Last week, I picked up a book that promised to teach me how to write a novel.

Yesterday, I threw it across the room.

I was only half-way through when I began skimming in earnest, and by the end I was so sick of it, I didn’t even bother reading the names of the chapters. The advice was so wrong for me – right for somebody, maybe. Maybe someone who was dying to hear some encouraging words and a writing prompt – “You can do it! Write about how you can do it!”

Where were the examples of exquisite descriptions or punchy dialogue? How could I learn about structure without ever looking at one? When was it going to stop talking about writing, and start showing me how to write better?!

So, I went to my laptop, flung open the lid, and tapped furiously until Google answered my question. The results left a bad taste in my mouth . . .

“READ THESE BOOKS ON WRITING AND YOU WILL WRITE BETTER.”

“X MUST READ BOOKS FOR WRITERS.”

Right, OK, I get it. We gotta do what we gotta do to be on top of the internet or whatever.

But every single book on these lists was a “How to Write Better” book – self-help for writers.

I wasn’t looking for “Do this and you will write better.” We’ve got blogs for that. Most writers learn to write from reading books they love, not from reading self-help books (unless that’s the kind of book you’re looking to write).

So I started making my own list – my favorite books, both fiction and non-fiction, that have taught me how to become a better writer. These are not “The Best Books for Writers” or anything like that – merely some suggestions from my personal troves.

I’ll add more as I think of them.

The Six Books that Taught Me How to Write Better

A Canticle for Leibowitz

The first third of this book was astounding to me. The setting, the history that was so obviously there, and yet so tantalizingly hidden. I can’t remember reading a book where the mystery was thesetting itself. Also, when you get to the next Act of the book, it changes so dramatically – and it works. It’s not my favorite book, but from this I discovered that you can have a completely different world in each act of your novel.

Chekhov’s A Doctor’s Visit

This one is actually a short story. There’s nothing particularly astounding about this piece, it’s good, but not what I would consider a classic. I was struggling with my writing recently, and I picked this up on a whim – and despite the fact that it was way out of my interest-zone, I could not put it down. This taught me that mystery, no matter how small, is one of the greatest tension builders in writing.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Rowling got knocked for not being a very good writer. This might seem like blasphemy, but it’s pretty easy to see why her first novel was rejected so many times. We knew the ending of the series from the name of the first chapter. Her ideas, especially in the first book, weren’t especially ‘novel’ – mostly borrowed from other places, albeit tied in very well. Mostly, though, I learned that not every sentence has to be perfect to make the best book series in the world. There are quite a few areas in her first book that I would consider “bad writing” on its own, but as a whole it moves the story along in the only way it needed to.

Influence: the Science of Persuasion

Many of the principles in this book illuminate why people act the way they do. Mostly, it deals with values, and what makes people value things. This book helped me learn about real people’s motives. It’s something that I’m still trying to figure out, but I think it’s helping me build more realistic characters

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

I listened to this book on audio, and I had to stop several times to find a passage, and read it over and over again in the text. The language. I never knew the language in writing could be something … ah, I’ll try to avoid turning this into how much I love Cormac McCarthy’s diction, but from him I saw a new kind of beauty in description – a poetic one. Tolkien tried to do this, but I always felt like he was stumbling in the dark, whereas Cormac has this unnatural ability to see and describe what he sees in a way that you will not only see it too, but feel what a character would see.

The Wind Up Girl

From this book I learned how every character can be a main character, no matter how good or evil or whatever they are. Many authors do multiple viewpoints and multiple main characters, but Bagliuci did it in a way where I cared about every single one of them, and the ending was oh, so perfect. From this book I learned probably one of the most important character building techniques I’ve ever used – EVERYONE is the main character of their life. There are no flat characters (there are, but you know, nobody thinks they are flat). This really helps me get into the mindset of my villains and my unlikable side characters.

What I’m looking for now

The search for the next book is never ending. I’m always trying to find books that stretch my limits, which is why I usually tend to stay away from long series by a single author. Here’s what I’m looking for now:

  • I’m dying to find a book that builds excellent characters – both immediately and over their arc.
  • I’d love a book with amazing world building. If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment below!

 

Tell Me: What other books have helped you learned to write better? What have you learned from your favorite books?

Related: How Long Does it Take to Write a Book?