I remember saying the words “I want to be a writer” maybe five years ago. Well, thinking them, anyway. Saying them was too scary.
Around that time, I did the best thing I could have ever done for myself and Googled, “Best books for beginning writers.”
What I found was a blog post showing me a sincere list of books someone once found helpful. I bought all of them. And thus started my crack-head-like binder of reading books concerning the craft of writing.
This post is me recreating that post. Imitation is flattery.
It also made whoever wrote that blog a good bit of cash as I’m sure they used affiliate links. Something you’ll probably hear more about if you’re just starting out. Or it’s something you’re probably sick of hearing about if you’re a more seasoned writer.
P.S. This is my way of telling you, there are affiliate links in this. If you follow them, I will make a commission. If you don’t follow them and don’t want me to make a commission, I still think you should check these resources out.
Before you go crazy binge-learning, let me make one thing — okay, three things — very clear before you start binging online writing workshops and reading textbooks on story structure.
One: Writing is the best way to get better at writing.
Two: Reading is the second-best way to get better at writing.
Three: Feedback on your writing is absolutely necessary.
Learning about the craft of writing is really a way of filing information you receive and experiment with. What do I mean by that? Well, when you read as a writer, you should be putting some thought into what you like and don’t like about a piece.
Now, don’t let your dream suck the joy out of reading. But every concept you understand — intimately — about the craft of writing sets up a little filing cabinet in your mind.
Then, when you come across something in a story you’re reading for fun, you then can say, “Oh my, they used epistolary form in a unique way that I loved! I’m going to file this as an example in the ‘epistolary form’ file in my mind’s ‘narrative devices’ filing cabinet. Neat-wow-jeez-shucks!”
As your filing cabinets get filled, you pull things out and experiment with them when you sit down to write something new. This experimentation can happen on purpose, sure, but most of the time, if you understand a concept well enough, it just seeps into your writing naturally.
Lastly, on feedback, you have to show your writing to people. Have to, have to, have to. Shut up, put on a thicker skin, and listen to what they have to say. It doesn’t matter whether you think they are right or wrong or stupid or overly nice about the whole thing.
The key to accepting feedback is knowing that people can only point out where the problem is. They can’t tell you how to fix it. That’s up to you. And if you make a change and there’s still a problem, fix it again. If someone gives you something you think could work to fix it, give it a shot. But the truth is it’s your writing and only you control the final product.
Now here’s some shit that might help you out.
The story and having a solid voice is more important than grammar. But if you sound like an idiot that doesn’t know the difference between comma and coma, no one will give your writing a second glance.
It’s a grammar robot. Similar to Grammarly, but I like it better. Either one works fine. When I started using PWA, I was a complete beginner. I didn’t really know shit about grammar other than what Mrs. Gruebermeyer taught me in the fourth grade before I started slacking off.
Go premium on these. PWA is a one-time payment. Grammarly is a subscription. But when you go premium, it helps you learn stylistic errors as opposed to just grammatical ones. As these a.i.s point out your mistakes, they also show you why they are mistakes. Follow the links to the articles they throw at you about each mistake. Over time, you’ll find your writing become stronger and stronger and your page less and less riddled with red squigglies.
EdEx Course on English, Grammar and Style
EdEx is an e-learning powerhouse. They often offer both free and premium versions of their courses. Take the free version. The paid courses often are just the free ones with a certification at the end that you can wipe your ass with.
This course on English, Grammar and Style starts simple and, as courses do, eventually hits on more advanced topics. That said, I’m an advocate of relearning the basics. Take this free course and master the fundamentals. It makes your writing stronger. I promise.
On Storytelling in General
These books are a great place to start as you’re just beginning to grapple with the deceptively complicated question, “What is a story?” Note, I did not read these in this order. But if I could have done it all again, I feel like these are in the order I would have liked to consume them.
Pixar in a Box
Powered by Khan Academy, Pixar in a Box is Pixar Studio’s completely free course on storytelling. Yeah. I know.
In it, they give a quick-start guide to everything from character wants and needs to world-building. It’s one of the best places to start filling up that storytelling filing cabinet in your head. One of the biggest takeaways for me was they don’t really adhere to a strict structure. They have a structure, yes, but it’s pretty loose compared to many others.
They rely heavily on the classic writing question, “What happens next?”
Stephen King’s “On Writing”
What can I say? He’s a master of the craft. One of the biggest takeaways from him is that a story really starts — and I can’t believe how stupid this sounds — with a beginning.
While there are tons of helpful hints on style, dialogue, plot twists etc… Old Stevie boy noted that if you set up a story correctly, it will move, naturally, toward its end. In other words, set up a scenario that a character has to solve and the story will write itself.
Lisa Cron’s “Story Genius”
This book is a great book to help kick-start your storytelling journey. It’s a comprehensive roadmap to turn your mere inkling of an idea into a story that matters.
She takes you through the process of writing a novel, explaining things at a granular level. What I loved was she started with separating story and plot in a way I’d never thought about before. I wrote pages and pages of notes on this book and have reread it a few times over. If you take your time with it, you’ll walk away with a good sense of plotting and various methods of raising the stakes in your novel.
K.M. Weiland’s “Creating Character Arcs”
This book really tied together a lot of loose ends in my mind concerning how character and plot relate. Also, it did so using accessible and easy to understand language.
K.M. Weiland centers a lot of this book around the idea that characters start stories with a lie. This lie drives the plot, essentially. It’s a thing that a lot of other authors refer to in different terms. Like in Story Genius, it’s referred to as the third rail. In any case, Weiland's parsimonious explanation of this idea helped a lot of things click for me in terms of plotting.
