10 books every writer needs to read

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The nature of every craft is that it is never static. As you grow and shift, so should your writer’s resources.

The 10 books every writer needs to read are not dictated by someone like me. They’re dictated by you and where you are as a writer.

I use my go-to resources by:

  • Underlining poignant bits. If a sentence sings to me, I highlight it.
  • Writing key words in margins so I can find themes or plot points later. This is useful for connecting story lines, timelines or characters.
  • Creating my own index on the inside back pages.
  • For my current fave book, creating a cheat sheet with the structure, plot points, and more. Some of this I do in the book itself. I write notes on transitions between chapters, highlight key plot points, the mechanics of the craft so I can learn from it. But I also will write a one or two page plot structure outline which I staple in the back page of the book.

What are your go-to writing resources? List them in the comments.


Colleen’s current top ten

Gone GirlRight now the book I’m a bit geeky about is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

The craftsmanship in this book is impeccable. Flynn establishes her antagonist as the good guy, the protagonist as the bad guy, which keeps you guessing and turning pages. Adept at using all senses, she places us in the world of the characters, and has readers loving (and hating) each and every one of them. In addition to being a thriller, this novel is an exploration of love and marriage. Should we just let love ‘happen’ or should boundaries be set? What should those be? Where do the lumps in a relationship begin to form, how do they stretch into gaping holes we can’t jump across? Is there any transgression that cannot be forgiven? Flynn plays with time, and through Amy’s journals, turns back story into an involving and eerie ride. There’s lots to think about in this book.


Steven King On WritingOn Writing by Stephen King. For King, the stories don’t come from within him. They are not things he created. They are more like fossils he uncovers by listening in the right way. What I like about this philosophy is it takes writing out of egomania and makes the writer beholden to the story. As writer you are a vessel for the story, not a god.

In no-bullshit prose, King puts down, “briefly and simply, how I came to the craft, what I know about it now, and how it’s done. It’s about the day job; it’s about the language.” Incredibly readable, at times difficult (what would a Stephen King book be without some weirdly challenging passages?), and chock full of great advice.


Birb by BirdBird by Bird by Anne Lamott. My huge take-aways from this book:

  1. Write shitty first drafts. Get it down, do it fast, don’t care about making sense. Just follow your muse, have as much fun as you can, and knock the critic off your shoulder.
  2. When writing, you only need to think of the words that will fit in a 2″ picture frame. That is, concentrate on the now, not then or when.
  3. Every climax is either a killing, a healing or domination.

A down-to-earth and fun to read.


Comic ToolboxThe Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus. Vorhaus explains comic principles extremely well. He also explains story structure in a simple, easy-to-understand way.

Vorhaus walks you through a series of processes, tools and rules that simplify rather than complicate writing tasks. From the rule of nine (out of every ten ideas you write, 9 will be useless, so take risks, keep going and don’t judge yourself) to the hill climbing problem (when revising your work, merely good is the enemy of great, so get that editing pen dirty). As he puts it, “That’s the trouble with re-writing. You have to commit to sacrifice with no certain expectation of reward. Yet even absent that guarantee, there’s one thing we know for sure: If we don’t come down off the hill, we’ll never reach the mountain.”

Although the emphasis in this book is comedic, the application of his lessons go so much wider. From his advice on why you need to re-write, how to re-write, how to kill your inner editor and resuscitate them when you need them, this book isn’t just about how to be funny, it’s about how to write. Given this, I’d re-title the book, The Writer’s Toolbox: From a funny perspective. 


writing toolsWriting Tools byRoy Peter Clark. Have trouble editing your work and punching up your prose? Here’s a book for you. Roy Peter Clarke’s focus is on providing a writer a box of tools. From copy editing to point of view and project management of writing projects, his insights and common sense approach make this the most useful writing book I’ve seen in years. His background is in journalism, but the lessons can be applied to all writing styles. My personal favourite is the chapter on generating a story question. Here, he talks about the “story engine” — a concept I first learned about from Sol Stein. Mr. Clarke refines this concept and shows how a question can help a writer to tame those sub-plots.


Sol SteinStein on Writing by Sol Stein. Looking for an editorial process for your work? Here’s the best one I’ve found in any advice book on writing. Sol Stein is a master editor and a writer himself, so he gets it.

From cutting the flab from your prose, to substantive editing of your book as a whole so you DON’T get sick of it from reading it over and over and over, Stein has some great advice. My fave: While reading your paper manuscript, write a V at the top of each page that has a visual. When done, go back and for every page that does not paint an image for the reader in words, create a visual or tap another sense.


7 basic plotsThe Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. This book is so big and thick you could use it as a murder weapon. But it also has some thought-provoking thinking on the reason for storytelling and story types.

According to Booker there are seven basic plots: 1) Overcoming the Monster; 2) Rags to riches; 3) The quest; 4) Voyage & return; 5) Comedy; 6) Tragedy; 7) Rebirth.

Each story type has its own requirements. If your story does not contain what that type of story needs, then it won’t resonate with your audience.

In addition to discussing story types, he proposes that all stories are about how to overcome our egos and become better humans.


Books on Art and Life

To till the soil of my craft I need more than books about how to write. I need art to experience other senses, philosophy to consider what it means to be deep, and psychology to learn how humans work. These are my current go-to books for inspiration.

How Music WorksHow Music Works by David Byrne. This most readable book on the creative process, it considers the medium of music from multiple angles and asks a whack of intriguing questions. In conversational style that makes you feel like you’re sitting together sharing a coffee, Byrne discusses the academic research — medical, artistic, psychological — and personal experience as a lover of music, a maker of music, and an observer of music. He then twists this object we know as music upside down, backwards and forwards again. This book is about art, about who has the ‘right’ to create it (in his view, everyone.) That music making or art making are useful to us all, as a release, as an exploration, as a means to making us all better people. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in music, art, or music making.


