8 Books to Read This Year to Improve Writing

John Steinbeck—A Russian’s Journal—1948

Norman Mailer—The Armies of the Night—1968

Joan Didion—Play it as it Lays—1970

Brian Turner—Here Bullet—2005

Mohsin Hamid—The Reluctant Fundamentalist—2007

Flannery O’ Connor—The Violent Bear it Away—1955

William Gibson—Neuromancer—1984

James Baldwin—Notes of a Native Son—1955

Why? Here is what you can learn from these authors and their writing:

Steinbeck

If you break his sentences down, record his syntax, find his diction, and watch for his descriptions, you’ll learn a lot from this author. Steinbeck is famous for simple syntax and diction that contrasts his complex descriptions. There are six keys things to his writing: 

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

For more check out the article here: 

Also a great insight is The Paris Review. They interview authors, and get the in-depth reasoning of how they view their own writing.

Mailer

Mailer can teach you many journalistic techniques in this book. He also refers to himself in the third person. He uses very complex syntax and imagery filled with lots and lots of thoughts and beliefs and values. 

Here is another interview with The Paris Review for more reading!

Didion

Didion can teach you how to write in a masculine syntax, the same syntax and descriptions as Steinbeck. Didion even admits she broke Steinbeck’s sentences down to understand them and learn how to write like him. She writes fiction like nonfiction, and can be intimate as well as distant with her characters. She also often omits commas and has very short chapters within this novel. 

Here is more reading on Joan Didion’s fiction on The Paris Review and here is an article about her nonfiction.

11 Writing Tips From Joan Didion, Because She Knows A Thing Or Two About It (from Bustle.com

1. “Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”

2.  “Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one.”

3. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

4. “The impulse to write things down is a particularly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

5. “It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.”

6. “Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.”

7. “All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.”

8. 8. “As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs… The way I write is who I am, or have become…”

9. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

10. “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”

11. “I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.”

Turner

He is a poet. Turner can teach you how to observe from the outside and describe the details from the inside. He uses strong images and strong metaphors to explain the world. 

You can check him out here.

Hamid

In this book, Hamid can teach you how to place the setting and how to position the gender of the narrator; how to use archetypes to exchange with the story, and how to set the tone of a story. 

See more about his writing style and thoughts here.

O’Connor

If you want to write a confusing and complex story that confuses the hell out of your reader, then read this book to learn how twisted your readers can get over what you write. Also, if you want to learn how to write a story set in the 1950s, this is a great book to learn the diction of the time. She uses repetitive images throughout to carry the theme of the book as well. 

Check out her thoughts on style here at The Paris Review, and here.

Or take a look at eight writing tips from Flannery O’Conner.

Gibson

If you want to learn how to write Cyberpunk, here you go. Gibson is kind of the forefather to this genre even though he refuses the title. The great thing about Cyberpunk is it can teach a writer how to create complex descriptions about a single thing using several figurative language techniques. These quotes are both from his book:

“His eyes were eggs of unstable crystal, vibrating with a frequency whose name was rain and the sound of trains, suddenly sprouting a humming forest of hair-fine glass spines.” 

“A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he cut in Night City, and he’d still see the matrix in his dreams, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colourless void… The Sprawl was a long, strange way home now over the Pacific, and he was no Console Man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through. But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, hands clawed into the bedslab, temper foam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn’t there.” 

His book and writing style is very dense. Here is his interview with The Paris Review.

Lastly, Baldwin

What’s makes his writing so unique is the eloquence of his syntax and his rhetorical attack of any topic. Baldwin really lets readers view the world the way he views the world. His sentences may be short, but they are packed with dynamite syntax. He likes to write a sentence that has heart–making the reader feel. Despite this, his style was criticized for being over-bearing, too moral, and too direct with any moral statements. Most of the topics he writes about are morally complex, so if you want a character who can be complex with morals, learn from the nonfiction of Baldwin.

His history and upbringing also make him an interesting writer. Check out his interview with The Paris Review here.

The Book Club Swaps: Nicole and Addey

I can’t even remember how I stumbled upon the book Red Queen, probably in a bookstore while I roaming around the young adult section. Usually, titles and covers that speak to me, or interest me, are the ones I pick up to read the inside cover summary. What probably got me to buy this book and to take it home was the dangerous chess game, with elements of fantasy, betrayal, power plays, and beating the impossible. I have read up to the third book in the series, and I find Victoria Aveyard’s writing fresh and intriguing. The way she plots her books is very interesting, and she keeps everything exciting yet familiar to the reader.

