Even the best writers can learn from others tips and tricks and ideas for how to conquer the empty page. I love recommending my favorite writing books, singling out a specific title here and there depending on what the writer needs. Focus, editing, plot––there is something for every part of the process. I’m recommending these books in the order I read them, over the course of twelve years. Some are classics, some are genre-specific, and a number have nothing to do with writing, but with art and the creative mind. They’re all worth a look.
A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway
I read this in college the first time, and return to it again and again for inspiration. Don’t you ache for a time before email and Twitter, when the work—the work—was the only thing that mattered? Plus, it’s a brilliant Parisian travelogue.
The Forest for the Trees – Betsy Lerner
Eight years later, I ran across this book and remember it as a mind-bending experience. It was the first time I started to see that I might be able to return to writing.
Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life – Elizabeth George
Hands down my favorite book to recommend to new writers who are trying to figure out how to build a book. From outlining to character development, George covers it all in a style that’s accessible to everyone, regardless of their experience level.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King
The gold standard of craft books. I return to it every year. It’s the book I always suggest for new writers who don’t know (or I can’t tell) if they’re the real deal. I tell them, “If this book speaks to you, you’re a writer, and you should keep going.”
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles – Steven Pressfield
I was four books in before I experienced real live writer’s block. This is a short book with a huge impact. It broke me free immediately and gave me the tools to forge ahead.
The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life – Twyla Tharp
A brilliant book about building healthy creative habits. I use her box method for all my novels. Each book gets its own box, and all the research goes into it. A great read.
The Hero’s Adventure: Power of Myth 1 – Joseph Campbell and
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers – Christopher Vogler
These two go together, as Vogler’s book is based on Campbell’s theories. I’d written five books before I came across Vogler. The screenwriters’ bible, it drives diametrically opposed reactions in the writing world: some love it, others (like me) hate it. I actually never finished reading it. The reason I hate it is I think stories are more than the sum of their parts, and I don’t like being constrained by a formula, and Vogler teaches the formula of story. I’ll never be able to watch a movie the same way again. That said, for new writers, knowing this template will help structure a suspense novel perfectly.
The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity – Julia Cameron
Vogler created an epic fail for me in my writing life. I suddenly couldn’t create; everything felt formulaic, already done. Coupled with some personal issues, I stopped writing for four months. I thought I might even quit. Cameron’s book saved me. After her twelve-week program, I found my voice again and came out an even stronger writer.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott
Another classic, Lamott absolutely nails the writing life and gives so much to the reader. She helps us see that we’re all struggling, even the most successful, well-known writers, and that it’s okay.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and
Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life – Winifred Gallagher
Once writers master the craft and recognize their own insignificance in the literary world, they move on to trying to find better methods for getting the job done. Productivity is the buzzword of my generation, and these two novels examine the way our brains work. They are filled with fantastic insights, because really, who doesn’t want to find a way to tap into a deeper consciousness?
Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age – William Powers
In our newly connected age, it’s sometimes disheartening to think about all the distractions calling for our attention. This book gives a historical perspective of this phenomenon, showing all the ways society has been disrupted by technology from the moment storytelling moved from spoken word to print. A must-read.
Writing the Blockbuster Novel – Albert Zuckerman
A recent edition to my library, I read this to learn a bit about outlining, something I don’t normally do. Zuckerman posits that no true bestselling author operates completely organically. We all outline, even if it’s unconsciously. He also suggests that the more outlining we do, the better our books will be.
The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller – John Truby
Another late entry, Truby’s methods are an excellent adaptation of the Campbell/Vogler formula, using accessible examples from modern films that truly do enlighten. Distilling story down is always something I rebel against, but Truby is smart and very helpful.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport
Possibly the most important book on this list, Newport takes my two favorite topics—creativity and productivity—and gives an unflinching view of what all the current distractions are really doing to our creativity. With practical examples and encouraging stories, Newport has inspired me to step far, far away from my distractions and focus on what truly matters––the deep work necessary to write excellent novels.
New York Times bestselling author J.T. Ellison writes dark psychological thrillers starring Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Owens. She also pens the Nicholas Drummond series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Cohost of the premier literary television show, A Word on Words, Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens. For more information, visit JTEllison.com.