The Definitive

Litopia Writers’ Reading List 2024

Peter Cox, founder of Litopia

I asked our members a simple question.

Which books have had the most profound impact on your development as a writer?

Here’s what they told me. A glorious cornucopia of more than forty definitive titles that ought to be on your reading list.

And note: if you buy them all (why not?) it will still be cheaper than taking one average-priced commercial writing course.

We’ve all enjoyed putting this list together, and we hope you get as much out of it as we have.

Peter Cox

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Into The Woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them by John Yorke

Our Summary

A structural guide to storytelling, plotting, punch, flow step by step

What I learned From It

Although such a step by step guide seems a bit prescriptive and in theory has the potential to limit the creative flow, I found that following the principles helped prevent a story from being a shapeless mass and made it take shape and form. A bit like a block of marble being turned into Michelangelo's David (although perhaps my results have been less classically terrific). Or a diving board: a structure from which to soar.

AliG

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Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Our Summary

Techniques of inventing, developing and presenting characters, plus handling viewpoint in novels and short stories. Spells out your narrative options in creating "real" fictional people. Distinguish among major characters, minor characters and walk-ons, and develop each appropriately. Choose the most effective viewpoint to reveal the characters and move the storytelling. Decide how deeply you should explore your characters' thoughts, emotions, and attitudes.

What I learned From It

This demystified POV for me when I first started writing prose. It also taught me how some of my all-time favorite characters were made, and why I loved them.

LJ Beck

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On Writing by Stephen King

Our Summary

Leave it to the literary rock star to compose a craft book that’s as entertaining as a good novel. “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit,” King writes. What follows is a witty, practical, and sometimes poignant guide that is refreshingly devoid of the aforementioned BS. King relates his personal story of becoming a writer, then offers a “toolkit” of clear advice about everything from dialogue and descriptive passages to revisions and the head game. And there’s more: tips for beginning writers on submitting work for publication, a mark-up of one of King’s own manuscripts, and a reading list. You might not be awake at 3 a.m. turning these pages, but we promise On Writing will open your eyes to essential tricks of the trade.

What I learned From It

Just write a story readers will read.

James Charles

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Hooked by Les Edgerton

Our Summary

The focus is on great openings and keeping the reader hooked including advice on this from agents and acquiring editors.

What I learned From It

Lots about inciting incidents; balancing backstory in the set up; keeping readers going from one chapter to the next.

Trey

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Becoming Superman by J Michael Straczynski

Our Summary

An astonishing bio of an accomplished (mainly) screenwriter.

What I learned From It

Never to feel sorry for myself. To keep doing it and never give up. To learn, learn, learn. A fantastic psychology of writing book that every writer serious about making it would benefit from imo.

Trey

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The Negative Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman And Becca Puglisi

Our Summary

Lists character traits to help you generate different types of characters and how these traits might manifest. Useful in conjunction with The Positive Trait Thesaurus.

What I learned From It

Helped me to write characters with more depth and think of a wider range of character types for my books.

Claire G

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Talking Books by James Carter

Our Summary

Various children's authors talk about craft and how they became professional authors.

What I learned From It

That it was possible to be a writer without being a god. It is a cherished book that sparked the possibility of being a writer for me.

Trey

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The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Our Summary

a series of essays and short stories on the nature of story

What I learned From It

It does a great job of explaining the nature of truth in story. there's a great section which notes that the factually correct war story is not the really true one,

MattScho

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The Memoir Project – A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text For Writing & Life by Marion Roach-Smith

Our Summary

Rational and literary at the same time, this slim tome is an extremely helpful exploration of how to turn life into memoir -- without boring the pants off the reader.

What I learned From It

A memoir is an illustration of a truth, a single facet of a life rather than a life story. Just because something happened doesn't make it interesting. Narrow the focus, find your voice and write in scenes until you have a vomit draft. Then the real work begins.

Mel L

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The Conflict Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman And Becca Puglisi

Our Summary

A breakdown of types of conflicts for your story and potential fall-outs for characters. Useful for sparking your imagination early in the creative process or if you feel that the stakes aren't high enough when you're writing.

What I learned From It

It opened my mind to different ideas and consequences.

Claire G

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Techniques Of The Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

Our Summary

First published in 1965, Swain's book is a no-nonsense, broad-brush instruction manual for beginners that shows you how to construct a commercial story.

What I learned From It

The basic shape of commercial fiction (and how unchanging that shape has been for more than half a century). Every other writing manual I've ever read has felt like a retelling or offshoot of this book.

Rich.

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Point Of View by Sandra Gerth

Our Summary

A clear, informative guide to the different types of POV with tips on choosing the best POV for your own manuscript. Offers exercises focused either on your work in progress or on a published book.

What I learned From It

I saw how to mix some POV, how and why to avoid head-hopping and picked up tips on internal monologue.

Jeanette

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Write Great Beginnings by Sandra Gerth

Our Summary

Defines "a beginning" and lists do's and don'ts together with pointers on how to achieve the first and avoid the second. Offers exercises based either on an ongoing manuscript or a published work.

What I learned From It

This is a comprehensive and clear overview written in simple terms. The points it makes are self-contained so you can zoom directly to whatever concern you have about the beginning of your work.

Jeanette

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It Was The Best Of Sentences, It Was The Worst Of Sentences by June Casagrande

Our Summary

Gets into the line level of sentences and what order you need to put words so you can help a reader follow what you put down on paper (or computer). From phrases, clauses, subordination, long v short sentences tense, tense, prepositional phrases, danglers and much more. Perfect for reacquainting yourself with the nuts and bolts of grammar.

