Posted in Books, Writing

5 Literary Novels to Read if You Want to be a Writer

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There are lots of great literary novels out there, but these are five I highly recommend you take a look at!

1. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch is one of the ten best books I’ve ever read. Sometimes literary novels have such a focus on the beauty of the prose that the story gets lost, but Tartt has a remarkable ability to blend strong writing with a consistently entertaining story. Her style of writing is as specific as it is highly approachable. Almost every page offered at least one sentence that wowed me. Every character is sharply drawn — from the protagonist Theo to his friend Boris to the thugs in Amsterdam. The way Tartt keeps the painting The Goldfinch an important element throughout the narrative is impressive, and I loved that the novel mixes various genres, like coming-of-age, literary fiction, thriller, and, I’d argue, young adult. Overall, The Goldfinch impressed me all the way through.

2. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

I absolutely loved this literary book. A few elements separate this novel from a typical supermarket-selling adult murder mystery, and the stylish prose is certainly one of them. The second literary quality is the choice of omniscient point-of-view, which allows for these stylish prose as well as the ability to go into any character’s head whenever she wants. Author Ng is able to create a whole world with this point-of-view choice, giving us so much when something like first-person from one character never could have done the job. Another literary quality is the emphasis on backstory. Again, many authors would have been perfectly willing to have this entire narrative play out in the present, showing how this family reacts to Lydia’s death, and that would have made a strong novel to be sure. But about half of this book takes place in flashback, building up the backstory of all the characters, and this strategy not only adds terrific tension to the current events but also allows for worthwhile character development.

3. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is one of the most highly regarded works by Pulitzer Prize-winner Toni Morrison, and it’s easy to see why. This is a gorgeous, unusual, affecting novel, Morrison’s first to be published. I sat down expecting a book all told from the perspective of eleven-year-old Pecola, and the first big surprise I admired was Morrison’s ambitious and playful use of POV. The unusual POV structure is a central literary element of this book, but there are others. Early in this short novel, Morrison stops the narrative to deliver setting details of the city for three whole pages. And the style of her prose is always striking, using short, punchy sentences when writing in first person, and more stylized sentences when talking in third, I was also impressed by the frank and involving discussion about race throughout, Morrison never shying away from the truth. These issues make up so much of what the book is about — uncertain identity, fear of the other — and Morrison explores them in great depth and detail.

4. The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger is a fantastically spooky horror novel, and I love its many literary qualities. The first literary quality I admired was its attention to setting, which often relates to Hundreds Hall. A non-literary horror novel would make mention of a few of the house’s qualities, but not as many as Waters makes the time for early in the book, again, allowing the estate to become its own major character. A second literary quality in the book is its focus on character rather than plot. Unlike many horror novels that focus on a series of scary moments and increasingly tense actions made by the main characters, The Little Stranger is always more concerned with making the reader care about the characters before anything unfortunate happens to them. A third literary quality is the quality of the prose, which is often striking and memorable. It must be noted of course that Waters never goes overboard with stylish prose; even in her sections of big, block paragraphs, her sentences are imaginative but readable, a little wordy but clear, never outrageous in its pursuit of the truth.

5. Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen is a terrific literary thriller well worth a read. First, the novel is literary in its focus on character over plot, and I would argue it’s most literary in this regard. The book has a harrowing finale with a major twist, but Moshfegh is much more interested in the journey Eileen takes to get there. The book is literary for its stylish prose, as well, especially when it comes to description, and the historical time period — Christmas 1964 — makes for a literary element as well. One tremendous aspect of the book is Eileen herself, one of the most disturbed and compelling protagonists I’ve read in a work of fiction in a long time. Eileen is darkly funny, always smart, and sometimes vicious in the way she thinks, and I loved every minute spending time with her. This one’s definitely well worth a read!

Posted in Books, Writing

5 Quotes from Richard Adams to Make You a Better Writer

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Richard Adams (1920–2016) was a supremely gifted writer most famous for his acclaimed novel Watership Down, which has been read and shared all around the world. Here are five quotes he said over the years that will absolutely help you in your writing!

