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!
39 thoughts on “6 Books that Taught Me How to Write Better”
If you want books with excellent world building, try just about every book by Brandon Sanderson. His Mistborn books are wonderful, as well as his Stormlight Archives.
I love Brandon. I love his podcasts, his lectures, and how emphatically he teaches. Oddly enough, I’ve never read ANY of his books. Which of his books is your favorite so far?
Oh that is really hard. REALLY hard. I really love Warbreaker which is a stand alone book. His Mistborn books were my first introduction to him after he started work on The Wheel of Time. I really like Words of Radiance but that’s really long. I LOVE Elantris, which by the way, is his first published novel. He is just a wonderful writer. I may be biased though. I’ve met him in person and have even had a telephone conversation with him. 🙂
Wow, that’s pretty amazing. Was he a cool guy? He seems like he definitely would be – a nice, super-nerd.
I think I’ll give Warbreaker a shot, and then try Mistborn after that. I’ve heard Brandon talk too much about Elantris – he used to love talking about it when he taught. Thank you for the recommendations!
He is a super cool nerd guy. ?
To be honest, I’ve always thought LoR has amazing world building in that it conveys all these hints of lores that leaves you wishing for more and more but you might not agree with me given your opinion on Tolkien’s prose which I’m in love with.
To be honest, it’s been some time since I’ve read LotR. It might be time to revisit. Most recently, I read the Silmarillion – which was basically nothing but world building for a long time.
I feel hesitant to say I learned from him, because I’ve been steeping myself in LotR lore since I was a child, and I’m not sure how much I learned and how much I gained through osmosis. You make an excellent point though – it might just be time to revisit the original world building master!
I haven’t read Silmarillon myself but I find myself immersed in LoR lore on both occasions that I read it. I’m a selective reader though in that I only read fantasy and mystery and those books that I like the abstract of and further hampered by the fact that I only read what’s available from my local library so LoR is the best example for world building in my limited reading experience.
I know this comment is over 2 1/2 years old, but I just feel like I need to comment on this. If the Silmarillion is the biggest influence of your opinion of JRR Tolkien, then I suggest you try The Hobbit. I have literally tried reading the Silmarillion 6 times, and haven’t been able to get more than 1/3 of the way through before being bogged down by it all. For a single book, The Hobbit is a quick and easy read.
I love the Hobbit, and I recommend it to everyone who has even a spark of interest in Fantasy.
Agreed, the Silmarillion isn’t the best work by Tolkien. It was certainly influential on his work – it was essentially his World Building bible…
… but to say it was his most influential work discounts the resounding effect of LotR.
Interesting that you like Blood Meridian. My favorite Cormac McCarthy book, and one of my models for writing, is McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Chekhov’s short story The Lady with the Dog is exquisite!
I was actually reading Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories” – which is how I found the one about the Doctor. I didn’t think “A Doctor’s Visit” was any better, but it struck me how enthralled I was with the mystery of the situation.
I’ve never read All the Pretty Horses! It’s now on my list, thank you.
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For characterization, I liked Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
Oooh, it looks interesting. I read the summary on GoodReads, and had to add it to the list. Who’s your favorite character in it? Who sticks out in your mind?
“Most writers learn to write from reading books they love, not from reading self-help books…” I totally concur. It’s finding books you love without reading too many bad ones in between that is the hard part. I’ve stumbled across more great writers, ancient and recent, heard of and not heard of, reading Lapham’s Quarterly. On the other hand I started reading Moby Dick and was surprised, despite the incredibly great writing, how tedious it became. I haven’t finished it. Melville spends too much time expounding on whatever sea-related comes to his mind, IMO. The types of whales for example. Then there is John Grisham, whose many great books have posited thought-provoking issues of law and society. His last two books, Gray Mountain and The Rogue Lawyer, have been terribly simplistic and sophomoric. I want my money back.
It’s a shame when once-beloved writers lose their ability to ensnare readers. I’ve never read anything by Grisham – but I do understand him to be a prolific writer. Do you think he has ceased to learn? I’ve always wonders why some writers seem to plateau, and others only seem to grow more brilliant with every book.
Stumbling across the good books seems to be easier, for me, at least, when I ask people what they’ve been reading – and loving – lately. My favorites this year are Lies of Locke Lamorra and House of Suns
I have six ebooks published on Barnes and Noble two SCIFI ebooks, one Romantic Comedy and three Children’s Outer Space coloring books at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/hank+curci?_requestid=1310594
Telling the reader what they want to hear works..eloquence in writing not requied..
Can you elaborate on that last line? What do your readers want to hear, and how do you know?
My Ebooks are middle grade SCIFI books for children 5th to 9th grade..
I am a professional pianist i.e. http://www.hankcurcimusic.com and I told my stories to my audience , parents of middle grade children and I could get the message from them what would work and what would not ..
So I designed the stories around that feeling..took some experimentation..
I am self published on Kindle and Smashwords.com who distributes my ebooks to the world.. I think agents are out of touch and have lost the notion that they are really dealing with people..
If you can have reading sessions with your target audience they will tell you what will work.. try publishing your books as an ebook i.e. Kindle and http://www.smashwoords.com ..
When I play the piano.. I’m have leaned when it is time to play boogie woogie and when it is time to play Clair de lune(sp)..
Oh, I got you. Feedback is definitely key. I’ve been writing a ton of stories lately over at https://www.reddit.com/r/PSHoffman/ and I’ve been getting plenty of feedback there. It’s by far my favorite short writing outlet, but it’s not very good for long, mediated stories, so it definitely has it’s limits.
