Our Top Writing Reference Books

Below are our top writing reference books that you can refer to if you're hoping to learn a bit more about the craft or how to submit work, or just to find some inspiration.

It would be great if you had any books to recommend yourselves, in the comments section!

ROD: How Fiction Works by James Wood isn't a manual for writers, so you won't find all the stock appeals to "show don't tell" or "avoid adverbs". Instead it's a searching anatomy of literature by one of the most insightful critics in the business. It follows the tradition of E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, but I found it more readable and more fun and more insightful than either of those. The discussion of the case for and against realism was the part that struck me most. Let James Wood guide you towards a deeper understanding of what you are trying to do when you sit down to write.

CAROLINE R: On Writing by Stephen King. Although I've read and enjoyed a few of King's books, I wouldn't consider myself a big fan. On Writing, however, is a hugely enjoyable read for which you don't need any prior knowledge of King's work. The book's autobiographical sections are very funny, and the writing advice is given in an amusingly no-nonsense tone. The advice itself is nothing earth-shattering – it's the kind of stuff you can easily find on the internet – but King is not out to boss anyone around. He says what works for him and the reader can take it or leave it – a refreshingly non-patronising book.

GERALDINE: Becoming A Writer. Way back in 1934 Dorothea Brande showed us the way. Brande realised the importance of psychology in the writer's make up and taught me, for one, the importance of separating my sensitive writerly self from my editing self which would sooner tell me I'm rubbish than praise me. She also came up with the idea of morning pages way before any other author of "How-To-Write" manuals. DB is the Elizabeth David of creative writing. Everyone else is just an imitator.

CAROLINE G: Julia Cameron: The Right to Write
I’d never heard of Cameron’s more famous book, The Artist’s Way, when I came across this title, which focuses on writing rather than other art forms. Some of Cameron’s language is a little happy clappy for my taste but I will always be grateful to her for introducing me to the idea of ‘Morning Pages’, where you write any old rubbish you feel like every day without fail. I don’t manage to do it every day and I don’t do it in the morning, but I have found my unselfconscious private witterings to be hugely therapeutic. She also suggests taking time out to do things that inspire you creatively - a great way to recharge those batteries.

SUSIE: You may never have heard of my favourite - I only came across it by chance myself. It's 'The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing' from the editors of Writer's Digest. A vast, 452-word tome, it addresses every aspect of writing a novel. The joy of it is that every section, every chapter is written by a different writer, yet it is superbly focused and really well constructed into sections which make complete sense. Part I is called The Craft and has chapters on plot, dialogue, point of view, character and 'The Fifty-Page Dash (on hooking your readers from the start). Part II is about The Art: now we move into the finer details, including - theme, detail, using the senses, emotion, depicting character through place. Part III focuses on The Process, including a brilliant chapter by Sue Grafton on the use of the journal in writing a novel, breaking through writer's block, pumping up your creativity, murdering your darlings, a four-step plan for revision and dealing with criticism. Part IV looks at The Genres, including Literary vs Commercial, Fantasy, Horror, Crime, Suspense and Romance. Part V explores The Marketplace with excellent chapters on writing a synopsis, approaching agents and marketing. And Part VI (The Interviews) consists of fourteen brilliant interviews with authors including Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Tom Clancy, Maeve Binchy and Kurt Vonnegut on topics as diverse as research, portraying different cultures, finding creativity, writing ordinary lives and breaking rules. This is a book you can return to again and again. I'd say that it's aimed at writers who have learned the basics of their craft and want to be stretched. It's a very, very intelligent and inspiring read.

GILLIAN: The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook is an invaluable tool for any aspiring novelist. It was the first item I bought when I decided to take the plunge and ahem.... 'write a book.' As well as being packed with articles and advice for the aspiring writer, there is an up-to-date list of literary agents which is my most leafed-through section. It's not only for novelists though; short story creators and scriptwriters can all benefit from its wisdom. The yearbook is also revised and updated annually and in that respect, I have four copies festering under my bed! There is also a website which is worth a browse. I would recommend it to any writer starting out.

