Books All Writers Should Read?

One thing I’ve really loved about throwing myself back into fiction writing is learning about it (again).

I say “again” because I learned some in high school, as we all did, and learned a lot in college, as an English major, but since then, I let the “learning” aspect slide for years and years.

The book club, of course, helped: When I finally moved from scanning Parenting magazine in 15-minute intervals to sitting down and enjoying entire novels again, I started the book club with my friend Barbara and got to jump back into reading/learning again and — JOY! [I say that in my imagination like a chorus of angels. …]

But when I started writing fiction again a few years ago, I upped my learning game. Wow. I started reading a lot of books about craft, and started studying (not just reading) fiction as I enjoyed it. And I started reading romance novels and studying their structure. It’s been really fun to “deconstruct” books, and see why some work and others don’t. It reminds me of why I loved being an English major — all that joy has just never left me.

So, all that said, I really enjoyed Nathan Bransford’s post last week about “What’s the One Book All Writers Should Read”?

Most people had trouble naming just one, but the array of 200+ comments was terrific. Happily, I’ve read a huge number of the recommended books, so I feel I’ve covered a lot of learn-to-write bases, but I’ve got a few to go, which I look forward to.

Here were some of the results:

  • A huge portion of the nonfiction (craft-book) votes went to Stephen King’s On Writing, which I agree with 100%. It was the most helpful book about writing I’ve ever read to date.
  • Other craft-book votes went to Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life, and Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self Editing for Fiction Writers, all of which I’ve read and liked. Of those, I’d give Browne and King’s book my biggest thumbs-up. Even after writing and editing for 20 years, there were things in there I’d never known (especially the chapter about “beats”). And of course Strunk and White was on the list (although honestly, I find that book old-fashioned and dull and probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but a grammar lover).
  • There was one book named over and over that I hadn’t read, so I swept out and bought it! (It’s at the end of this post — have you read it?)

Anyway, many, many people on Nathan Bransford’s post selected fiction for their “one book.” And it’s true — you can find a book that seems so perfectly crafted that you can “study” it like a template. You look at the structure, the pacing, the way the author opened the book, the way he/she closed the book. You look for the arc, the characterization, the dialogue, and how the writer unveils each to you. Sometimes you can find a book where it all comes together in the “perfect storm” and you can read that book and study it over and over.

Here were some that people picked:

  • The Great Gatsby got the most votes, and Nathan Bransford himself listed this as his fave for writers. I’ve always had Gatsby on my top 15 list of favorite books, too. I think I love it because of the narrator in the story, and the way the narrator tells Gatsby’s story through his own lenses. I just love that technique. (I also loved it in Robert Penn Warren’s All the Kings Men, which was my all-time favorite literature book in high school. It featured the same thing, with Jack Burden telling the governor’s story through his own colored lenses. I think I like that “removed” aspect and what it says about bias and morality.) Anyway, some people said in comments, though, that Gatsby isn’t exactly “perfect,” noting that Fitzgerald switched POV in the scene in the garage at the end. (I sort of remember discussing that in high school, that the narrator wasn’t there on the scene so how could he have reported it? Ooops.)
  • Anyway, To Kill a Mockingbird got tons of votes, too, and that’s also been on my top 15 list since I read it, which was only about a year ago. One of the most interesting things about Harper Lee’s effort there was that it was her first and last. She told the perfect story and then said goodbye. But it’s really an amazing book for narrator, dialogue, theme, goal and plot. And voice, too. She had that so well done, all in little 9-year-old Scout’s voice.
  • Of Mice and Men was listed several times, which I also loved. (Wrote about it here.) Great goal, action, protagonist, conflict. It was all there, woven perfectly. And here’s a stunner – that book was a novella – less than 100 pages! Yet pure technique.
  • A few people mentioned Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I’ve never read, but my son’s girlfriend chose that as her “solo pick” for junior lit (my son chose Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, incidentally, which I also found fascinating for point of view and the blur between fiction and nonfiction). Anyway, I think The Things They Carried might have to be my book club pick for next year. I hear great things. …
  • A few people mentioned Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which I have on my bookshelf, right there above my head, but I don’t recall much. But I must have loved it enough to keep it for 20+ years! So I might have to get out my ladder and reread that.
  • A lot of people mentioned The Sun Also Rises, which has also always been on my list (a little reluctantly, as I often try to argue that Hemingway is completely overrated. … And then I have to admit to myself that I’ve never forgotten the characters of The Sun Also Rises or the Nick stories in In Our Time … harrumph).
  • Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice got a few votes, which I’ve tried to read twice and oddly can’t get through it. (Odd because I’m a romance writer and lit reader – you’d think I’d love this perfect combo of the two!) Maybe I’ll have to give that one yet another whirl.
  • One or two people mentioned The Catcher in the Rye for voice, which I have to agree with. I don’t think anyone has ever captured voice quite so well (so well that if you read a few random paragraphs out of context, you’d know immediately that it “sounds like Holden Caufield”). Holden is a character you never forget.
  • Someone mentioned The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes, which I’ve never read, but it’s a fave of book-club Barbara, and she finally added it to the book club list last year, but I managed to miss the reading and the meeting. I will definitely have to get to that some time, since Barbara’s been recommending it to me for years.
  • One person mentioned One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I also loved (though I put Garcia’s Love in the Time of Cholera on my list instead). But the commenter on Bransford’s post said, “only if you have a grasp of Latino culture or have Latino origins,” which I thought was interesting. It made me wonder if that’s why I love it, since I’ve been thrown into my husband’s Latino family to sink or swim? I do find the culture – and his family – fascinating, but I actually think I love the book more for the sweeping saga. I’ve always loved sweeping sagas that span generations, like The Thorn Birds or John Jake’s series about America: The Bastard, etc.)

Anyway, it was a really fun blog post, and it inspired me to walk up to the store the other night with the kids to buy another craft book that got a lot of praise.

Which one?

It was Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel, and so far it’s excellent. (We also bought The Great Gatsby, ironically enough! Because my son is reading it in his class right now.) Story by Robert McKee has also been on my list for a long while, so that might be next.

What do you think, writers and readers? Do you agree with these votes? Writers, of craft books you’ve read, which has been your favorite? And writers and readers, of all the fiction you’ve read, which book seems “perfectly crafted” to you – where the characterization, plot, suspense and theme all seem to come together perfectly?

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