Larry W. Phillips’ “Ernest Hemingway On Writing”
This one’s a little weird. It’s a collection of random snippets — letters, notes, interviews — that Hemingway wrote and some guy named Larry threw together in an order that makes sense.
I was a little apprehensive to read it at first. One, because the format was strange and seemed fishy. As if someone was just trying to make a quick buck by tossing Hemingway’s name on something. And two, I didn’t want to be a writer that just jerks off to Hemingway’s name, anyway.
After all was said and done, I read it. Loved it.
Probably my favorite takeaway concerned when to stop writing for the day. In more Hemingway-ey wording, he warns against writing until you're “empty”. Instead, stop while there’s still some gas left in the tank. Simple, but sticks with you, as is the Hemingway trademark.
Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey
This is the gold standard in terms of plot structure right now. If you haven’t heard of it, Joseph Campbell examined tons of myths and fables and stories over the last millennium and found that most stories follow a similar structure. He called it the Mythic Structure or The Hero’s Journey. Christopher Vogler then condensed this idea into a more practical version that is a bible for screenwriters.
While it’s an invaluable resource, many people when they start out writing — sometimes well into their careers — lean too heavily on this structure, treating it as more of a cookbook.
That’s not how it should be used.
Remember the bit about the filing cabinet? This book is filled with tools that help you analyze stories and key plot points. In the end, it’s amazing information, but it’s not the one-stop-shop that people often mistake it for.
The biggest things I took away from this book were the ideas on character archetypes, actually. Heralds, shapeshifters, threshold guardians. And it was well-organized and very succinct, which I always appreciate.
On Writing Good Scenes
The following are more about things like relationship building, creating realistic dialogue, understanding conflict. All the things that happen within scenes, as opposed to throughout a story.
The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual
Don’t overlook this one just because you don’t plan on becoming the next big name in comedy. Upright Citizens Brigade is a comedy school with four locations, hundreds of class sessions running at any point in time with thousands of alumni, many of whom enjoy a comfortable career in the spotlight. And if that doesn’t sell it, one of the founders is Amy Poehler.
Improv comedians are tasked with creating relationships that matter, interesting scenarios, and building a world all in the first five seconds of stepping on stage… In other words, they have to grab the audience’s attention instantly. Sound like a familiar goal?
One of the best things I took away from reading this (multiple times) was how to find the absurdity in things. Literally, they have a step by step method to find it. For me as a writer, I took it as a guide to finding what’s interesting in a scene and highlighting it, comedically or not.
Gary Chapman’s “The Five Love Languages”
Though it’s not directly related to writing, Gary Chapman wrote one of the bestselling books on relationships. Writing — fiction and non-fiction — is all about relationships. Need I say more?
He states that every person prefers to both show and receive love in one of five different ways. When two people communicate in different love languages — just like communicating in two different actual languages — there is a breakdown that leads to two Christmases. The ideas from this study in communication are a tasty wealth of knowledge we writers can pull from.
Darian Smith’s “The Psychology Workbook for Writers”
I would take this book over a million blog posts on character building. Smith lays out a series of proven models of psychology and clearly applies them to the realm of writing.
I’m going to be rereading this book for years to come, I’m sure. One of the many ideas that stuck with me were his thoughts on how people form scripts. He lays the idea out in such an actionable way that it hurts. Basically, every person has a phrase that surrounds their script word. At every turn, this phrase is something they fall back on. “I’ll never do X,” or “I’ll never do Y.” “I can’t until I get X” or “Maybe after Y happens”.
Ya. You read correctly. Aristotle, back in his day, was a prolific voice on storytelling. He was also a pretty scathing critic. Now, this book has been translated, of course, and passed down for damn near a thousand years, but it is every bit as relevant to writers today.
It’s essentially all about writing a Drama. And there are a lot of chapters at the very end that you can go ahead and skip. Like the one discussing how important it is to have a big musical number between each act, or else the play will pretty much be garbage.
However, he gives insight to something that should dictate your every thought as a writer. Hemingway mentions this, too. Writing is an imitation of life. That’s it. Everything written should seek to mirror life in some way. Scenarios — even the most fantastic of fictional stories — should copy life.
Lastly, there are a few things that Aristotle calls Unities that he brings up. I’ll get around to writing about them soon, but you should know them. They are fundamental to creating strong scenes.
I’ve found it helps to get as many perspectives on writing as I can. There isn’t a time that I’m not enrolled in some online course or email series. Maybe that’s just me, but I think it helps. Writing is an evolving practice and you don’t really master it until you’re dead.
On that cheery note, here are some of my favorite random resources!
Remember how I said feedback is super important? Scribophile is a membership-based writing workshop community. There, you critique people’s work for points. When you have enough points, you can post your work. In this way, you get a guaranteed flow of people reading and critiquing your writing.
Scribophile helped me wrangle everything I knew about storytelling and actually hone it.
If you pay for nothing else this year, pay the $50 to sign up for this. I’m not an affiliate of theirs. It’s simply the best place for you to get solid, honest, and actionable feedback on your writing. Some critiques I’ve received were 2,000 words long on a story that was on 1,500 words.
For the love of God, sign up for MasterClass.
With writers such as Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, Joyce Carol-Oats and many many more, the advice you’ll gain is invaluable. Each teacher has their own unique take on storytelling. After I watched enough of these courses, I found that, yes, the ideas overlapped, but they never overlapped how I thought they would. There was something completely new and groundbreaking to me even if they were talking about the exact same concept as the last person.
And outside of the writers, I’ve found it useful to watch classes on other topics. Chris Hadfield’s course on Space Exploration gave me an endless amount of ideas for science fiction stories.
Yeah, you’re an idiot if you’re a writer and don’t look into Reedsy. A stupid, dumb, idiot.