Five Most Influential Resource Books for Fiction Writers

For a fiction writing seminar I’m part of this weekend, I’m presenting to the class five resource books that influenced me the most over the years. I’ve got a lot of material stashed away on shelves, in boxes, and under the bed (not to mention what’s cached on my computer). It wasn’t hard, though, to fish out the best which I’ll share here on the Kill Zone.

1. Think & Grow Rich.

This gem isn’t everyone’s birthstone. The original version, published in 1937, is written in an old-style masculine tone that reeks of misogyny. There are current versions published in a gender-neutral, more modern tongue but setting that aside author Napoleon Hill identifies seventeen core principles of personal achievement: Definiteness of Purpose, Mastermind Alliance, Applied Faith, Going the Extra Mile, Pleasing Personality, Personal Initiative, Positive Mental Attitude, Enthusiasm, Self-Discipline, Accurate Thinking, Controlled Attention, Teamwork, Learning From Adversity and Defeat, Creative Vision, Soundness of Health, Budgeting Time and Money, and Developing Strong Positive Habits.

Napoleon Hill published two earlier editions of his research. One was titled The Science of Personal Achievement. The other was called The Philosophy of Success. Both sounded too heady, so Hill rebranded a condensed version into Think & Grow Rich. From over four decades of being a Napoleon Hill student, I can confidently say the main theme in T&GR is not money. It’s about wealth gained from the satisfaction of accomplishment like writing and publishing a book.

2. On Writing — A Memoir of the Craft

Stephen King originally released On Writing in 2000 when he had only like a zillion books out, nothing compared to the spazillion he’s penned out today. The first half of On Writing deals with his personal story of depression, addiction, and chronic pain. The remainder is pure adrenaline to any writer, regardless of genre or slotting.

King does not wash words. He doesn’t choke back the F-word, and he gives you straight goods like, “There is a muse but don’t expect it to come fluttering down into your writing room and sprinkle creative fairy dust on your typewriter.” How about, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the tools to write. Simple as that.” Or, “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enrichening the lives of those who will read your work, and enrichening your own life, as well.”

3. The Elements of Style

No kid should graduate high school English without passing an exam on this primer originally released in 1935 by William Strunk Jr. It was revised by E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web) somewhere in the 50s or 60s, and I have a copy of the fourth edition circa 2000. A well-worn, underlined and highlighted fourth edition.

In 104 pages, The Elements of Style is a Cliffs Notes of my 1500+ page The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. It’s broken into five short parts covering Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, A Few Matters of Form, Words and Expressions Commonly Misused, and an Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders). There’s a lot of power in this little book.

4. Wired For Story

Lisa Cron subtitled her book The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. If you haven’t watched Lisa’s TedxTalk, do not miss out on her message. It’s vital fiction writers have a basic understanding of brain science as it applies to storytelling.

I just opened my paperback version and read this passage that I transposed from the text and printed on the inner jacket. “The goal is not to write a story that focuses on the plot. Rather, a plot that forces the protagonist to come to grips with the inner issue that’s keeping her from solving the story question and attaining that goal. Her inner struggle is her real problem, and the reader’s question isn’t will the protagonist solve the mystery, it’s what will it cost her emotionally to solve it”. Wired For Story is full of this stuff.

5. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers / Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us

I said I was going to list my five top writing resources and I had to tie two fiction editing books that I’ve carved up. The first must-read is by Renni Browne and Dave King. The second must-know is from Jessica Page Morrell. Although they cover the same subject—self-editing your fiction work to make it more saleable—the authors take two different and interesting approaches to delivering what could be boring matter.

Brown and King subtitle their work How to Edit Yourself Into Print, and they do an excellent job of fiction instruction such as explaining core rules of show &tell, characterization, exposition, dialogue, and a lot more. Morrell, who subtitles hers A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected, writes more from a critical editor’s point. Both resources are keepers, just like I’d never part with the other writing treasures listed here.

Kill Zoners — Let’s get a discussion going. Who has read any or all six of the five on this list? If you were writing this piece, what are the top writing resources you’d recommend? (That can include websites, seminars, or whatever you think can help us up our game.) And if I can ask you to be bold, who’s written and published a writing resource they’d recommend to this gang?