I selected this book for Addey to dabble in the world of young adultness because it has an element of refinement that I very much see in Addey. I like to think books fit certain personalities and interests of people, so I carefully chose this one. Not only that, but this book holds a lot to traditions and history of the land and the way of the people, which Addey reads historical fiction and literary stories, so I thought it would fit in her wheelhouse of being comfortable to at least try and read this book. I am interested and excited to read and see what Addey has thought of this book!

Now that Addey’s finished reading the book, here are her thoughts…

I definitely think Nicole was right in thinking that I would like this book! It was intriguing to me almost from page one, and got even more interesting the more I learned about the world that Red Queen takes place in. It does have some elements of the historical fiction that I usually read. The world has many traditions and characteristics that harken back to earlier times but also mixed with technology and modern tendencies. It was an interesting combination, but one that I think worked!

I also liked the plot of the book–it was unexpected and kept me guessing. I also appreciated that there was romance involved, but it wasn’t too hot and heavy (something that I wish more books adhered to.) The characters were believable but also easy to root for (or hate.)

I do think that there were times the dialogue felt a little bit unnatural and the description of characters’ actions didn’t always flow or make sense, but it was minimal enough that I didn’t really care! I am planning to read the next books in the series, for sure, so I am excited to see if that improves as the books go on and the characters become more fleshed out.

Overall I really liked Red Queen! Nicole did a good job choosing this book for me to read in our book swapping series, and I would definitely recommend the book to all of our readers out there.

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Stay tuned for more from the book club as we all read books picked for each other and write our reviews here.  And if you want to join the club and recommend books for us to read, or take a stab at our recommendations, leave your comments and suggestions below!

The Book Club Swaps: Amber and Addey

Some time ago I chose the book Sabriel by Garth Nix for Addey to read. When I was younger my first sense of world building came from this novel. The first taste of the vast scale of an area traversed, the first sense of wonder. I received all of that from this experience.

It also exposed me to a character who has stayed with me for years. The sassy and ever entertaining Mogget. While I appreciate all the characters in Sabriel, and their progression through the novel, this small fluff ball is by far my favorite. I suggested this book for Addey specifically because of the world building and the how deeply it delves into its own fictional history and to see what she thinks of it.

Now that Addey’s finished reading the book, here are her thoughts…

We’ve mentioned it before, but I have a drastically different taste in books that both Amber and Nicole.  That’s why we decided to do book swaps—we thought it would make things exciting and fun.  But, it also makes for a bit of an intimidating proposition.  It is a little stressful to take on a book that is one of your friend’s favorites but that you also know is not your typical cup of tea.

So, with all this in mind, I dove into Sabriel with trepidation.  I decided to read it first because out of the two books I got from Amber and Nicole, this seemed like the book I would like the least and I wanted to get it out of the way.  That doesn’t sound promising, does it?

Well, once I started reading I was worried that my initial thoughts were right.  The book didn’t draw me in at first and it took me quite a while to get through the first half of the book.  I think that this is due to the fact that I am not used to the world building that has to take place in fantasy.  There was a lot of confusion for me when I first started reading.  I simply didn’t understand the world Sabriel and her companions lived in, which is kid of the point of a fantasy novel that takes place in an imaginary world, but I’m not used to that.

But I plowed on anyway and noticed that I did get more involved in the story and with the characters as I read on.  Mogget confused me a bit, but was quite an interesting character, and once he came onto the scene I had a much easier time following along.  Then, once the third central character, Touchstone, showed up, I had a much easier time following.  That’s where the action really picked up and where the story became interesting to me.

In the first half of the book, I struggled to read a chapter a day, which was the goal I was striving for, and once the action picked up in the latter part of the book, I think I finished it in just a couple days.

To sum up my thoughts on Sabriel, while it wasn’t may favorite book I’ve read or anything like that, it was very good and was a nice little venture outside of my comfort zone.  I had fun reading it, and am even interested in reading the next books in the series in the future (once I can get to the library and snag them after this whole quarantine thing is over.)

If you are like me and read primarily in one genre, I think I would recommend reaching outside of your comfort zone and reading something new—especially if that something new is a recommendation from a friend who you know has good taste!

