Which books will teach you valuable lessons about writing? Which will help you improve? Which will make your next piece of work even better than the last?
The short answer? All of them.
All reading will help your writing, so read greedily and read often. Many people say you should only read the best writing to become the best writer, but I think that if you recognize bad writing where you find it, and understand why it might be bad, you can learn just as much from it as you would from a masterpiece. That being said, who wants to read a bad book?
If you’re looking for some winter reading, here are a few of my top picks (in no particular order):
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
- Synopsis: There’s a killer on the loose who knows that beauty is only skin deep, and a trainee investigator who’s trying to save her own hide. The only man that can help is locked in an asylum. But he’s willing to put a brave face on – if it will help him escape.
- Why you should read it: This is honestly one of the best thrillers of all time (subjectively of course). I should mention that Silence is the second book in the Hannibal Lecter series, and while Red Dragon isn’t as good, it does make this sequel better. Silence isn’t as fast-paced as today’s popular thrillers, but that’s a good thing for learning purposes. It can teach you how a lot of research, careful plotting, and slow-but-constant build up can make a book truly great.
The Shining by Stephen King
- Synopsis: Danny was only five years old but in the words of old Mr. Halloran he was a ‘shiner’, aglow with psychic voltage. When his father became caretaker of the Overlook Hotel his visions grew frighteningly out of control. As winter closed in and blizzards cut them off, the hotel seemed to develop a life of its own. It was meant to be empty, but who was the lady in Room 217, and who were the masked guests going up and down in the elevator? And why did the hedges shaped like animals seem so alive? Somewhere, somehow there was an evil force in the hotel – and that too had begun to shine…
- Why you should read it: Not for the reasons you would think. Yes, it’s a classic and it’s scary, but what you should pay attention to is the writing. It’s full of long paragraphs and a lot of narration / internal monologue, but the pages still melt away. I wouldn’t suggest trying to imitate this writing (because it probably wouldn’t work for anyone else), but there is definitely a lot to learn here.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
- Synopsis: Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature. A high-action story written with a poet’s hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard
- Why you should read it: They get it right in the synopsis – ‘A high-action story written with a poet’s hand.’ It’s long but definitely worth taking the journey; and the story really is written beautifully. This book can teach us all a thing or two about writing great prose.
The Firm by John Grisham
- Synopsis: Mitchell McDeere, raised in the coal-mining region of rural Kentucky, has worked hard to get where he is: third in his class at Harvard Law. He’s young. He’s bright. He’s ambitious. Mitch could have the pick of the big firms in New York and Chicago, but he’s chosen the Memphis tax firm of Bendini, Lambert & Locke. They’re selective. They pay outrageous salaries. They have a turnover rate of zero. And Mitch is about to find out why. Several events fuel Mitch’s growing suspicions: two of the partners die in a suspicious diving accident off Grand Cayman; the senior partners seem unduly proud of the fact that no one has ever resigned; and security measures at the office are, even for a company with billionaire clients, more than a little extreme. Then Mitch makes an explosive discovery: The firm is owned and operated by the most powerful organized crime family in Chicago. Even as Mitch discovers the truth, he finds himself caught between the FBI, who wants an informant inside the firm, and the firm itself, which will make him a very rich man—or a very dead one.
- Why you should read it: Often brought up as an example of just how tense a story can get, where is the action? Where are the tense high-speed chases? The life or death situations? Well, that’s why you should read it. At first glance, nothing exciting is happened. So why can’t you put the book down?
Along Came a Spider by James Patterson
- Synopsis: A missing little girl named Maggie Rose . . . a family of three brutally murdered in the projects of Washington, D.C. . . . the thrill-killing of a beautiful elementary school teacher . . . a psychopathic serial kidnapper/murderer who is so terrifying that the FBI, the Secret Service, and the police cannot outsmart him – even after he’s been captured. Alex Cross and Jezzie Flanagan are about to have a forbidden love affair–at the worst possible time for both of them. Because Gary Soneji is playing at the top of his game. The latest of the unspeakable crimes happens in Alex Cross’s precinct. It happens under the noses of Jezzie Flanagan’s men. Now Alex Cross must face the ultimate test: How do you outmaneuver a brilliant psychopath?
- Why you should read it: Tension, a speeding plot, multiple high-points, multiple antagonists – this is honestly just a great thriller. Pay particular attention to the techniques and structure that Patterson uses to avoid a sagging middle.
Books on craft:
The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass
- Synopsis: In “The Fire in Fiction,” successful literary agent and author Donald Maass shows you not only how to infuse your story with deep conviction and fiery passion, but how to do it over and over again.
- Why you should read it: Maass uses real examples from other books to go through several points about character, setting, plot, tension, theme, and many other areas that he has mastered by reading thousands of manuscripts over the years. He doesn’t spend too long on each example, and he’s actually a bit funny. If I could recommend one book to another writer, this would be it. After each section you’ll be thinking, ‘Damn, that’s so true. I never would have thought of that on my own, and it’ll make a huge difference in my writing.’ And even better, most of the points are easy to remember and easy to use in your own work.
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
- Synopsis: Editors always tell novice writers that the first few pages of a manuscript are crucial in the publishing process — and it’s true. If an editor or agent (or reader) loses interest after a page or two, you’ve lost him or her completely, even if the middle of your novel is brilliant and the ending phenomenal. Noah Lukeman, an agent in Manhattan, has taken this advice and created a book that examines just what this means.
- Why you should read it: Disclaimer: This book isn’t just about the first five pages. It uses the first five pages as a lens to find the most important problems for a writer to fix, the problems that make an editor put a book down because, if they happen in the first five pages, they’ll happen through the whole story. This book is a little more technical than the one above. Lukeman really gets into dos and don’ts of specific topics – important advice you’ve thought about but never been able to articulate. And you can apply it immediately. After every chapter there’ll be a lightbulb exploding over your head.
At this point you may be thinking, ‘I need to take notes! How else am I going to remember all this? Should I cram everything I learn into my next book?’ And my advice to you would be to take it slow. Taking notes is good (if you feel like it) and will help you remember things, but it isn’t necessary. Read actively and pay attention – it’s all you need to do. And please, for the love of good books, don’t try to cram everything you learn into your next 300 pages. When the time is right to use a great idea, you won’t have to force it.
What about you? What are your favorite books to read for writing? What makes them so great? How did you actually make it to the end of this ridiculously long post?