This is going to be part author tip, part lecture (not the boring, preachy kind, I hope) and part recommendation list. It will likely be on the long side, but bear with me, there is a point to it, I promise.
We’ve all heard the saying that in order to be a great writer, you have to be an avid reader. Want to improve your writing? Read more.
That saying in and of itself is an example of the problem with the saying. Yes, if you want to be a great writer, you definitely need to read a lot. But there is nuance to that, which you kind of have to intuit. The act of reading in and of itself isn’t enough. The trick is in how you read.
You’ve heard about active listening, right? It’s the concept of listening to understand, not to form a response. See, when you listen with the intent of forming a response, you’re not really listening to what someone is telling you. You have an agenda and you automatically fit what is being said into what you want to hear so you can respond. By doing that, you miss the message. Active listening means paying attention to what is being said and how it’s being said. You then repeat it back to the speaker to confirm that you understood what they’re trying to say, and only then do you respond.
The same applies to reading. In order to hone your own writing style, you need to practice active reading (and I totally made that term up, but it’s the most fitting term for what I mean). You need to not just read the book, but also absorb the technical details about it. Analyze the voice, appreciate the diction, trace the story arc, dig deep into the characters’ psyche. Think about why the author wrote what they did, how it fits into the overall whole of the book.
It’s a lot less fun than reading for pleasure, I’ll tell you that. And it will absolutely ruin you as a reader because, once you see behind the curtain, you won’t be able to close it back again. You will start to critique every new book you read, even the ones you absolutely love. That’s the sacrifice you make to become a good writer. Because you need to be able to identify things you like and dislike in the books you read in order to be able to identify them in the books you write.
THE AUTHOR TIP
That concludes the lecture part of this post. Now on to the tip and reading list.
I propose that every author brings something unique to their books. Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on it, but when you see it, you recognize that, “Yep, that’s definitely a John Smith book.” That’s what you want to find–in other people’s books, as well as in yourself as an author. What makes them special? What is your own something special?
A while back, I put together a list of books I thought every writer should read, for various reasons. I want to share that here with you now. If you’ve already read these books, try reading them again, while keeping these notes in mind. You might notice some things you missed before.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR VOICE AND STYLE
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Ms. Austen had an earworm of a writing style. I’m not even kidding. Why do you think it’s been emulated so much? Read one of her books and then try to write one chapter in that same style. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to do, and how hard it is to stop.
When I got this assignment in high school, I ended up writing a 40-page novella, rather than just a chapter, and it’s influenced my writing ever since. Austen’s writing style is so sophisticated and lyrical, but not pretentious at all. It flows through your mind and makes you feel like you’re wearing a period costume and reclining on a drawing room settee. It’s beautiful. Plain and simple.
The Dust Lands Series by Moira Young
In contrast to that, I present to you the Dust Lands series by Moira Young. Compared to Austen, the voice of this series feels like a train wreck in the beginning but, like Austen, it gets under your skin. The style of this series is very deliberate. It speaks to the theme of the books, and is basically written as if someone from that book was telling you the story. It shoves you face first into this dystopian world and at first you hate it, then you want more, then you can’t get back out.
The voice and style of your book is extremely important–it sets the stage and paints the world you’re describing. But it doesn’t have to be grammatically flawless and poetic to make an impact. Sometimes, going against the grain is the best thing you can do.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ATMOSPHERICS
The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
This book changed the way I thought about books, and it required a brilliant English teacher to point it out to me, because I would have missed it otherwise. That’s how brilliant this actually is–you don’t realize the brilliance of it because you’re so engrossed in the scene you’re not thinking about the writing anymore.
Conrad is very good at telling the story from a specific character’s perspective. You see, hear, and feel what the character feels. That means, when he’s eavesdropping on someone’s conversation and those people move away, their dialogue fades out and you strain to try to hear more. You catch pieces here and there, holding your breath so you don’t get noticed. You’re no longer reading the book, you’re inside the story.
Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas
I’m including this book because it’s one of my all time favorites. There are plenty of things I love about it, but one of them is the way Ms. Kleypas describes her settings. Like Conrad, she puts you into the scene. When Sara is chasing off Derek’s attackers, you can feel the cold damp of the London night. When she’s hiding with Derek behind the curtain of the music room, you feel the heady heat of the scene, and your heart beats faster hoping no one pulls that curtain back.
When it comes to historical settings, authors sometimes have the tendency to go overboard with description in the interest of historical accuracy. Not so with Kleypas. She focuses on the story itself and the setting, while accurate (as far as I know), is only a part of it.
The beauty of descriptives is that they don’t have to drone on. In fact, their impact is far greater when they’re succinct and to the point. Both of these books are an excellent example of this.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Dickens needs no introduction. If you haven’t read any of his books yet, I highly recommend that you do. This was the first book I’ve read by him, and I loved it from the very beginning. The story follows a young boy called Pip as his life takes several unexpected twists and turns and what I loved about it is the unvarnished way in which it is related.
