, paperback). Mernit’s book is intended for screenwriters, but it’s easy to transfer the structure to novels and short stories.

2. Best book on plotting.

GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon (Amazon Kindle, paperback) is a fantastic character-driven plotting resource. Dixon clearly shows how every scene can be driven by the main characters’ inner and outer goals, motivations and conflicts, leading to a storyline that moves forward, and doesn’t stall. It’s an excellent tool for understanding how every scene needs to earn its place.

3. Best book on show-don’t-tell.

Janice Hardy’s Understanding Show, Don’t Tell: And Really Getting It (Amazon Kindle, paperback) really cracked this perennial problem for me. Packed with examples and practice opportunities. A fast, accessible game changer.

4. Best book on editing.

This is my stand-out book on this list that was recommended to me by a successful writer contact, but it’s expensive and not available as an e-book. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (Amazon, paperback) is worth its weight in gold, and there are less expensive, second hand copies available online—I’d happily pay full price again.

5. Best book on characterisation.

The Psychology Workbook for Writers: Tools for Creating Realistic Characters and Conflicts in Fiction by Darian Smith (Amazon Kindle, paperback) is an extremely useful book for building your characters from the ground up. So, so, so much better than these checklists that get you to list your characters’ eye colour and hobbies, Smith presents a range of models for the writer to establish in their mind who their character is, psychologically.

6. Best book on getting (even) better.

Fantasy author Ursula le Guin has written a short book of essays on writing which I revisit regularly. Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story (Amazon, paperback) is another masterly little work that I couldn’t find as an e-book. Le Guin states from the opening that “…this is not a book for beginners. It’s meant for people who have already worked hard at their writing.” But I mention it here because there will come a stage where you need someone to talk to you about the sound of your writing and “being gorgeous”… and Le Guin writes some of the most gorgeous prose I have ever read. You are learning from a master with this one.

7. And two for the road…

Finally I want to recommend two more books that you will have immediately to hand, without spending any more money. The first is whatever you are reading right now. Whether you are reading in the genre you’re also writing, or consciously avoiding it (I do this while I’m writing, then read in my genre while I’m not) there is always something to learn from reading other writers… a way of thinking, an idea or fact that might bear fruit later, or even something to avoid.

The final, and most important book, if you want to improve your writing, is the one you are working on right now. There’s a scene in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where the monster learns to play the piano, by watching someone else play it, through a window. Well, honestly. No wonder it all ended badly. Don’t be like Boris Karloff. Get writing!

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19+ Comments


Firstly, I admire your courage. Saying that writers need to be readers—oddly enough—is a controversial take for some reason! But it’s got to be said. If there’s one group who can’t capitulate to the alarming (and increasing) trend toward illiteracy, it’s writers.

Secondly, thanks for the book recommendations! Now I’ve got things to put on my Christmas list :grin:

Dec-04 2023


responded to the wrong person, oops.

Great blog post Josie! I couldn’t agree more that writers need to be readers.

Dec-04 2023


The Mary Karr book is very good. I mention her a lot when I critique or talk to other writers. Other books I find useful are On Writing by Stephen King and Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics.

Dec-04 2023


It’s not controversial. It’s complacency. We entered an era of easy riding. Everything has to be simple. Writing included. But competent writing was always hard. It hasn’t changed that much for the past several hundred years. Quite likely, it’s harder to become a successful author now more than ever, because everyone and their dog dip their toe in writing. There’s a ton of mediocrity on the Internet, because we’re always just few clicks away from publishing anything. It muddles the whole idea of what proper writing is. Luckily, there are web islands like the CC, where people really try to learn. And I hope those people do not shy away from reading at least several books a year to stay in touch with the living language.

As for the self-help books – I personally don’t like those. I see people tend to cling on to the rules in those books and heed them a little too literally, thinking they will magically fix their writing, and they end up in a rut, thinking that’s the only way it’s done. For me it’s learn the absolute basics and then figure the rest out yourself, trial and error. Picasso didn’t need self-help books about painting. He had learned to paint the classical way (the basics), and then he went his own way. I think we should strive to be Picassos or [insert the name of your favorite, highly successful author here], and not self-help books for middling authors, because the latter will only make the writing more generic. And yes, none of us will become the second Picasso or [insert the name of your fav author], but we can become the first of our name, and that’s way better.