60 thoughts on “Five Most Influential Resource Books for Fiction Writers

  1. I have and treasure SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS, but I also recommend any craft book by Donald Maass, and ,MAKE A SCENE and HOW TO WRITE A PAGE TURNER both by Jordan Rosenfeld. The website Writer Unboxed has a lot of good content. If I was posting this on another site, I would highly recommend Killzone.

    • I’m not a Donald Maass fan, Susan, but from what I’ve read from Jordan Rosenfeld has been helpful – same with when I drop by Writer Unboxed. And thanks for the vote of confidence on the Kill Zone. I think the contributors all try to be helpful.

  2. If you are going to accuse a book from 1938, not merely of holding old-fashioned views on gender roles, not merely of sexism, but of straight out misogyny, i. e., extreme aversion to women, you better bring the receipts, otherwise I will not be able to take the post seriously.

    I would ask writers, of all people, not to be sloppy with adjectives and refrain from using concepts like “old-fashioned views”, “sexism” and “misogyny” interchangeably. They are by no means synonyms.

    It’s your blog and, evidently, you have the right to post whatever you want. But if this is heralding a new age when the culture war finally hits the shores of TKZ for good, which it has threatened to do so for quite a while now, I guess our love affair, immensely rewarding as it’s been, must come to an end.

    I can vouch for recommendations #2, 3 and 5, though.

      • I am, kindly, asking you to provide evidence that Think & Grow Rich “reeks of misogyny”. This grave accusation of yours requires direct quotes with context from Napoleon Hill himself expressing extreme aversion to women in general – which is what misogyny entails – if it’s ever to be taken seriously.

        Thanks in advance.

  3. I’d dump Strunk – I knew all that stuff in Kindergarten: it’s basic use of the English language, and I’d read and absorbed most of it as a child.

    Instead, I give you Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction, which is a blueprint for maintaining microtension every page. And a whole bunch of other lessons (including one I’m using now on how to make the almost-impossible appear quite reasonable and probable to a reader. Hint: it takes a lot of words). When you’re writing something that would never happen in real life, you need help.


    • The beauty of S&W is in simplicity – knowing just what to put in and what to leave out. I’m sorry – not a Donald Maass fan. Thanks for commenting, Alicia – looks like you were going to say something more and were cut off.

      • Yes, I was – and I have completely forgotten what it was – haven’t had much sleep.

        Sorry – wouldn’t have recommended the FIF if I’d known, and, from reading many, ah, imaginatively punctuated and parsed works, I’ll let you have S&W back, except that I prefer The Handbook of Good English, Edward D. Johnson, for that role of ‘splainin’ how to do it.

  4. Have not read “Think and Grow Rich” but had no idea it went back to the 30’s.

    I have read so many resource books including from authors here at TKZ and they have all contributed to my development in some way or other. But two other books that stand out to me are Donald Maass’ “Writing the Breakout Novel” and Adam Grant’s “Originals”.

  5. Chicago Manual of Style is touted as the pro writer’s bible. My copy gathers dust on the coffee table while Strunk and White (at a tenth of CMOS’s bulk) is ragged and dogearred b/c it answers 99% of my grammar questions.

    I also have Wired for Story and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

    Add to the list: Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham and Story Stakes by H.R. D’Costa.

    Oh yeah, there’s some guy named Bell whose craft books are pretty good 😉

  6. I love Think and Grow Rich. I never found it sexist or whatever. It just seemed like sound advice, which works universally.

    Write for Life, Julia Cameron’s new book, is my current favorite. She talks about writing as laying track, which helped me a lot. I am laying a lot more track since reading this. She talks about setting daily quotas and keeping them attainable, which has also helped me a lot.

    Happy writing, y’all!

    • Hi Cynthia. As I said in the post, I’ve long been a Napoleon Hill student and I’m very aware of his critics – one main dismissal is that he was a complete fraud and never met any of the thought leaders of the day who he quoted. The other cut to Hill is his male vernacular which was the language of the day. It was published in the 30’s. I specifically made a point of that – that Hill’s original material could offend someone of today’s wokes. Whatever – like all resources, take what helps and leave the rest – the sound advice, as you say.