Going SaneGoing Sane by Adam Phillips. What an intoxicating marvel! Poetry mixed with psychology and language, explore the world of madness and sanity. Phillips argues that there are more definitions for madness in our culture than there are for sanity. We both love and fear those ‘eccentrics’ in our midst, fearing that we are heading down the same slope, while also somewhat jealous of their freedom. He begins with a dive into literature, with Hamlet a central figure. This is followed by a look at our relationship to our sanity from a range of views. Sane sex, sane greed. He ends with an attempt at a definition for sanity.

Critics have assailed him for his lacklustre exploration of the literature. I personally found his insights and the poetry of his language… well, as I said, intoxicating. He does, on occasion write in a very dense style, where his love for spinning ideas seems to outweigh his desire to communicate. (Was his editor intimidated by this man’s ability?) But overall the book is a must for anyone interested in exploring the human psyche and most definitely, writers.


FamiliesFamilies & How to Survive Them by John Cleese & Robin Skynner. This is an oldie but a goodie. And yes, this is the John Cleese of Monty Python fame, but the book is written as a serious study with humourous overtones. With the help of the Skynner, an eminent psychotherapist, they delve into human development, relationships and all things fascinating about human behaviour. In ordinary language, they go through day-to-day interactions and challenges, from change and depression, the terrible twos and many other aspects of humanity.

There is one area where this book is somewhat dated and I disagree with: How people “become” gay. I suggest you just skip past those pages, because it… well… let’s just say these two straight guys reveal a bit of fear in this area.

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What’s missing from your story?

Spoilers in here for Gone Girl, The Meaning of Everything and The Circle. 

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The most riveting aspect of some stories is what’s not there.

What would happen if, on the first page of a murder mystery, the author exposed the murderer, how the victim was abducted, tortured and then brutally killed?

Gone would be the experience for the audience to ponder the suspects, to learn inch-by-agonizing inch where the murderer did it, how they did it, and how they tried to get away with it. In other words, there wouldn’t be a mystery at all.

What keeps us reading is the missing information — the things we don’t know. Some things are hinted at but not spelled out, other things just seem odd. Little clues are planted by the writer to keep us guessing, pondering, thinking.

When we’re thinking, we’re engaged and keep turning pages. That’s why murder mysteries are so popular: our brains go click, click, click as we try to figure out who is guilty.

But missing information isn’t just for murder mysteries. All genres, including non-fiction, can benefit from keeping secrets from the audience. In The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, the key contributor of entries politely turns down invitations from the editor to attend events or meet, yet submits volume after volume of beautiful work. Eventually the editor goes to this contributor’s address to thank him in person. At the address is an insane asylum.

Missing information is the striptease of storytelling. It creates tension and surprise. It turns the story in a new direction, or reveals the reason for odd behaviour.

In Gone Girl, Amy has gone missing. Her husband, Nick, tells us that he’s lying to the police, but doesn’t tell us what he is lying about. He admits to having a temper, to hating his wife, and never fully says that he’s innocent. Meanwhile, he has a disposable cell phone that keeps ringing. He doesn’t answer. He wants to throw it out. The missing information: he’s having an affair. He looks guilty because he feels guilty.

In some stories, the secret is not something hidden by a character, but the author. Again in Gone Girl, Amy’s journals are a fiction created by the character, but the reader doesn’t know this. She learned of Nick’s affair and is furious enough to doggedly plot and plan her revenge for months. She creates a journal that leaves a trail of clues that show her as the good guy and Nick as an angry, brutal husband. As we continue to read years of faked entries, we grow to like this fictional Amy, even if there are aspects that seem a little too perfect or a tad too cliche. Half way through the book her ruse is revealed and we meet the very sick puppy that Amy is. Someone capable of knifing herself so she bleeds until she’s faint, who plans on killing herself to enact her revenge.

The biggest piece of missing information a storyteller can create (methinks) is to serve us the bad guy as the good guy. When we discover the truth, it turns our world upside down. We’re forced to revisit all that has come before, click, click, click. It’s a trend I’ve noticed in a few novels of late.

In The Circle, for example, Mae is established as the protagonist, hired by a Google-like conglomerate in a low-level job. At first she struggles in her new role. But as the story progresses and she buys into the company’s mantra to the point of turning in friends, we realize that perhaps she isn’t the one we should be rooting for.

Turning your protagonist into the antagonist is a ginormous leap to take. You don’t need to go that far unless you have a good reason.

What skeletons are rattling in the closet?

Other opportunities for missing information lie in the shameful fact a character wants to keep hidden, until…. The person your character doesn’t want to face because…  An unsavoury ambition, such as Amy’s goal of seeing her husband fry… A secret from long ago never shared, such as a child who was given away… A vice they’re trying to hide, such as drugs, smoking or pornography. That uncle who drinks too much and then gets in his truck as everyone in the family looks the other way. The death (or other event) that didn’t happen exactly as now told. An object with a significance never shared. Something that didn’t happen, but was very much wanted, such as the pregnancy in, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?

Look for it in positive emotions as well as bad ones. A character can be hoping for something to happen in the future, such as someone to return from the past. Do remember that a key theme of many fairy tales: Be careful what you wish for.

Your job as writer is to slowly peel away the secrets, layer by layer. To give your audience a striptease that makes them wonder what’s next, what’s real, what’s not? To yearn for more. To make them think.

The question to ask yourself: How far will my character go until they are forced to reveal their secret? Then, take the character to that place, because that’s the writer’s job.