Dec-04 2023


Thank you for your blog post. I will need to look into those books.

I think about a similar set of arguments my graduating class would regularly have with our high school English teachers. On one occasion a student pointed out that a certain author, who’s name escapes me, didn’t follow the rules. The student may have have been disputing some corrections the teacher had made to her paper.

“If this author, who is required reading for high school English students, didn’t follow the rules then why are you marking me off for doing the same thing he did?”

After a punctuated pause, the teacher responded, “Because he knew the rule, and you didn’t.”

This is probably one of the best arguments against ignorance that I’ve ever heard. An experienced and educated writer has the liberty to bend the rules if there is a stylistic reason to do so. For example, when writing dialogue in different dialects. Other examples might be certain types of avant-garde poetry or experimental pros.

In other words, an actor who goes off script is different from an actor who just plain can’t remember his lines. And so I would caution anyone from believing that ignorance is the means to combating conformity.

Dec-04 2023


I want to emphasize the importance of appreciating the distinctions between various language skills. To illustrate this, let’s imagine two overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. One circle represents those who understand good writing techniques, while the other represents excellent writers. These circles overlap, but they are not mutually exclusive.

The contentiousness in online forums like Twitter seems to be about the amount these two circles overlap. We could include two more circles to the Venn diagram, representing the abilities to speak and teach, and then engage in an endless debate about how much all four skill sets overlap with each other.

Dec-04 2023


I’d say it’s both. It’s not controversial because I believe there to be any nuance to the issue. It’s controversial because you’ll get called all kinds of nasty names for suggesting it (trust me, I’d know!).

I think stating this fact causes such a visceral reaction because non-reading writers get defensive and don’t want to change their ways or put in the required effort. They might say I’m wrong because I read all the time and am still a bad writer—therefore, reading doesn’t help. I’d reply that it actually proves my point. I read 40-50 books a year, have completed two novels, and have a first draft of a third and fourth book finished. Yet I’m STILL a bad writer. It take a lot more work than what I’ve put in to succeed, which means a non-reader is leagues behind even the likes of me.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I feel unsatisfied when I read many modern books. They’re written in such an overprocessed, simplified way that it’s like eating a tofu steak. It looks like a steak, but it doesn’t fill you up or leave you satisfied, and you’re even more hungry than before! A lot of older books might be difficult to get through, but they definitely provide me with some much needed mental calories.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Why be an Elvis impersonator when you can be an Elvis? If you catch my meaning.

Dec-04 2023


Ah, and I disagree. I don’t like reading anything prior to ~1975. I read a lot of contemporary fiction and while I do agree some of it is over-processed, I’ve learned so much from the good ones (which is subjective) and some have really resonated with me.

Dec-04 2023


It could just be how I was raised. My folks read a lot of classics to me and my siblings when we were kids.
And not all modern books are unsatisfying to me. There’s a sweet spot between the excessive verbosity of old school writing and the oversimplified/overprocessed modern stuff that I would love to achieve!

Dec-04 2023


If we’re talking reference books, I have but four: Webster’s New World Dictionary, The Emotion Thesaurus 2nd edition, Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors, and The New Oxford Guide to Writing. Online research: (Websites) Google, Wikipedia, and The Enneagram Institute. As Bugs sez, “Tha’s all, folks.” Lotsa luck.

Dec-04 2023


People calling you names for suggesting any different are [names] themselves.

They might say that, but they don’t know how bad (or good) would you be if you didn’t read at all, right? To me, reading is the very foundation of writing. This is what can get you started. You can build a house on sand, but don’t be surprised when it’s swept away by the tide. Same with writing, you can learn to write without the knowledge of any basic rules, but don’t be surprised if your books are rejected. You can learn some of those rules by simply reading, because the trad published books are already edited by someone way more knowledgeable than you, and you soak the language in.


That’s an excellent observation, though I’d say the entirety of the diagram representing excellent writers in enclosed withing the good writing techniques diagram. There will be people with excellent writing techniques who won’t be great writers (teachers, editors, etc.), because there are other skills and talents included when it comes to writing, but you probably won’t become an excellent writer without proper technique.

