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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Story – Substance, Structure, Style And The Principles Of Screenwriting by Robert Mckee

Our Summary

An oft-quoted reference for screenwriting, this book delves deep into story as a metaphor for life. McKee's analysis of film structure is hugely insightful for novelists. He explores genre, character, theme and exposition in terms that are clear and thought-provoking. Beyond a 'how to' guide, this is a reference book that deserves its place on a writer's shelf.

What I learned From It

The art of story is universal. The same set of skills a writer uses to bring a story to the screen also strengthen our craft in writing fiction and other narratives.

Mel L

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Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Lyon

Our Summary

Presents in a highly readable, organized way all of the elements of a novel, from the significance of genre and common to lesser-known structures to all the aspects of a writers' craft. Briefly and with amazing clarity, describes potential problems which might arise from each, then follows with suggestions for how to "fix" them. Chapters are organized around particular craft elements and issues, so readers can choose which parts of the book to focus on relative to their personal writing needs. Review checklists of problems and their solutions are included at the end of each chapter.

What I Learned From It

I have now read easily a dozen books on how to write a novel, plus several on revision, and while I've taken away something of value from each, not one of them has given me the breadth of awareness and practical understanding of craft elements, from A to Z and beyond, that this jam-packed, wisely conceived and clearly presented book has given me. It's not prescriptive, nor does it follow the latest trends in fiction writing. Ms Lyons doesn't think she has 'the' answer or make suggestions that make a writer feel like a square peg being forced into a round hole, but rather shows writers how to consider each issue in light of their own writing style, voice and vision for their novel. Check out the Amazon reviews; I'm not the only one who loves this book. It's a keeper! And one to be used over and over.

CarolMS

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Developing A Written Voice by Dona J Hickey

Our Summary

This dense work focuses on a directed attitude towards developing Voice. From conversational to formal, snarky to respectful, it's all about word choice and the way that language will both sound and convey meaning. The same words with the same meaning can nevertheless be ordered in different ways with a difference in the way they are perceived, the it is this that comprises 'voice'. Replete with concrete examples and pertinent exercises, this book is hard to find but well worth the search.

What I learned From It

All writers have a voice, but not all work at developing it - or even possess a framework for it. This book provides a framework and it's a book I will continue working through for years to come.

Dan Payne

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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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Wonderbook (The Illistrated Guide To Creating Imaginative Fiction) by Jeff Vandermeer

Our Summary

For genre lovers. Practical information on plotting, structure, characterization, dialogue, exposition, worldbuilding, and POV while packed with exquisite and imaginative visuals. This is a beautiful, wild, and crazy book with contributions from various well loved authors like Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, George R. R. Martin and others. Dense and rich and wonderful.

What I learned From It

It encouraged me to not just embrace my imagination, but to push it as far as it will possibly go.

LJ Beck

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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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Blurb Your Enthusiasm: An A To Z Of Literary Persuasion by Louise Willder

Our Summary

How different blurbs work in different genres from an insider in the business (Willder is a Penguin books blurb writer). Lots of great examples in each genre in terms of what does and doesn't work and why. Willder argues every word matters in a blurb, and so each has to count. Thus, she offers ways to do this.

What I learned From It

How to write a successful blurb from an experienced blurb writer. That is, what will appeal to readers in different genres and why. Use of specific words and phrases that attract readers. The multitude of different examples proved helpful as comparisons to craft your own blurb. As the book is written with humour, it's easy to read. You can also flick to different sections as per the genre you're working in, but I'd recommend you read the whole books to get the full picture.

Rachael Burnett

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Negotiating With The Dead by Margaret Atwood

Our Summary

A collection of essays by a renowned writer on aspects of writing theory and how she became a writer. Entertaining and informative especially if you are already an Atwood fan.

What I learned From It

This isn't a 'how to write' book - it is about 'writing' in a far more general sense. It gave me plenty of food for thought.

Liz Brown

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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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Truth by Susan Batson

Our Summary

Public personas, needs, and tragic flaws - A step-by-step guide for creating truth in a character from an acting perspective.

What I learned From It

This one's a little off the beaten path... I was fascinated with method acting, and wanted to bring that to my writing. How to embody and write the truth of a character. This is one of the books I learned a lot from in that regard.

LJ Beck

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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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The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman And Becca Puglisi

Our Summary

A great one to dip in and out of if you find yourself repeating yourself in terms of showing-not-telling emotions. Gives lots of examples.

What I learned From It

Ideas to avoid repetition and alternative ways to say the same things if emotional reactions are repeated through the story.

Claire G

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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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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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Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

Our Summary

Great for understanding genre, theme, 3 act structure. Very well explained. Lots of examples of story beats from popular books. Even looks at pitches and loglines.

What I Learned From It

I found the famous beat sheet really helpful in deciding when to do what in my novel. The biggest thing for me was understanding structure enough to keep those pages turning

Hannah F

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Secrets Of Story by Matt Bird

Our Summary

An award-winning screenwriter’s view of journeyman writing. How to hone in on and hone your story.

What I learned From It

Imagine your reader being on a long plane ride. Then imagine you are their seat mate. Are you the engaging stranger who entertains them with your sparkling wit and fascinating adventures? Do they want to take your name and keep in touch thereafter? Or are you the boring Uncle from Derry Girls that makes them consider opening the plane door and shoving you out?

Pamela Jo

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The INFJ Writer by Lauren Sapala

Our Summary

Writing (and living) advice for people whose brains don't work well with logic, plotting etc. Another perspective! (The letters refer to Myers-Briggs type personality indicators, which aren't flawless, but broadly if you tend to be led more by feelings and intuitive reasoning, this might work for you).

What I Learned From It

I'd been getting super snarled up trying to follow advice that just didn't work for me in practice, even though I could see it made theoretical sense. This book gave me a bit of space to trust myself to learn my own process. I've still got a long way to go but I do a lot less bashing my head against a brick wall these days. Sharing it in case anyone else is in the same boat!

Josephine

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The Positive 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 Negative Trait Thesaurus by the same authors.

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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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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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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