Books to Be a Better Writer: Reading Recommendations

by Alison on August 31, 2012

To me, the process of learning to write is similar to learning a foreign language. First, you must study it. You need to drill on the fundamentals and double check all your tiny accent marks and word choices. This will take many years and at times be very dull, but a writer without basics can’t be taken seriously.

But once you have the fundamentals down–the rote memory of tenses, syntax and sentence structure–you have to develop an ear for the language. The easiest way to do this is to immerse yourself in it, move to that country and let it wash over you. Let yourself be surrounded by only speakers of that language and soon you will pick up the subtle difference in tone, inflection, how you should have said “perturbed” when you used “frustrated.” And eventually you will develop your own way of speaking that is both fully within the rules and traditions of this language, and yet wholly your own. People from this country will understand what you are saying and stop to listen, patiently. Your accent will no longer be noticeable; you will no longer speak like a child.

Reading books does this for a writer. The act of reading transports you to this world of language and it’s important to spend as much time there as you can.

And so without further ado, I give you my favorites of late and what each can teach you.


Why I Loved It: Let me first say that I do not usually read suspense. But the chatter around this title had been so great that I thought, Why not? From the moment I cracked open Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, I was in an absolute sprint to the end, causing me to Tweet at one point.

It focuses around a marriage gone bad and the mysterious disappearance of the wife. But what I love most about the book is that Flynn was able to pull off something that fiction writers so rarely can–and yet it’s something we routinely require from film and television writers: I genuinely didn’t know who to trust for a long, long time.

Perfect for: writers of suspense and crime novels, writers of high-quality commercial fiction, writers who want to learn plotting, writers who allow different characters to take turns telling the story, and writers with unreliable narrators.

Best Writing Lesson: How to make the pages fly in the hands of the reader without the sentence quality suffering.

Why I Love It: A coworker recommended Wildwood by Colin Meloy to me upon hearing that I loved YA fiction and titles like Harry Potter and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I actually finished the book before I even realized that it’s written by the lead singer of The Decemberists (and illustrated by his partner, Carson.) What I love about it is the fully realized world that Meloy creates. This world, Wildwood, crouches just beyond the fences of our real world but it plays by its own rules with animals dressing, walking, and talking like humans.

It is beautifully written, you love both main characters and can help but root for them, and above all the magical tone and world are bewitching.

Perfect for: writers of YA and middle grade fiction, writers dealing with magical worlds and their complex rules, writers with more than one protagonist, writers who allow different characters to take turns telling the story, writers who want to create an engaging tone for their books, and writers whose magical world sometimes bumps into the real world.

Best Writing Lesson: A child’s overactive imagination is a good place to begin in creating a fantastical world.

Why I Love It: I was assigned to read Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion in college and I still can’t thank the professor enough. It was a book that had a complete hold over me and since that time, it has remained firmly planted in my Top Ten Books of All Time. 

Winterson is a celebrated British writer who is not as well known in the States. Her prose is unlike anything you’ve read before. The sentences and pacing read more like poetry, and indeed, if you Google this book and click over to images you will be treated to the many tattoos it has inspired.

The Passion takes place in Napoleon-era France and Venice. But unlike so many other literary novels that are all style and no plot, it’s packed with murder, love, magic, and mystery. And it is a book you read with your whole self, stopping dead to absorb the shrewd observations about life and the rich language.

As much as I  love this book, I hadn’t re-read it since it was assigned in college so long ago. But at the end of last year I got a chance to visit Venice for the very first time. I wrote a report on Venice in third grade and promised myself that I would visit it someday and to prepare for this adventure, I re-read The Passion and it hadn’t lost any of its magic.

Perfect for: writers of literary fiction, writers developing a nontraditional voice, writers with multiple protagonists, writers of historical fiction, writers of queer fiction, writers who love poetry, writers with a touch of tragic comedy, and writers headed to Venice.

Best Writing Lesson: Damn the torpedoes. Write the book you want and love every minute of it.

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