HELEN: I would recommend that any writer read From Pitch To Publication from cover to cover as it is such a telling insight into how the publishing industry works from a consummate insider.
The chapter on securing an agent is searing and blows out of the water many myths and urban legends. That an author must prove him or herself , not merely a good writer, but a dedicated professional with some understanding of the market, is made plain from the start.
A no-nonsense approach for the career author.

FIONNUALA: “Will Write For Shoes – How To Write A Chick Lit Novel” by Cathy Yardley
This gem of a book, though aimed at women writing ‘chick lit,’ (a much maligned genre) is also helpful for anyone interested in writing.
Cathy Yardley introduces the book covering the beginnings of chick lit, how it’s evolved and new trends within the genre. The book is divided into the must haves to begin the story telling process, for example - characters, main and secondary, their motivations, protagonists, plot, structure, the highs and lows of story telling, point of view and voice. She then goes on to the submission process (although because she is American mainly writing for the American market – this does have more of a US flavour) finally covering how authors nowadays must also know how to sell – themselves and their product.
I love her succinct advice ‘Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Revise, revise, Revise.’
This is an informative book, hugely and effectively defensive of the genre and a must for the bookshelf of any women writing for women.

SAMANTHA: Wannabe a Writer by Jane Wenham-Jones.
I can't tell you how often I have picked up this book. It is my writing bible and doubles as a reference book and light read. The pages are packed with Jane's witticisms and full of laughter, but also take us on her journey to publication, at the same time advising us on everything we need to know, from plotting to how to approach an agent.
I particularly like the chapters headed under the title 'Occupational Hazards'. These include 'Writer's Bottom', 'Top Diets for Fat Scribes', and 'On Being Vile to Live With'.
Go on! Treat yourself! I find this book a great read when I am seeking both comfort and inspiration.


Karen said...

Some great recommendations there, and I do have a couple of them.

See Jane Write by Sarah Mlynowski is another good one for chick lit writers, and From First Draft to Finished Novel by Karen S. Wiesner is brilliant for making you think about each stage of your writing, helping you develop a detailed Story Plan Checklist to help your characters and plot evolve.

Thomjack said...

I can't find the Julia Cameron book, The Writer's Way on her website or on Amazon. Is it a new title?

Administrator said...

Thanks for those suggestions, Karen.

Thomjack, reckon it must be The Writer's Life:

Maybe Caroline will come on to verify.

Gillian McDade said...

Interesting to read the other recommendations!

Caroline Green said...

Oops So sorry, Thom and everyone else - title is The Right to Write.
What a ninny. Big apologies!
I have another with that title and confused the two.

Ann said...

Another good book by Julia Cameron is "The Sound of Paper." Will be on the look out for some of the other recommendations. Thanks

Anonymous said...

I have two favorite books about writing and inspiring writing. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, is a brilliant and funny book that includes autobiographical moments as well as practical writing advice from an experienced author.

Walking on Water, by Madeline L'Engle, is another one of my all-time favorites. A very intriguing book with some thought-provoking ideas.

emma darwin said...

Voting for most of these (The original Cameron book was The Artist's Way).

The reference book I use most often is probably the Bloomsbury Thesaurus: Roget-style but bigger and better, full of fascinating lists, and all the proper thematic links that no mere dictionary-style thesaurus can give you.

OUP's New Hart's Rules for the really nit-picky copy-edity stuff.

David Lodge's The Art of Fiction for re-opening ones ears to writing, also Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. And I've just started Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel, and it's very, very good.

John Gardner's The Art of Fiction is the original and best How To book, and I'm dead impressed by the completeness of the Open University's Creative Writing Coursebook, which you can buy in shops (pubbed by Routledged) - this is the one to take if you're going to a lighthouse for a year and want a complete course.

I would say of Carole Blake's From Pitch to Publication has some very idiosyncratic advice about how to submit work to agents - definitely different from the industry norm, in as much as it exists.

Elizabeth Madden said...

Janet Burroway-" Writing Fiction" and "Imaginative Writing" are both invaluable, imo.

Stacy Blalock said...

Ah, having From First Draft to Finished Novel by Karen S. Wiesner is a better way in starting a good story.