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Stay tuned for more from the book club as we all read books picked for each other and write our reviews here.  And if you want to join the club and recommend books for us to read, or take a stab at our recommendations, leave your comments and suggestions below!

The Book Club

We are starting a new category here on the blog–the book club. This is a series that will cover all things books–what we are reading, what we recommend to you, and anything else book related that we want to share with you! Today we have a collaborative post covering two books that we have read recently. Should you take the time to immerse yourself in these books? Keep reading to find out!

The last book I read was, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake.

A little poem for a quick synopsis on the book:

“Three dark queens
Are born in a glen,
Sweet little triplets
Will never be friends

Three dark sisters
All fair to be seen,
Two to devour
And one to be Queen”

I don’t really go on social media very often, and I am terrible at posting (if you couldn’t tell), so I didn’t even know there was a lot of hype about this book. But I subscribe to Owl Crate, and this came in one of the boxes. I am a huge fan of young adult, especially fantasy (I tend to write fantasy), so I decided to go ahead and read this book without knowing basically anything, without having any pre-conceptions at all. After I finished the book, I was so confused, frustrated, and a bit over-whelmed that I looked up this book to find out what the hype and the not-so-hype comments and reviews were.

I don’t usually give bad reviews when it comes to books, but because the summary of this book was written so well, I had some expectations. What I got after reading was an anger disorder. Instead of giving bad reviews, I tend to try and analyze the book to see what went wrong as either a writer or a reader. Me and the other editors just did a podcast about beginnings, and I remember saying for fantasy, “beginnings are hard because of world-building.” This book is a prime example of where and when you should not start.

I was so confused trying to keep track of the world, the rules, the cultures, the game the princesses are playing, the relationships, the cliché tropes, and the horrible side characters who were more important than the main characters. And now I realize I am getting off track, but might as well keep going–you don’t really see any of the promises the summary of the book gave until you are 400 pages in. And now, I am done going off track.

This particular book taught me that as a reader, writer and an editor, I took a point-of-view of being snobbish with what I thought might be a cool book. There are a few things I learned to stray away from when writing my own stories, as I have painfully learned from reading this book.

1.       Don’t over promise and not deliver: I think a lot of people got sucked in like I did with the idea of this book that it could be something cool—and it was not!

2.       Pacing: pacing in a story is sooo crucial and this novel had terrible and slow pacing which made people want to give up reading.

3.       Clichés and tropes: be careful on how these are used, don’t use them only for an idea and plot line structure. Enough said, so many people can rant about this, it seems not to get heard, though.

4.       Characters: main characters should be focused on solely when driving the plot forward, secondary characters are there to support—not to act. (So many people in the reviews and comments got caught up hating the secondary characters and said that the main ones were hard to focus on. As the reader I find this funny because I didn’t think there necessarily were supporting characters).

5.       Having too many characters: this can actually harm the story rather than give it complexity if not done well.

6.       World: for fantasy and sci-fi writers, the world building is what we are all about. (I pride myself on being a good world builder). I can understand it’s hard for any writer to make up a world and then describe that world to readers even, if it’s the world we are living in and it’s realistic, everyone’s story is different. That is what makes every novel different. Blake’s world building was not well thought out. She used rules and society norms to change her plot when she needed a turn, a no-no. World building is a setting which can be used for several things, but should not be for turning the plot. No-no and I am doing a finger no-no wag at this book.

7.       Lastly, I promise: so many people said this book was dark. Show me where?!?! This book wasn’t twisted or dark at all! If we are going dark, I want cruelty, murder, mayhem, crazy cray murder plots towards the sisters, the torture of souls and bodies. If this world is supposed to be dark, then why doesn’t the world get Dirty Harry? I don’t get it. There was barely any killing at all, and when it did happen, the author glossed over it! The hell, don’t tell, show, that is what makes a horror/twisted little fairy tale good–the details in how the deed was done.

I now rest my case. If anyone has read this book, let me know in the comments below if you liked it! I thought I was the right audience for this book, but maybe I am not and cannot appreciate it the same way someone else can. If you did not like this book, I feel your pain. If you want to read this book to see if the reviews or comments are true…I will give you a dare this year as a goal to read this book!