1. If I had known how frightfully well I could write, I’d have started earlier.

Some of us get started writing at an early age. The first short story I remember writing was called “The Haunted Library” during the third grade, so I would have been nine years old. Writing every word of that story was a total thrill… and I haven’t really stopped since. There was a period where I was only writing screenplays and not fiction, from the ages of fourteen to twenty-four, but I’ve always been writing.

It’s a good thing to recognize something you’re good at as early as possible. But if you never start writing? Whether you’re too scared, or too busy, or too unsure of yourself? That’s one of the worst sins of all. To not share your gifts with the world. To not go after the dream. I’m sure there are thousands of people in this world who could be amazing writers, but for one reason or another have just never gotten started.

You’ve heard someone say it before, I’m sure: “I might try to write a book one day.” Most of these people won’t write the book. But a few might, and what’s a shame is someone in their fifties or sixties or even older suddenly realizing how well they can write. They should have started decades earlier! Just you being here, reading these words, looking for inspiration in your own work, is definitely a good place to start.

2. We are all human and fall short of where we need to be. We must never stop trying to be the best we can be.

You can think of this quote in all aspects of your life, but I think it definitely relates to your writing because you should never stop trying to make it the best it can be. Writing is extremely competitive. There’s so much talent out there. So many manuscripts. So many people vying for readers’ attention. You can’t just be decent. You can’t get 70% of the way there on a manuscript, and say, ehh, good enough.

You’ll never be able to make your writing perfect. Please, don’t even strive for perfection. But you should always, always, always try to make your writing the very best it can be. Don’t settle for something less. Settling for less means all the hard work you put into this particular project might have been all for nothing. Why not put another month of work into it and get it to the place it needs to be? It’s the best thing you can do for your writing, and it’s the best thing you can do for yourself.

3. You know how you let yourself think everything will be all right if you can get to a certain place or do a certain thing. But when you get there you find it’s not that simple.

Another reason you should always try to write to the best of your ability is that you’ll find time and time just how hard writing is, and that reaching the end of a first draft is a mere stage in the process. You might get to the end of that first draft thinking, now I’ve done it, now everything will be simple. I have words on the page! I have my complete story down on paper! Everything from here on out is the easy part!

Not so fast. There’s difficulty in completing the first draft of a manuscript, particularly a novel, but there’s a different kind of difficulty in revising, and revising well. You get to the revising stage thinking it will be fairly simple, that all you’ll need to do is read your wonderful work through a few times and maybe fix some typos and cut a sentence here and there.

Such is the farthest thing from the truth. Revising is is no way simple. It takes a different side of your brain to do it well in a way, because while you’re still being creative, you’re using more of an intellectual thought process in terms of what you have to do to make your writing shine its brightest. Unless you’re super lucky, and your first draft is absolutely brilliant, you’re going to need to revise your work often, taking on one draft after another, until it’s finally ready to be seen by others.

4. I’ve always said that Watership Down is not a book for children. I say: it’s a book, and anyone who wants to read it can read it.

This is the truth of all books, isn’t it? Even though when you write a novel for children, you need to think about certain guidelines that will help sell your book, specific kinds of expectations you should have in the back of your mind at least when you’re revising. For example, don’t write a young adult novel that features a twenty-year-old protagonist. And don’t write a middle grade novel that’s 135,000 words.

But once you achieve success as a writer, and your book is finally out in the world, that book belongs to whichever readers find it. If you’ve written a young adult novel, don’t for a second think that only teenagers will ever read it. All kinds of people love to read books aimed at younger audiences. And many younger audiences love to read adult novels, too! I remember reading Stephen King books as early as age 10. And now that I’m an adult myself, I read middle grade and young adult books all the time.

Don’t look at your latest book as a book for children. It’s a book, plain and simple. And anyone who wants to read it will read it.

5. The thinker dies, but his thoughts are beyond the reach of destruction. Men are mortal; but ideas are immortal.

This is why books are so important. It’s why Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 still resonates to this day. The idea that you can destroy the thinker and thereby destroy the thoughts that come from that person is a falsehood. It’s why people die twice in a way — once when they die, and second when the last person on Earth dies who remembers him or her. The thoughts themselves? They never die, as long as people are still sharing those thoughts.