Pip isn’t perfect. He is a young child when all this begins and, as such, you get to see him grow up, make mistakes, form attachments and prejudices, etc. At times, I wanted to slap him. At others, I felt horrible for what he was being put through. By the end, though he was still a very young man, he’s already lived a life fuller than most people will ever have. His flaws are what make Pip such an amazing character. Because perfection is boring. As readers, what we relate to are a character’s flaws and shortcomings. What we want is to see them triumph despite them.
By the way, Pip isn’t the only character in this story written in such a brilliant fashion. The entire cast of characters is presented in a way that will leave a lasting impression on the reader, which is a rare thing in literature.
The Rule of Four by Dustin Thomason and Ian Caldwell
These two gentlemen wrote a book that became wholly and unfairly overshadowed by the phenomenon of The DaVinci Code. It’s called The Rule of Four and I recommend it here for one reason: the main character. Not the narrator, mind you, but the main character driving the plot. Similar to The Heart of Darkness, this story is told by an outside observer (and, really, it overlaps my recommendation category to Atmospherics as well because of it). You follow along from an intellectual distance, so you never get the full feel of the tension, frustration, and passion of this quest, you just get to bear witness to it. It’s that distance which makes this book so brilliant. Because you feel the narrator’s dismissal and simultaneous intrigue. You want to know more but are denied almost to the very end.
This book is not an action-packed adventure, but when the action does happen, it grips you unexpectedly hard because of it and you realize how attached you’ve grown to this one character. And therein lies its brilliance: You care almost despite yourself, and for reasons that seem so flimsy on the surface, but run as deep as if it was your actual best friend in that scene.
In any given book, it’s either the characters who drive the plot, or the plot that changes the characters. You can choose one, or the other, or sometimes both, but whichever it is, it’s not the action that makes readers connect with and relate to the characters, it’s the emotional context. Subtlety is the name of the game. At least it is in my own writing.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PLOT AND DIALOGUE
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Have you read this one? Whether you say yes or no, you probably already know the story from somewhere. That’s how amazing it is. This book is not only well-written, it tells a story that sticks with you forever. It’s just so… big. It takes you to lots of different places, introduces lots of different characters, all of whom are in some way connected, but at the same time, it all centers around one man and his life. Edmond Dantes becomes the fulcrum on which all those lives turn. And they don’t even know it…
Seriously, if you haven’t read it yet, do. Take notes on how to tell a brilliant tale of love, pain, anguish, and revenge. Admire the genius of what Edmond has achieved and how. The behind-the-scenes machinations, the benevolence of his favor and the malice of his wrath. Absolutely nothing this man does is ever without an underlying reason. Whether it’s taking out a loan, or casually mentioning a medicinal tonic that can just as easily become a deadly poison.
This is a really long book, but it reads so quickly you don’t notice the page count. That’s brilliant story telling right there.
Dark Desires After Dusk by Kresley Cole
If you ask me who my favorite author is, right now, and for the last few years, it’s been Kresley Cole. She is a paranormal romance author and her books have never ever disappointed me. She has a singular gift for sarcasm and wit, and she brings that into her dialogue. A lot of times, writers adopt a very formal style with their dialogue which can come across stiff and unnatural. Ms. Cole writes the way people actually talk. And that can be a huge deal for a story, especially one set in present day(ish). You can see their conversations happening in real life, which makes the characters extremely relatable. Not only that, they’re also hilarious.
Dark Desires After Dusk might be my favorite of this entire series and it’s because of the hero, Cadeon Woede and his shameless sense of humor. This book is definitely worth reading, even if maybe you’re not really into paranormal romance. Just pay attention to the dialogue. I promise, you’ll appreciate the hell out of it. 😉 [just a bit of demon humor there]
I lumped the plot and dialogue in the same category because a great first chapter will hook a reader, but these two are what will keep them reading. If you don’t have your story plotted out properly, you will lose your readers in a heartbeat. They will spot plot holes from a mile away, and they may not be very forgiving. And dialogue is often times the hardest thing to get right. It requires a keen ear and a gift for listening. You need to be able to emulate natural speech from all walks of life in your chosen time period, but still make it relatable for readers in the here and now. But if you can do that, you’re halfway there.
NOTICE ANYTHING WEIRD?
So now you’ve read the whole list. Notice anything special about it? Every single category has one classic and one contemporary title. There is a reason for that. The classics are, of course, classic for a reason, but if you’ve ever actually read them, you’ll know that not all of them are all that well-written or enjoyable (coughFrankensteincough). I think it’s because the stories and the message they convey transcend time, but the books themselves do not. Not everything written 100+ years ago will appeal to modern audiences. We can appreciate them in the context of their own time period, but sometimes they become more of an intellectual exercise, rather than something to savor for its own sake.
There are scores of modern books that are well worth reading and learning from, both for their ability to connect with their own audience, and for their unique, timeless qualities. Will these modern books be taught in schools a hundred years from now? I have no idea. But, as a writer, I can say I’ve developed a deep appreciation for them and what they’ve done for my own writing.
That’s all I have for you today. 🙂 Until next time!