Dec-04 2023


I’ve been in this discussion (argument) on the forums before about not reading, and not feeling the need to be a reader to be a writer. I think it’s what @Luluo is referring to. I’m on the pro-reading side. I always have a stack of books on my nightstand and don’t know how you successfully write if you don’t read.

I’d like to point out another reason for reading. If you hope people will purchase your books, you need to support the publishing industry by buying other people’s books.

Years ago, someone on the forums ranted about Literary Magazines charging a small fee for submissions to cover costs. He thought it was totally ridiculous. I asked the CC member if he subscribed to any literary magazines, and he confessed he didn’t. I pointed out that was the problem. They don’t make enough in subscriptions to succeed, and need the revenue from submitters to stay afloat. The same can be said for the publishing industry in general. If we want to be part of the writing community, we should support it with our dollars or it could go away.

Dec-04 2023


Well I’ll swim against the tide on the idea that writer’s must be avid readers. (I stretch your words there, but that’s the impression your article gives)
I’m not particularly an avid or voracious reader. It doesn’t mean I don’t love a good book, it’s just that most books I pick up fail to grab me. I probably average less than five completed fiction books per year from fifty I pick up.
I know full well why they fail to grab me - disappearing into dark, sunless places in their self-gratifying writing is one leading offender.
I can take my time to understand those few books I do read very well. My intolerance gives me a clear picture of what I don’t as well.
On ‘understanding genre’, it depends what you mean. Some people take understanding genre as complying with formula. I’ve had people thumping tables telling me a romance has to have the protagonists meet on page 1. Perhaps this is an ADHD thing but I can spot a formula book a mile away and if I see such signs I will drop the book in a flash.
Can I understand crime genre without having read 1000 crime books? Of course I can. I can take two good books I love and get to the bottom of why I love them. I don’t need the other 998.
I have read a few of those books you’ve suggested and they’re good recommendations. I’ll look at some of the others. Cheers.

Dec-05 2023


Somehow this thread reminded me of the infamous Yogi Berra quote:

"Always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise, they won’t come to yours. "

Aside from learning the craft by reading, I think its arrogant to feel people should read your writing when you don’t read anyone else work.

Dec-05 2023


Personally, I don’t have any interest in reading books about writing. I think you can learn to write fiction just from reading it. It’s a different approach, I’m not claiming it’s better—I see it like learning to play music from listening to records instead of studying the theory. Some great musicians know all the technical stuff, and others couldn’t tell you what notes are in a scale. But the end result speaks for itself.

When you read fiction, you are acquiring all of its elements: vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, character, etc. Sometimes the effect is noticeable. I’m sure lots of writers have had the experience of reading a number of books by an author and finding that author’s style creeping into their own work. This is especially pernicious with someone like Cormac McCarthy or Toni Morrison where the style is strong and unique. I think the same thing happens with the larger structures and movements of books, where we intuitively pick up how a story resolves its plot points and narrative arcs. In a way, I believe it’s similar to how we learn to speak in the first place—not in school, but through listening and observing.

But of course, not everyone learns the same way. There’s great value in analyzing books and breaking down plots and beats, if that’s what works for you.

Dec-05 2023


Love that quote. Have not heard it before.

Dec-05 2023


That’s not a bad analogy. Either way, whether you go the technical route or by ear, a musician must listen to lots of music!

Dec-05 2023


It surprises me when I come across a writer at CC who is aware of the writing “rules” (show don’t tell, avoid head-hopping, having your MC wake up in chapter 1 is an overused trope not a hook, and many more). But sometimes these same writers ignore guidance and justify their deviation as writer’s prerogative. They might even note upfront, “this story is written in omniscient point of view,” as if admitting a beginner’s mistake in advance excuses it. Nope. Unless you’ve published twenty best-sellers, stick to best practices. Those “rules” help us learn the craft.

The guides you suggest sound good; I’ll check them out. I’ll also remind myself, as we all should, that a dash of humility is an important component for learning to write well.

Dec-06 2023


Writing in omni is a beginner’s mistake?

Dec-06 2023
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