Books live forever in a way because people share the stories with others long after they’ve turned the last page. Decade after decade, century after century, books stay with us, become part of us. And to be an author means, in a way, that you get to be immortal, too. Because long after you’re gone, your ideas and stories remain. They still move people, still entertain people, still open up a world to a child or an adult in ways you can never even imagine.

We’re all mortal, and one day we’ll no longer be here. But our ideas? Our thoughts? Our stories? They’re forever.

Posted in Books, Writing

5 (More) Horror Novels to Read if You Want to be a Writer

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One of my favorite genres is horror, and I’m always on the hunt for the next great horror novel. What I especially love are the horror books so well-written that they help me in the writing of my own work!

Last week I looked at 5 awesome horror books, and here are 5 more…

1. NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

NOS4A2 is a superb horror novel that reminded me of some of the best classic work by my favorite author, Stephen King. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Hill is the son of King, and has been publishing adult horror fiction under a pseudonym (Joe Hill King is his birth name). Much of his father’s talent has passed down to Hill, who has talent for descriptive horror imagery, complex characters, and tension-filled pacing that is at times nearly unbearable. I loved the epic scope of this 700+ page novel, too, with its long span of time (about twenty-five years) and large cast of characters who all play important roles in the narrative.

2. Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin

This is an example of a mid-twentieth century horror novel that, like The Exorcist, caused a whirlwind among suspense readers of the time, and for the most part I was enthralled with this celebrated classic. First, I was impressed with the eerie foreshadowing of the horror to come, little nuggets of dialogue and information Levin would drop in the first half of the book. I also admired how Levin explores both the highs and the horrors of pregnancy throughout this book, not shying away from Rosemary’s suffering. He explores in great detail how Rosemary’s pregnancy at one point hurts her body and her mind, and does so in an authentic, chilling manner. I also liked Levin’s use of suspense throughout the book, which really ratchets up in the final forty pages. And I love the surprise twists at the end, and that gloriously memorable final scene.

3. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go is outstanding in almost every way, a riveting and thought-provoking read from beginning to end that works as coming-of-age, as dystopian science fiction, and as dread-inducing horror. It also works beautifully as a literary novel. Some may argue that it’s not a horror novel. Coming-of-age, sure, and science fiction, okay, but horror? Although I agree that Never Let Me Go is not horror the way N0S4A2 is more obviously horror, this is absolutely a novel about a horrific circumstance that can’t be avoided no matter how much the main characters want to, and Ishiguro provides enough suspense and terrifying images to suggest that there’s something dreadfully frightening about this world.

4. Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare, by Darren Shaw

This is a great series to read for any aspiring YA horror writer. There’s a lot here that works well, and I was legitimately surprised by some of the twists along the way. I also responded to the use of the double-I POV in this novel, as it turns out Darren Shaw himself wrote the book we’re reading, and therefore he’s looking back over his life and trying to recreate these important moments on the page (Darren Shaw is the actual author of the book, too, making the double-I almost meta in a way).

5. Misery, by Stephen King

One of my favorite novels by my all-time favorite author is Misery, and it was a thrill to read it again for the first time recently and teach it for a class! Almost everything works about this wild ride of a book, especially the weird, memorable, three-dimensional antagonist Annie Wilkes. In addition, King offers startling, fresh prose from beginning to end. He must have been a kid in a candy store writing this book, clearly close to the mindset of his protagonist Paul and delighting in the various ways Annie emotionally and physically tortures him. The tension is superb throughout the novel, never waning at any point, and I admired King’s use of interiority that makes us care deeply about Paul every step of the way.

Posted in Books, Writing

5 Horror Novels to Read if You Want to be a Writer

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One of my favorite genres is horror, and I’m always on the hunt for the next great horror novel. What I especially love are the horror books so well-written that they help me in the writing of my own work!

Below are five fantastic works of horror that might inform your writing as well…

1. The Shining, by Stephen King

The Shining is one of my favorite horror novels, and certainly, alongside Misery and The Stand, one of King’s finest works. He masterfully ratchets up the tension throughout the book, giving clear motivations to all his characters and making The Overlook Hotel a whole lot more than just a spookhouse. The book was published in 1977, and odds are King learned from Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws how to keep the monster hidden from his story for as long as possible. It isn’t until page 216, nearly halfway through the book, that the reader gets his first glimpse at something truly frightening — the old woman in the tub — and it isn’t until the last 100 pages that any real action or violence officially break out. What a masterpiece of horror this book is!

