One writer to another, if you want to be a better writer, you must read good books. I suppose you could read only books in your genre (which is recommended) but reading good authors to see what they do with the craft is quite mind-blowing and educational and will help in the long run to mold you into a better writer.
Here is a list of my top ten and why:
10. The Keep by F. Paul Wilson – Yeah, it’s a vampire novel, but it’s one of the best. Hands down it is better than Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, but it is probably one of the most unique takes on the legend I have ever read. Beyond the subject matter, Wilson has an incredible ability to tell a story and only show the reader enough to get them through, frighten them, and let their imaginations scare the dickens out of them. Theater of the mind is a lost art today.
9. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – I know. It’s been over done and over used, but each year after school finishes up in May I sit down with my hardback copy of this tome and read it straight through. I have noticed, after digging into this book each year for 13 years, that Tolkien has a cadence to his writing much like fine poetry. Read it enough and you will see.
8. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – Card wrote the book on characterization (no, literally – check my Goodreads list for his book on Characters). If you are stuck working on a character bio or designing good solid characters look at Ender and his brother and sister in this book as a guide to how to craft interesting and fantastic people. You will not be sorry you did, and you will learn many great things about this lost art.
7. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson – Probably one of the wierdest books I ever had the pleasure of reading. It is a quirky story told in the unforgettable prose of Stephenson about a part time hacker who lives most of his life in a virtual world. It was written long before MMO’s and is far ahead of it’s time in that respect, but it shows the author’s knowledge of anthropology, physics and history. This guy is well read, and is always surprising you with more crazy ways of phrasing things. I laugh all the way through it. It is an exercise in mental gymnastics and I love it.
6. Out of the Silent Planet Trilogy by C.S. Lewis – I thought I should put this series of books as one because it is innovative in that it is a science fiction story that is at the same time a theological allegory. Lewis was doing something unique with this series of books in that he was trying to break the bounds of science fiction. It is really some of his best allegorical writing, and in my opinion even better than the Narnian Chronicles.
5. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – This is the classic “hero gets revenge” story but at the same time it comments on the consequences of utter revenge. Many of my dashing heroes are parodies of Edmond. It is also a good example of plot development and subplot.
4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – If there was one writer who was able to craft intricately woven sentences full of powerful imagery it was Fitzgerald, and this book is his masterpiece. If every writer could write like this, the world would be a better place, the planets would align and we’d probably have world peace. Study him. Take in his greatness and try your best to learn from him.
3. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner – This book is the story of the Bundren family and their pilgrimage to bury their mother/wife. It is told from the perspective of something like 10 people, each chapter a different person. We get the perspective of everyone from a 7 year old child to a grumpy old husband who won’t do any work because he is afraid of his own sweat. It is quirky and it is fantastic. Faulkner will teach you more in this novel about point of view that you could learn in any college writing class.
2. The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop - I love this poet. She is amazing in that every poem she writes is about the practice of writing. When reading her, you understand right away that even though she chooses random subject matter (mosty about places, maps and travel) she is really writing about the subject of writing out her dreams. She wrote a fantastic exercise in description entitled “12 O’Clock News” that I use in my AP classes to this day as a powerful example of description. She describes the objects on her desk as if she were seeing them for the first time and as if flying over them in a tiny helecopter.
1. Norwood by Charles Portis – Portis is probably my favorite writer of all time. He is an unsung master. He writes novels (only 5 in his lifetime) that inspire the writer in powerful ways. His prose are quirky, unique and full of the most bizarre descriptions known to man, but somehow they work. In this book, he describes silence like “a rat peeing in a sack of cotton”. His descriptions make you laugh, think, and hunger for more. This novel is my favorite because it is the backward story of a Marine who comes home to take care of his inept sister only for her to one day “inexplicably marry” a man named Bill Bird who lives in Norwood’s bathroom and is a blowhard know-it-all. He sets out on a journey to deliver two cars to New York from Texas and stumbles along on a crazy journey, finds love, loses it, and ends up possibly going to play music in Louisiana. Portis’s power is that he does not judge his characters at all. They just exist. They simply “are”. I love his books, and this is my favorite. I hope I can write like him someday.