Hello Dear Reader, if you are in fact still out there. I know I’ve been off the map, but I tend to do that from time to time. And that’s okay. I am a vagabond. Sometimes you just need to go out and live life. And that’s what I’ve been doing. I took a class where I learned how to fly… well I learned how to climb “silks” and swing from them like Pink! does. I also learned doing that is really, really hard, and I am a total badass because I fucking did it. So there was that.
I’ve also been reading like crazy which is good since I am “literally” trying to pen a novel in long hand. Anyway, all great writers are great readers. Stephen King, or should I say NATIONAL MEDAL OF ARTS recipient, Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Margaret Atwood says, “Reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practice.”
Reading is fundamental to writing. If you want to be a writer you should be reading books. And not just books about writing. While those are valuable, you have to be careful or at least thrifty about what you read. Good advice and reading about other writers will only get you so far. Hell, add “an MFA” and “a good Twitter account” to that list. Having a Twitter account doesn’t make you a good writer. It hardly qualifies you to put a sentence together. What you really need in order to improve is:
1. WRITE. WRITE. WRITE.
2. READ. READ. READ!
Every book you read is a learning experience. Reading Joyce Carol Oates is a Master Class in story, character and prose. Du Maurier is all about tension and building mystery. Different writers have different things to tell you. Some don’t have much to say at all, (Thank you Gillian Flynn) but at least you know what you don’t want to sound like. Read writers who inspire you and scare you. Read books with unusual language or style. Read books that make you read more books. Or… try these. These are just a few of the best I can think of. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these books are on my personal short list for writers. Read these if you want to grow in the craft of writing. And they are just really good books.
- Steering the Craft, by Ursula LeGuin
This is a revised edition of the same titled book she wrote in the 90’s. In the Introduction she states this “is not a book for beginners.” It’s for people who have already worked hard on their writing. That hooked me. A lot of writers today have the expectation of fame and fortune, of being published and Tweeted about, of possibly being the next big thing. But they don’t do the work. They’ve never read Twain or Dickens. They have heard of Shelley but don’t see the point in reading something so old or out of touch. Ms. LeGuin’s book is full of reasons why to read these books and what you can learn from them. It is also full of exercises for The Lone Writer or a Mutinous Crew (her term for a writing group) It’s a delightful and lovely book that just so happens to be about writing.
- Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy I know. The last book you want to read as inspiration is “The Best Book Ever Written”. But it worked for me! I was not only inspired by Tolstoy and the story he was able to tell, but how economical he was with both word and emotion – considering how long that book is. And I guess I should add he was not so economical with his words when it came to hay. A good lesson to learn: Just because you find “hay” fascinating, doesn’t mean it deserves center stage. It’s a beautiful book about love and hate and marriage, gender roles, having kids, and being human.
- Don’t Look Now, Daphne Du Maurier and The Collected Stories, Grace Paley
Two collections of short stories which I find to be the best. The first is fear, tension, sex and mystery. And also a sense of humor. You’ll read the short story called “The Birds” which Alfred Hitchcock changed from a terrifying tale of animals rising up against a small seaside fishing village to an odd romance where Tippi Hedren and Suzanne Pleshette eat more scenery than the birds do. Every story in this collection is fun and a lesson in how to write short fiction. And all writers should be readers in short stories. Grace Paley is the American Master of them. Haven’t heard of her? Run. Go now to the library or local independent bookstore and get her. If Raymond Carver is all you know, you don’t know much.
- Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
He is pretty much literary perfection. I’m not the first or last to say it. But read Lolita and not be transfixed and transplanted by his absolute dominance of the english language. And this from a non-native speaker! Of course, Nabokov wrote in english and Russian, but Lolita was his first novel written in english. Read it and think about that until you feel a little dumb. Then shake it off and get to work. Nabokov didn’t learn english overnight, he worked at it.
- The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson
Oddly enough, this incredible true story of magic, murder and mayhem during the 1893 World’s Fair is the best example of a perfect narrative I can give you. All of his books are. This book is full of facts and true history, but you’d never know it. He takes old boring documents and turns them into a unputdownable narrative which keeps you on the edge of your seat. Not bad for non-fiction, eh? Any writer who says they “don’t read” non-fiction isn’t a writer I would read.
- On Writing, by Stephen King
Stephen King understands what it takes to write books. He’s written like, sixty books, not including his non fiction and short stories. Anyway, if you want an expert on the craft of writing, look no further. His book reads as part awesome writing coach and part memoir of America’s most prolific and beloved writers. If you are too snobby for Stephen King, read this and tell me he’s not good. The man knows how to tell a story and… he can scare the shit out of you USING ONLY WORDS. Anyway, here are a few tidbits of wisdom from the master.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
And finally, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
- Joyce Carol Oates, anything you can get your hands on
I am the only bookseller at my current bookstore who has read, and who currently reads, Joyce Carol Oates. This is a sad little travesty. Not only has she been producing work since 1962, that work is all really, really good. Okay, I haven’t read all of her work…. but I’m working on it! Now think of the volume of work she produces and now add to that she works IN LONG HAND. Yep she WRITES her really long and intricate stories. That is rad. She writes from 8am til 1pm and then again, two more hours, at night. And she still has time for The Wire. If Joyce Carol Oates can put out a memoir and three novels a year, I think you can finish that short story you’ve been working on.
Need more? Susan Sontag, Frank Stanford, Mark Twain, Margaret Atwood, Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, Shelley, Keats, Emerson, Murakami, Mary Gaitskill, Patricia Highsmith, James M. Caine, Jane Smiley…