Monday, May 24, 2010

Reading for Writers

A rainy day, a pot of tea, and a good book... Life doesn't get any better than that, does it? Not if you're an avid reader. And not if you're a writer, either.

I love to crack open a book that's new to me. Heck, I love to crack open my old favorites. After all, what better way to learn to write a novel than to read one?

Writers, I believe, should read two types of books: good ones and bad ones. The good ones can highlight what you're doing wrong. The bad ones can confirm what you're doing right.

Within those two types, writers should read three kinds of books:
1. Books within your genre
2. Books outside your genre
3. The classics of yesteryear, not just new releases

Whether you're a beginning writer or a twenty-novel veteran, reading with a critical eye can help you push your craft to the next level. By critical eye, I mean ask yourself what about the book makes you marvel. Then, ask yourself how the writer made that aspect of her work so awesome.

Maybe a writer's dialogue blows you away. Maybe it's her description. The element you admire most may change as your skill set changes. In any case, your bookshelf can be a never-ending classroom. Here are the top ten books that have taught me.

Nic's Top Ten Most Influential Books

10. Sue Grafton's A Is for Alibi
Grafton bent noir without breaking it. She made the genre into something else. In doing so, she made it her own. And I admire her for it.

9. Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters
This high Victorian serial caught Charles Dickens' eye. And no wonder. The symbolism is sometimes blatant, sometimes
subtle. But it always works hard to carry a larger message.

8. Carla Negger's The Cabin
Now I get it: Peanut butter is to chocolate what romance is to suspense!

7. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
Need I say more?

6. Jane Austen's Mansfield Park
Structure is the object here. In a sense, this novel is a story told in duplicate. Each character, each motive, each setting has its equal and opposite counterpart. Together, these parts tell a poignant tale, delivered to the reader through structure.

5. Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man
This Depression Era novel packs a punch even by today's standards. How? Hammett can convey a dark truth in a single sentence. You get the whole picture in just a few words.

4. Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night
Sayers is a study in theme. Like all of her novels, Gaudy Night's theme is constant throughout - and can be summed up in one word. In this case, that word is "love."

3. Robert Crais' L.A. Requiem
Crais is a master storyteller, working point-of-view not just to
gradually reveal the pertinent facts of his mystery, but also to naturally trigger an emotional reaction from the reader. Joe Pike, I love you from the bottom of my heart.

2. William Gibson's Pattern Recognition
My heart sings each time I read this novel. While the book may seem topical, its characters are really on the universal quest
we all pursue. To my mind, that's the most beautiful thing a novel can do.

1. Frank Herbert's Dune
I first read this book when I was fourteen years old. And it rocked my world. Published in 1965, Dune is an amalgam of messages that seem to sum up where we've been... and where we're going. I can only hope my work will do half as much.

The more I write, and the more I read, the more my list changes. I hope you'll keep reading while you keep writing, too. In the meantime, tell the Rockville 8: Which are your favorite books? What do they teach you about the craft?


  1. Nicole ~ I subscribe to the same school of thought . . . reading published fiction teaches me just as much, if not more, than my favorite how-to books. A few of my classic favorite teachers are:

    Mary Stewart - Her suspense and romantic tension in Nine Coaches Waiting floored me. I can't believe she wrote this in 1958. Amazing. She's a master wordsmith as well.

    Charlotte Bronte - Bronte's Jane Eyre is filled with subtly built suspense and she writes a brooding, tortured hero like nobody else!

    Jayne Ann Krentz - Writing as Amanda Quick, Jayne Castle or Jayne Ann Krentz, she has taught me more about an empowered heroine than many others. She always writes about strong heroines who don't wait to be saved by the hero, but who often heal and rescue him instead.

    Good topic. I'll have to take some time to think about the books I've used over the years to teach me the craft. For the avid reader who writes, the influences are never ending. :)

  2. Great topic! Hmmm. There are so many writers and books that make me want to write. And it's true, both good books and bad books can get the juices flowing.

    My little itty bitty high school had the BEST librarian and when she realized she had a reader on her hands, she turned me on to all kinds of stuff, like "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" by Philip K. Dick, "The Pigman" by Paul Zindel, "The Egypt Game" by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and "In Watermelon Sugar" by Richard Brautigan.

    Wild worlds and words that gave me a glimpse of what was possible. But the book that made me sit down and try writing a book-length story was "Illumination Night" by Alice Hoffman.

    Sigh. I wish I could wipe my memory and read all of those again as a new reader! Because reading as a writer is HARD for me.

    I find it very hard to get lost in a book these days.

  3. Because of your recommendation, Candy, I may just hunt up that Mary Stewart novel one day soon. After I read your comments, I thought of five more books I should've mentioned!

    Yvonne, I totally agree - it is hard to get lost in a good book now I'm trying to write good ones of my own. There are still some great get-lost-in-them books out there, though. And I'm looking forward to some more from the R8.

  4. There are too many good books to read! Thanks to all of you for your suggestions. Thank goodness I am giving up cable t.v.!

  5. So many books... So little time... Thanks for stopping by, Mary!

  6. I'm late to the party but I'd add To Kill a Mockingbird....

    And probably Venetia by Georgette Heyer.

    One of the Traditional Regencies that I still think about is The Last Frost Fair by Joy Freeman.

  7. Diane, I nearly included To Kill A Mockingbird on my initial list. Such a great novel! Next time, I'll have to do Nic's Top TWENTY Influential Books, but I bet I still wouldn't get then all.

    Thanks for adding Georgette Heyer to the list. Joy Freeman's The Last Frost Fair is a new one to me. I'll have to check it out.