12 essential books on writing for National Novel Writing Month

12 essential books on writing for National Novel Writing Month

Five years ago, I completed my first NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, where participants write a 50,000 word novel in November. On a whim in 2014, shortly before November 1, I committed to writing 1,667 words per day to meet the goal. They weren’t good words. But I did it, and I learned so much in the process. 

By writing every day for one month, with a word goal in mind, I learned the power of getting a draft down on paper—with a deadline motivating me to do it quickly. Those deadlines help me follow through, whether I’m reading a library book before it’s due or finishing a new chapter to send to my editor. 

NaNoWriMo might eventually result in a hit novel; Cinder and The Night Circus did start as NaNo projects. And while I hope bestseller status isn’t your NaNo goal, I firmly believe that participating in such an intense writing challenge will help you learn something about yourself, and your creative process. 

I love books that get “meta” about my favorite topics, and writers-on-writing is definitely one example. Today, in honor of the upcoming NaNoWriMo, I’m sharing twelve of my favorite books on writing and creative inspiration. Whether or not you participate in this year’s challenge, I hope you’ll find some useful wisdom on this list.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this November? I’d love to hear your tips or recommendations for books to inspire, motivate, and guide writers at any level.

NaNoWriMo Essentials
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

This book is perfect for fiction lovers and writers alike. Prose's insights are terrific, her voice is engaging. Her comparisons and lessons from well-known classics like Middlemarch or Flannery O’Connor enlighten and delight. Writers: this is a must-read. Readers: you'll gain insight into how your favorite authors work their magic. More info →
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Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Author:
The concept couldn’t be simpler: this compendium holds the daily routines of 237 writers, composers, painters, choreographers, playwrights, poets, philosophers, sculptors, filmmakers, and scientists. We glimpse the creative processes of drinkers and drug takers, early risers and exercisers, nap takers and night owls. Some schedules are mundane, others are wildly eccentric. With their contradictory routines, you’ll be assured there’s no “right” way to work. While you could read it straight through, it’s best enjoyed dipping into again and again, slowly over time. A perfect book to keep nearby as you sit down to write each day. More info →
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Do the Work: Overcome Resistance and Get Out of Your Own Way

Do the Work: Overcome Resistance and Get Out of Your Own Way

What keeps me from getting my writing done? Me. My distractions, my doubts, my to-do-lists. I resonated with so much of what Pressfield had to say about the many forms the Resistance takes, and how to combat it. I recognized myself over and over in these pages–and I’d thought I was the only one. Tackle writer’s block with Pressfield’s timeless advice. More info →
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Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Author:
I frequently turn to this one for inspiration and encouragement. In Anne's own words: "Thirty years ago, my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” A modern classic, and a must-read for writers. More info →
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No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-stress, High-velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days

No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-stress, High-velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days

Author:
If you like to work with a plan, a guide, or a rule book, this one's for you. It’s the unofficial handbook for NaNoWriMo, written by the founder. Baty draws on his own experience and brings in authors to encourage and motivate you through each week. Read it before your NaNoWriMo or in bits and pieces as you write. Either way, you’ll glean helpful advice. More info →
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2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love

2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love

Author:
Just. Get. It. Done. There’s an inevitable part of the NaNoWriMo process where "just getting it done" overshadows any artistic, literary goal. This is the book you need to push through the unavoidable slog and increase your word count. Take it from me, adding complicated routines or exercises to your writing practice will only slow you down. Keep it simple, and collect a few tips from this little book. It's short and sweet, super practical. More info →
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On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft

On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft

Author:
Even if you haven’t read it yet, you’ve probably come across a few quotes from King’s famous memoir. “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” “ The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Filled with quotable wisdom, this is an exceptional book for book lovers and a must-read for writers, and I'm saying that as someone who has read a grand total of two books by King. (The other is 11/22/63.) I thoroughly enjoyed his descriptions of his fiction writing process (although his descriptions convinced me that I never, ever want to read Carrie.) I especially enjoyed the anecdotes he shared about his marriage, and I couldn't turn the pages fast enough when he explores his devastating car wreck and recovery. More info →
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Zen In The Art Of Writing

Zen In The Art Of Writing

Author:
Bradbury is remembered for his inventive stories and fantastically creative mind. In this essential book for writers, he shares his process and spills his secrets. Bradbury exudes a surprising amount of enthusiasm and zeal for a book with the word "zen" in the title. His essays combine practical advice with joyful celebrations of the writing life. More info →
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Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel

Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel

Author:
I bought this in paperback after 3 separate friends gushed about it in a week. You might want to pick it up before you launch your NaNoWriMo project, but it’s also helpful for the editing process. Cron suggests that since our brains are wired for stories, we can plan our stories in a way that pleases readers’ brains. With chapters on character, plot, and conflict, this science-meets-art guide will help you organize your outlines or drafts. More info →
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The Writing Life

The Writing Life

Author:
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard changed my life. I had never encountered reflections like hers, and she quickly became one of my favorite writers. Annie’s honestly, combined with her impeccable prose, make her a wonderful guide. She’s honest about the difficulties, the torture that often accompanies creative work. She even says she HATES writing. Yet her words still make me want to write. More info →
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Devotion (Why I Write)

Devotion (Why I Write)

Author:
Journey through Smith’s creative life with this ethereal, magical work. Less handbook, more personal journal, Smith takes us from a fictional tale of artistic obsession to a sweeping account of her own writing process. An amazing storyteller, Smith’s awe-inspiring look at the mysterious yet beautiful nature of art is sure to inspire your own writing practice. Divided in three parts, this unusual genre-defying work is a must-read for any creative. More info →
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Broken Places & Outer Spaces: Finding Creativity in the Unexpected (TED Books)

Broken Places & Outer Spaces: Finding Creativity in the Unexpected (TED Books)

Short, powerful, and moving. Okorafor’s 112 page memoir is for "anyone eager to understand how their limitations might actually be used as a creative springboard." When she woke up from surgery to repair her scoliosis, Nnedi Okorafor couldn't move. Unexpectedly paralyzed and unable to move from her hospital bed, she started imagining strange things...and turned them into stories. Writing became a healing practice for Okorafor, a way to go beyond her limitations and find her strength. I can't wait to pick this one up soon. More info →
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Have you ever done NaNoWriMo? Are you participating this year? We’d love to hear your favorite books for writers in comments.