And now, on to Addey’s thoughts on a decidedly different type of book…

I went through a bit of a drought when it comes to good books at the end of last year.  I tend to read books that fall into one of two categories: classics or historical fiction.  I am also a Christian, so a good chunk of what I read falls under the category of Christian or inspirational fiction, too.  Towards the end of last year and during January of this year I read two books, neither of which were very good.  I have some tried and true favorite authors who were some of my favorites when I was first introduced to inspirational historical fiction, and one of those said authors came out with a new series towards the end of last year.  Through a fortunate series of events I was given autographed copies of the first two books in the series, so, of course, I had to read them.  But they were disappointing. 

I can usually get through a book in a week, but both of these books took me several months to finish!  I think this may be due to the writing style—when I fell in love with this author I was in high school, and that was a shockingly long time ago once I get to thinking about it—and I also think it’s because this author has started churning out books at an alarming rate, which leaves little time for thoroughly developed characters and plots.  They are the kind of books that follow similar plot lines.  Where a reader can tell what’s going to happen next and where characters seem to be watching the plot go by but not participating in or feeling the events of the story.  I felt like I needed to finish them, but I won’t be getting the third book.

You may have noticed that throughout this whole description I have not mentioned the author or series, and that is because these books are not actually what I’m going to write about today!  I’m going to be telling you about a different, older book by one of my favorite authors that I finally tracked down and ordered online.  It’s not autographed and is, in fact, a slightly tattered copy retired from a Midwestern library district with stamps and bar codes over the cover to prove it.  And it’s such a good book!  I finished it in less than a week compared to the months that dragged by before I finished those other two.

The book I’m actually going to be talking about is The Frontiersman’s Daughter by Laura Frantz.  It’s Frantz’ first novel, and one of only three that I hadn’t yet devoured by the author as of a month ago.  I can see, now, why this book started off Frantz’ career—it’s truly a good read!

First, a little backstory.  Sometimes when I am in need of a good book to read, I will go to the library and walk up and down the rows of shelves, pulling out books at random.  I don’t always take them all home with me (for only three weeks, don’t worry—I’m not a library thief!) but it gives me some new authors to check out.  I tend to go for books that have covers that are eye catching and that look like my kind of books.  If you are familiar with the inspirational historical fiction genre, then you know what I’m talking about.  There’s usually a beautiful heroine on the front, dressed head to toe in period attire, surrounded by some bits of the story’s setting.  On one of these library excursions a year ago I found a series of books called the Ballantyne Legacy.  The covers fit the bill, and I decided to give them a try. 

…and that’s how I was hooked by Laura Frantz’s books!

In the year since I discovered her books, I slowly tracked them all down at the library, and even purchased one of her newer books from good old Barnes and Noble, but I was having a hard time finding a couple books, one of them being The Frontiersman’s Daughter.  Recently, then, after my disappointing re-introduction to the author I mentioned previously, I wanted to read something good!  So I looked online to see what I could find and ended up ordering five books, one of which was The Frontiersman’s Daughter.

Unlike Nicole, I was very pleased with my choice!  The story is set in the time frame right around and after the American Revolutionary War, but most of it takes place in the territory of Kentucky, or Kentucke, as it was first called, and is largely unconcerned with the Revolution.  It’s a really good story that left me wanting to know what happened next.  There’s a bit of a love triangle, which I usually despise, but actually worked in this story (although one of Lael’s—the main character—love interests’ story lines is never really resolved, which left me wanting more).

One of the reason’s I like Frantz as an author is that she doesn’t shy away from using historical vernacular.  I find that in a lot of historical fiction that falls into the not-so-great category the characters speak like they were born yesterday.  That doesn’t add up if the character is, in reality, 200+ years old, so I appreciate when authors trust their readers enough to use the spelling and speaking styles that are accurate to the time period the characters are in. 

Frantz also just has a knack for writing believable storylines and love stories.  There’s nothing I hate more than a rushed story, or one that barely focuses on the love story and suddenly has characters get married in the end seemingly out of nowhere.  Love takes time to develop, and I appreciate that Frantz’ plotlines allow for this time.  The books are, consequently, sometimes on the longer side.  I often find, though, that I get so engrossed in the story that I wish there was more!

To sum up this lengthy examination of my reading habits: go read Laura Frantz if you are a fan of historical fiction!  Even if you aren’t a reader of “inspirational” fiction, her books don’t hit you over the head with it, so I’d still recommend giving them a try.  The Ballantyne Legacy series is a great place to start, but The Frontiersman’s Daughter is an excellent place to dig in, too.

Images courtesy of Goodreads (1, 2, 3).