      I Looked Inside Write For Life at Amazon. I’d seen this somewhere before and it looks interesting. Thanks for the link and the recommendation!

    • Thanks for the alert on Julia Cameron’s new book. Not only was I not aware of it, but it looks like I missed another one recently published so I need to catch up! 😎

  7. When I was starting out, it was Browne & King (which was listed in the handouts–near the top–of every writing workshop I took at conferences). Have Strunk & White, the CMS, Bickham’s 38 Most Common Mistakes, Lukemans First Five Pages, a bunch of JSB, but frankly, where I am now, I tend to hit the Google machine or a few favorite blogs,

    • Hi Terry. Thanks for the list. I have Noah Lukeman’s FFP and it’s excellent – should have been 7th on my list of 5. I have Google on speed dial and I think it’s shortly going to be replaced by Chat.

  8. Interesting list, Garry.

    My list: (too many to list all of the them)
    All of JSB’s books
    All of Donald Maass’ books
    All of Jodie Renner’s books
    Christopher Vogler’s – THE WRITER’S JOURNEY
    Dean Koontz -HOW TO WRITE BEST SELLING FICTION (out of print and hundreds of dollars in used book stores, but still available digitally and interlibrary loans)
    Lisa Cron’s -WIRED FOR STORY

    That should keep anyone busy for a few years.

    • Thanks, Steve. I’ve tried to find Dean Koontz’s equivalent to On Writing but no luck – in print. I just went to Amazon to see if they carry it digitally. Nope. Only a used hardcover for $305.51. If you know a link where I can get an ebook or pdf, please let me know.

  9. The first craft books I read when I was writing my first novel were Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renee Browne and Dave King. (Btw, I have interviewed these authors about their work on my blog at

    I haven’t read Think and Grow Riche or Thanks, but This Isn’t for Me. I’ve read all the others and would also recommend:
    On Writing Well by William Zinsser
    Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
    Techniques of the Selling Author by Dwight Swain
    Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham

  10. All of your list plus all of Larry Brooks, JSB, and Maass.

    Just went to the bookshelf because the Koontz cover on Amazon looked familiar. I have a like-new hard copy and didn’t know it. Think I can sell it and grow rich?

  11. I’ve read most of them but the two on my desk below to James Scott Bell. The first I kind of thumb through for ideas is Conflict and Suspense. The other is a condensed resource, Super Structure.

    In my case, I kind of laugh at myself sometimes. The two influential books on my for writing are opposites in theory. Conflict and Suspense is from a well know plotter is blogs here on Sundays, while I love the opposing view from Stephen King.

    I guess I might be one of those rare hybrids we’ve all heard about.

  12. Those are terrific resources, Garry. You’re going to rock that seminar. I’ve read all of these books, and learned from each.

    I also recommend:
    Write Your Novel From the Middle by our own James Scott Bell
    Save the Cat by Blake Synder
    Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
    Scene and Sequel by Jack Bickham (a true classic)
    On Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

    Enjoy the seminar!

    • Good morning, Dale. I’ll add another one – Save The Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, The subtitle is The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the subtitle but the information is quite helpful.

  13. Gary, you’re not the only nonfan of Donald Maass. I just can’t wrap my head around his hundreds of questions but no techniques style.

    My list would include JSB, Writing Excuses podcast, Creative Academy (which is a community I recently found with tons of resources and zoom workshops each week), The Emotion Thesaurusand the Secrets of Story.

    I’ve read all the books on your list except the first. I love Stephen King’s book, my only beef is that I was told I wouldn’t need any other advice on writing, which seriously messed me up. King says himself, though, that he’s not the end all and be all.

    • I don’t mean to Maass-bash. I just find his style a bit arrogant but that’s just my take. I’ve read two of his fiction-craft books and he does have some good stuff in them. Thanks for your comment and recommendations, Azali.

  14. Over the years, I’ve acquired a how-to-rite-stuff lib’ary of roughly 30 books, including a friend’s collection of Rayne Hall ad hoc books (fight scenes, branding, emotions, villains, deep POV, etc.) But I still remember fondly L. Sprague DeCamp’s Science Fiction Handbook, a witty and wide compendium of writing advice. Alas, it also was instrumental in teaching me never to lend out books I care about.