That’s a really interesting idea on Agents. I’ve never actually met any, so I can’t really offer any input, but I want to thank you for sharing yours!
Robert E. Howard for pumping energy into your narrative, and Stephen King’s On Writing for practical advice on pacing.
My original iteration for this post had King’s On Writing as a “given” – I assumed most writers have heard of it. It’s a fantastic book, and quite the guilt trip for nascent writers.
I love that you brought up Robert E. Howard. I’ve read most of his works (he died far too soon) – but I want to know what you mean by “pumping energy into your narrative?”
Could you explain that a bit further?
I’ll let Stephen King answer that one: “Howard’s writing seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks.”
With his gift for envisioning crucial detail, and his ability to keep the narrative marching forward, Howard could make the reader feel he was experiencing what the protagonist was going through. Jack London and Ernest Hemingway came mighty close, but Howard outshined them both.
I just finished devouring the Shining, so I take this as solid praise. King seems to be really keen on getting readers to stop reading and start seeing the stories leap off the page.
It might be time to go back and read a few of Howard’s stories. Thank you for this perfect answer, Mike!
Definitely L.J. Smith’s ‘Vampire Diaries’ series!
The whole series?! What’s the most useful writing advice you learned from her books?
Hm… Probably that character NEED big flaws. It’s what makes them human (even if they are vampires!).
P. S., you mentioned feedback being helpful, but not being able to get much of it on longer works. One thing that I’ve done over the past two years is post some of my novels as serials — one chapter a day or something close to that schedule — on my author’s blog. I didn’t do that with all my novels, of course, but I started doing it with a novel that had sort of slipped through the cracks with me and never got finished.
One day I decided that I’d like to finish it, but couldn’t seem to get the impetus I needed. So I told my blogging followers that I was going to use them as guinea pigs and promised them one chapter a day until the book was finished. That way I HAD to write a chapter a day regardless of how I felt. And my readers were very forthcoming with comments — letting me know what they liked and didn’t like — and adding their energy to my own.
I did that with two different novels that had been just collecting dust for a couple years. I had been writing and publishing other novels, but those two just didn’t seem to want to budge. Writing them on the blog in serial form got me lots of feedback and made all the difference. I’m doing that with a third novel right now.
Of course, once the novels were published, I had to remove them from my blog, but the process with the feedback was very valuable.
That’s pretty impressive Sandra. Bold to bear your longer works so naked to your first audience.
I’m doing something SORT OF similar on Reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/PSHoffman) where I try to write a flash fiction or a continuation of a story every day. Sometimes it rocks, but recently a perfect storm of business hit my life and I had to take a break. I’m back at it though, and it’s a great feeling to get some old projects finished.
So, when you got your novels published from serially posting them on your blog, did you go back and edit everything? Did you end up changing anything major? Were there any hangups from publishing them?
One of the great things about having them posted on my blog one chapter at a time was that periodically I looked back over them and caught problems. Also, I have a couple of friends who are faithful to contact me and let me know when they find typos or some kind of incongruity in the story as they read. That way, by the time I’m all done and ready to send the book to a publisher, it’s pretty well corrected.
Since most of my books are inspirational fiction, I’ve always worked with a rather small independent Christian publishing company, and there’s never been any problems with the publishing just because the books had been constructed on the blog.
After all, that method of serializing a novel by chapters in a periodical as its first exposure to an audience is a very old and successful method of presenting novels to the reading public. Some of the best and best-selling novels for generations have been done that way. All kinds of novels — from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to Jan Karon’s first book in the best-selling “Mitford Series” have been published in chapter format before they were ever presented as a bound novel.
However, now that I have a lot of my novels in digital format, the publisher has a contract with Amazon for most of them that prohibits my posting them online for free. So when they go into Amazon, I have to take them off my site. That is no problem though, because my readers have had a chance to enjoy them, and I’ve had the benefit of their feedback, so I consider it a win-win situation. And sometimes the same people who read them on my site will still purchase them anyway. Also, people who read the few I’ve done on my blog are generally interested in purchasing the ones that I did not post on my blog as well. The majority of them have not been on my blog, but it’s really been fun doing a couple of them that way. And the one I’m working on now is really giving me fits, so — like you — I may have a long pause between posts where this one’s concerned.
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Try The Illustrated Man or Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The worlds in these two books are very intriguing. As for characters my personal favourite is John le Carre and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The spies are not James Bond (new or old), they are flawed and very real.
I loved Fahrenheit 451. I’ll definitely have to try the Illustrated Man since Bradbury is one of the few Sci Fi writers I actually enjoy. 451 did have a really interesting world, thought it felt very mid 1900s to me, so not what I need for building a whole new world for my latest scifi project.
Who was your favorite character in Tinker Tailor? I read it recently, but I was too wrapped up in the mystery to really analyze the spies themselves!
George Smiley comes across as a man who is bumbling and doesn’t have much of a clue. Don’t let that fool you though he is far more astute than at first glance. I love his technique of long pauses allowing the other party to fill the gaps. It takes a conscious effort to be aware of the silences.
At first you overlook George or you feel sorry for him because of the state of his marriage. But then you start asking yourself, why are you the main character? What is the author telling me that I’m missing?
That’s when his appeal comes to the fore. He has a sharp mind that retains most things. Even Karla went as far as saying that any threat would come from George.
I actually have several books you suggested on my shelf. I haven’t read them all, but I think I have to change that.
Definitely. Wind Up Girl and Blood Meridian are some of my favorites, if you haven’t tried either of those. They’re both pretty gritty