What I learned From It

I learnt how to consider what order words need to be in, and how writing them out of order confuses the reader. Now every sentence I construct considers the reader first.

RK Wallis

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The Art Of Fiction by John Gardner

Our Summary

This is a self-proclaimed book of basics, but Gardner is clearly elitist; this work is aimed at writers aspiring to create art. It covers plot, character, sentence structure, poetic rhythm - all the mechanics of writing fiction - but he's less interested in dictating laws of good writing. "Every true work of art," Gardner claims, "must be judged primarily by its own laws." His primary interest is about how to create a vivid dream to absorb the reader to the end of the story.

What I learned From It

This book is disorganised, but full of important lessons. There is no story until there is a plot capable of expressing it. The primary requirement of a piece of fiction is verisimilitude - that the reader can believe these events happened, or could have happened, or might happen in a slightly different world. And verisimilitude requires vivid detail. Most importantly it taught me to focus less on the technical details of correct writing and more on making the writing vivid and absorbing.

Dan Payne

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What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges

Our Summary

This is a coming-of-age fiction book about a 24-year-old boy who feels stuck in his small town taking care of his overweight mother and special needs brother, while it feels like his other siblings and friends have moved on outside.

What I learned From It

I really learned alot about voice and character from reading this book. Gilbert Grape is an incredibly flawed character and can be pretty cruel at times, but I loved him. He emotes in ways that feel unconventional to a reader/are far from cliche. Rather than crying when he's sad, he takes it out through acting out at work or little internal jabs at other people. His relationship with his mother and siblings is fascinating to read, because he never says exactly how he feels about them, but his attitude changes throughout the book. Its just a really subtle way to draw a reader in and attach them to a character, even if he can be a jerk.

tmartini

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The Dictionary Of Body Language by Joe Navarro

Our Summary

Not a writing book per say, but an invaluable text for writers. That is, it's dictionary structure means you can flick to a section and read about a specific body part you want to write about and read authentic body language positions/movements, etc. for each character. For example, you might might want to write about a character's eye, head, hand, etc. movement, the text allows you to learn authentic, non-cliched body language. Written by a ex-FBI agent, it is easy to read and invaluable for adding layers of authentic 'show' to characters. Works well with Navarro's first book What Every Body is Saying (a more detailed account of body language with illustrations).

What I learned From It

Genuine body language that can be adapted to different characters for accurate emotion and thus characterisation. Rather than relying on the usual cliches in body language for characters, this book elevates and authenticates body language, movement, and thus emotion that 'shows' rather than 'tells' the reader in a believable manner. Easy to use both via the chapter headings and the detailed index to research each different part of the body. This is one book I would not be without as a writer.

Rachael Burnett

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Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Our Summary

Down to earth advice, not so much about the craft per se as the practice (and pitfalls) of "being a writer".

What I learned From It

I'm actually still reading it, but so far I've got lots of encouragement from it. Her style is super informal and she has a wonderful dry wit, it's like a brilliant chat in the pub with someone who really knows their shit and you go away thinking, "yeah, I really can do this..."

Josephine

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The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

Our Summary

First published in 1949, this dense, sometimes impenetrable, and somewhat controversial book on comparative mythology takes a tour through world folklore to tease out common themes and archetypes.

What I learned From It

What George Lucas was thinking when he wrote Star Wars. If you want to understand Hollywood's obsession with this mode of storytelling, you should read this book. If you've heard other writers talk/evangelize/fret about the "Hero's Journey" and you're not exactly sure what they're talking about, you should read this book. If you have even the most passing interest in commercial Western storytelling, you should read this book.  Also see "The Writer's Journey" by Christopher Vogler.

Rich.

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Kindred by Octavia Butler

Our Summary

Despite being written 45 years ago, it feels like a modern work. It’s at once Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Speculative, and even Literary. Everything a writer needs to know about sparse and impactful prose can be found in these pages.

What I Learned From It

Pithy writing has power. Take a look at the first paragraph…

“I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.”

We don’t know why Dana lost her left arm - or where she was when it happened. However, most of us would keep on reading to find out.

The minimalist approach doesn’t end with the hook. Throughout the novel, the writing is direct and matter-of-fact. There’s no purple prose to distract the reader.

Butler's worldbuilding is likewise utilitarian. She sets the stage with everything we need to know, and little else. If something more is needed to move a scene forward, she’ll drop it in later so readers aren't overwhelmed.

There is brutality in this world, and Kindred doesn’t shy away from it. Slavery in the US was a cruel business. Still, she conveys the humiliation and suffering of human bondage with an economy of words. There’s no need for intricate detail.

There’s also no need to explain why slavery is wrong. Butler trusts her readers enough not to lecture them.

The author falls into a common conceit of the era - chapter titles. However, she doesn’t abuse that conceit. Each title is short and to the point with neither wit nor irony. There are no spoilers, either. The meanings are clear upon finishing a respective chapter.

Kindred has both a prologue and an epilogue. Few books need one, and even fewer need both. However, this story demands both. There is nothing extraneous about their inclusion here. Unlike many novels, neither feels bolted on to the main narrative. The prologue hooks the reader while the epilogue provides the necessary denouement.

Not everyone agrees Kindred is Science Fiction. If it’s not, there's a lot here for Sci-Fi readers (including myself) to like. If it is Science Fiction, the characters and dialogue are much more realistic than most contemporary works.

Most importantly - this book remains relevant to readers and authors alike.

Bloo✒️

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