    • I hear you about lend-outs, JGA. My first copy of Think & Grow Rich with my impressionable twenty-year-old side notes disappeared somewhere along the way. Same with my first Masterkey To Riches.

  15. A college friend told me the story of an algebra math teacher he had in high school. The martinet would write solved equations on the blackboard to “teach” his course. One day, a very timid student raised his shaking hand and asked, “Sir, I don’t understand.” The teacher wrote the equation bigger. “Now do you understand?”

    This is not only a good example of bad teaching, but Stephen King’s explanations of certain aspects of writing. Things like plotting are so instinctive for him that he thinks everyone can do this. That’s why King’s ON WRITING isn’t God’s gift to newbie writers. He has interesting things to say, though.

    Since I started writing in ancient times with no Internet or genre writing teachers, it took me years of reading everything on writing my large library had to figure this crap out. I mentioned Ben Bova’s WRITING SCIENCE FICTION THAT SELLS a few days ago. (It’s not just for science fiction writers.) It was my lightbulb moment for the connection between plot and character. Playwright Lajos N. Egri’s THE ART OF CREATIVE WRITING and his other books have some interesting things to say about the same idea. I combined the two with my own twist for a number of my courses including “The Big Question” which I posted on my blog.

    Most of the WRITER’S DIGEST books on very specific elements of writing are a good starting place for newbies. A big plus, they are available in most libraries or through library loan.

    • That’s exactly why I don’t like Donald Maass. He tells you what you have to do, gives you examples, but doesn’t say how.

    • Thanks for dropping by and giving us some suggestions, Marilynn. God, in the high school I went to that math teacher would have got punched out for that insult.

  16. I have many of the books listed here. JSB’s signposts are my first go- tos when I start working on a book. I like K. M. Weiland’s plot and pinch points. What I can’t understand is why every books starts out with, now how do I do this?

  17. The one I keep coming back to is John Dufresne’s “The Lie That Tells A Truth”. I carry it around the house with me.

    John Franklin’s “Writing For Story” is good as well although it is oriented toward nonfiction. Another good one is Ray Rhamey’s “Mastering The Craft of Compelling Storytelling”.
    When I’m stuck for an equivalent word my 1956 edition of Roget’s is a gimme.

    And of course everything that JSB has been puttin’ down. I’d be adrift in a lifeboat if it wasn’t for his How To Write Pulp Fiction. That’s what got me started scribbling about three or four years ago.

    • Good afternoon, Robert. Thanks for the leads. I’ve never heard of the first three. I once read some guru’s comment that if you have to reach for a thesaurus, then you don’t know how to write (or some stupid form of that). I totally disagree. I still have an old paper thesaurus but it’s easier to punch my top bookmark and open Ain’t the internet grand?

  18. Agree about On Writing, The Elements of Style, and Wired for Story, Garry.

    Story Engineering, Story Physics, Story Fix, Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves, Stuck in the Middle, and any other craft book by Larry Brooks. If he writes it, I’m reading it.

    The Last 50 Pages, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, How to Make a Living as a Writer, Marketing for Writers who Hate Marketing, and any other craft book by JSB. If he writes it, I’m reading it.

    A few other favorites are Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Screenplay by Syd Field, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins.

  19. Just a postscript to my earlier comment– James Scott Bell’s Confict and Suspense should have been on my list–the ebook is on my desktop and I use it often.

  20. Great list, Garry. I have them all in my stacks and revisit them from time to time. I tried Donald Maas but unfortunately didn’t resonate with me. Books that I refer to time and time again besides JSB and the whole writers digest collection of write great fiction series, are K.M. Weiland’s, plus Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way as well as her newest Write for Life, Alice LePlante’s The Making of a Story. Oh and Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext is another good one. Nonfiction wise Dinty Moore’s books on Crafting the Personal Essay and his flash nonfiction are ones I revisit quite a lot. I recently picked up Steven James Story Trumps Structure and Troubleshooting Your Novel and a writer friend sent me Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing so those are all on my nightstand for this year. Just finished Writers and Their Notebooks edited by Diana Raab which was awesome and resulted in a lot of annotating. The list of question prompts in the back of the book have prompted some interesting and wonderful conversations with my characters.

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