Books Every Writer Should Have on Her Bookshelf

Behind the supposed glamour, writers have one of the toughest jobs in the world. It’s not easy to experience life in all its harsh colors, think deeply about what it means, and then find the right words to say something that hasn’t been said before. As solitary as the act of writing can be, every writer I know is frequently in conversation with other writers. Reading their work, nodding along, shaking their head in disagreement, and then running to write down an insight. We inspire each other every day. And when we get stuck, we turn to the experts. The books below are the favorites we keep on our shelves, in our studios, and by our bedsides (multiple copies are allowed!) so we can reference them again and again.

The Plot Whisperer, by Martha Alderson
If you invent new characters as you’re people watching on the subway, or see flashes of a strange world in your head but struggle with pulling the elements together to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end, Alderson’s book is filled with expert guidance that will help you move forward. After analyzing what the best stories have in common, Alderson shares how writers can use the universal story common to them all to inspire their own work.

Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro
Much of writing isn’t about creating new characters or building an argument, it’s about being comfortable enough with the idea of being a writer to honor your craft and actually write something. In this book, the author of Devotion and Slow Motion writes eloquently about the isolation, discipline, and heart that’s needed to be a writer, rather than someone who just fancies themselves a writer.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
When an Anne Lamott fan finds someone who hasn’t read this book, there’s a moment of glee. Someone new is about to discover how comforting and wise it is! Because it’s so accessible and sensible, it’s a title often assigned in beginning writing classes. But years later, experienced writers keep it on their shelves and recommend it to others because Lamott’s perspective is so useful and reassuring. She shows, bird by bird, how even the largest, most overwhelming projects—like writing a book—can be approached if you take them on slow and steady, word by word.

The Art of Character, by David Corbett
It’s easy to create a caricature, but to create a character that feels as real as any person you know is an art few have truly mastered. This book helps writers weave together backstory, dialogue, motive, physical traits, secret longings, and internal contradictions to create characters that are unforgettable.

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
If you’ve ever heard someone say “I can’t right now. I’m writing my morning pages,” you’ve met a devotee of the Artist’s Way. This classic book is a go-to for many creatives, not just writers, because the exercises help readers step away from “shoulds” and “musts” toward play and creative experimentation. After trying it once, embarking on the Artist’s Way is a 12-week journey many writers repeat again and again, whenever they need inspiration.

What are your favorite inspirational writing books?

  • Gillian Doyle

    Great list. I’d like to add “Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within” by Dennis Palumbo and “The Successful Novelist” by David Morrell.

  • Viking from Red Bank

    All good inspiration and thought-provoking, but not as practical for novelists as “Manuscript Makeover” by Elizabeth Lyons. Take apart your manuscript problem by problem.

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