P.S. For younger readers and writers, check out the new release Brave the Page: A Young Writer’s Guide to Telling Epic Stories. My 7th grader is loving it right now. You can get yours on Amazon or IndieBound.

P.S. What I didn’t know about the writing process, 8 novels that are delightfully self-aware about the writing process, and 4 authors who take you to plot school.

20 comments | Comment

20 comments

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  1. Janna says:

    I had to chuckle at your description of the Stephen King book–I too have only ever read two of his books–and they are the same ones you’ve read.

    • Rebecca Safarcyk says:

      I am listening to my first Stephen King book – Dolores Claiborne…I’m halfway through it and totally inspired to read (or listen) to another. It is such a great story and intriguing from the start! Highly recommend and can’t wait to read another (non-scary) Stephen King.

  2. Dee says:

    I have participated in NaNoWriMo but am not this year. However, the best book on writing I’ve read recently is Save the Cat Writes a Book by Jessica Brody. Highly recommend! Good for thinking about story structure.

  3. I have no desire to write any sort of book, but I thoroughly enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing. He blended personal stories with writing tips perfectly. Plus, his advice about writing is useful for anyone, not just those who want to write novels.

  4. Janean says:

    I don’t know if I’m going to do NaNoWriMo, at least in it’s exact form, but I am intensely focused on writing. A few books that are really helping me:

    • Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway
    • Gotham Writer’s Workshop: Writing Fiction
    • Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer
    • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
    • The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett
    • The Complete Handbook of November Writing by Writer’s Digest
    • Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon (pretty sure I originally heard about this one from you)

    I enthusiastically second Story Genius, On Writing and Bird by Bird.

  5. Heidi Benson says:

    This is my 10th year (won 8/9) doing NaNoWriMo. I love the King and Baty books and Kleon (mentioned above) is a favorite. I have no problem with word count so this year I’m striving to finish four interconnected stories in thirty days (150-200K), more to see if I can get from the beginning to the end of each story than to hit a number goal. Come December, I will be picking up the Bradbury!

  6. Susan in TX says:

    Have you ever looked at Kwame Alexander’s The Write Thing? (I have not, but I’ve heard him talk about it.) It’s a workbook/workshop that he has taught himself in schools at events and I believe is sometimes used in schools to help K-12 write. Seeing Brave the Page up there is what made me think about it.

  7. Lauren says:

    Great book suggestions! I’ve read several of them and will have to add the others to my list. I would also highly recommend Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing. Oh, and I listened to Stephen KIng’s On Writing this past summer, and it was terrific as an audiobook, read by King, himself.

  8. Margie says:

    If you ever consider adding a third Stephen King book to the list, I highly recommend The Green Mile. It is not a horror story and it is one of the two books that I feel that reading the book and watching the movie really enhance the pleasure of both. The Hunt for the Red October is the other.

  9. Most of my suggestions are already here, and I’m making a note of the rest. I would also add, for a general creativity and inspirational boost, Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC.

    I’ve done NaNo for many years, and I always learn something from the experience. Good luck to everyone giving it a try this time around!

  10. Mary Lou says:

    Two of my favorite authors made your list: Stephen King and Anne Lamott. Opposite ends of the writing spectrum, if you think about it. I have read almost all of King’s books, except the Dark Tower series. I feel like SK and I have grown old together (along with his millions of fans, not to mention his family – lol). I had the pleasure of seeing Anne Lamott in person last year, and she was so wonderfully honest and funny. I follow both authors on Twitter, and that is always fun. I’m thinking I will pick one of the other books on Anne’s list to try this month.

  11. Calidaho says:

    I’m planning to participate although I keep going back and forth. Do I want to write fast or do I want to take time to put together the novel that has been percolating in my brain. I suppose treating it as an exercise, writing for speed, rather than writing for content, might put my head in the right space to REALLY write that novel!

  12. Tammy says:

    I am doing it this year as a teacher/want to be writer. Next year we may have a writing club and this would be something they could do. I have always wanted to write a book so I set a goal of 6000 words for this first time and to get a feel so I can help students who are creative and want to write.

  13. Elizabeth says:

    I am currently wrapping up the ebook formatting on my 2018 NaNoWriMo novel (yes, from last year). My goal was to have it finished by November 1st, so I could start my next novel for the 2019 challenge….so I am cutting it close. I was a helper in a novel writing class at our homeschool co-op last year and got inspired after learning about the challenge. I knew that 50,000 words might be a bit too much for me, so I aimed for a novella length book (around 35,000 words) I would highly recommend this challenge to anyone. It has been so much fun creating a story to share with others. On a side note: One of my writing friends was explaining how her characters run the story and do not always cooperate with her ideas on who they are. This sounded crazy to me, but it is so true! My characters developed totally differently from who I originally thought they were. If you have seen The Man Who Invented Christmas you will understand:)

  14. Gravy says:

    Don’t leave out How Not To Write A Novel by Howard Mittelmark & Sandra Newman. The examples they have written will make you laugh and cry.

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