2. The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum

The Girl Next Door is a terrific contemporary horror novel that shows the terror that can be committed not by a supernatural creature but by a nice-on-the-surface middle-aged lady. First, there’s an intelligent use of the double-I POV. Having David be an adult in his forties looking back adds a necessary bit of distance between him and the events, making the book even scarier because there’s a lack of emotion accompanying the prose. Additionally, Ketchum’s prose always serves the story well and adds to the tension and suspense. Ketchum’s use of quick sentences and brief paragraphs add to the vividness and realism of the horrific events much better than longer, lyrical sentences ever would have. Lastly, the use of eerie foreshadowing and almost non-step tension are used to superb extents in this novel of pure terror.

3. Psycho, by Robert Bloch

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho is one of my favorites and it was a thrill to finally read the original Bloch novel. I was worried Bloch’s writing might be old-fashioned and cheap, and yet I was surprised at how well developed his characters are, how effective the suspense is, how detailed much of the setting is. And despite my familiarity with the film, the suspense still works beautifully in the novel too, in how it’s driven both by plot twists and alternating POV chapters. Mary knows things Norman doesn’t know, and Norman knows things Sam doesn’t know, and so on, and Bloch using the alternating POV chapters to make the story richer than it would have been only from Norman’s perspective. This truly is a full-throttle horror novel worth taking a look at even if you’ve seen the film.

4. The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

This is a fantastically spooky horror novel with many great qualities. I admired its attention to setting, and its focus on character rather than plot. Unlike many horror novels that focus on a series of scary moments and increasingly tense actions made by the main characters, The Little Stranger is always more concerned with making the reader care about the characters before anything bad happens to them. In addition, I was impressed with the compelling protagonist, Dr. Faraday. He is smart, capable, opinionated. But what I love about the character is how incredibly flawed he is. Waters also understands that the scariest moments in horror literature are often what you don’t see, and she takes that approach to every moment of terror in the book. There is scene after scene of a character thinking he or she is seeing a shadow across the room, something moving and making an eerie noise of some kind, and these are the moments where the book really shines in its horror.

5. The Girl from the Well, by Rin Chupeco

This YA novel offers that wonderful mix of quiet creepiness and action-packed terror, Chupeco rarely stopping to let the characters catch their breaths before moving on to the next horrifying moment. The eerie scenes leave a mark, and there’s a sense of mystery surrounding some of the early frightening moments, too. Her description of vindictive characters and her short, snappy prose of action keep the reader flipping through pages fast. I loved the POV choice, writing an entire novel from the perspective of a ghost, and the effective descriptions of setting and characters throughout. The horror prose is just startling in this, always specific, always well-constructed. I highly recommend this spooky little tale!

Posted in Books, Writing

5 (Even More) YA Books to Read if You Want to be a Writer

Recently I looked at ten amazing YA books (first list here and second list here) that have inspired my writing considerably. Today, I wanted to look at even five more that I adore and think you should definitely take a look at!

1. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

What’s not to love? The Hunger Games is one of the most popular young adult novels ever released, and it earns its popularity with terrific, tension-filled prose, a dazzling story, and a memorable lead character. One major reason the book works as well as it does is that Collins chose to write it in first person, present tense, and this immediacy and urgency gives the story its nearly non-stop tension. Secondly, I love that the violence is never shied away from, considering this is a book for teens. The violence is never gory or over-the-top by any means, but Collins wisely shows in detail that, yes, kids are getting slaughtered in this world. Additionally, Collins’ use of setting is vivid all the way through. Even in first person present, Collins makes the settings always pop in front of Katniss’s eyes.

2. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz

This multiple-award-winning novel is a subtle gay love story that progresses like the movie Boyhood in many ways, emulating the joys and hardships of real life without any forced character moments or sentimental plot developments. Saenz’s writing is easy to read and draws the reader in, with his insistence to not over-complicate his prose and instead use only as many words as he thinks each moment needs.

3. Highly Illogical Behavior, by John Corey Whaley

This is a terrific young adult novel that treats its subject matter with dignity and great attention to detail, and features three-dimensional teenage characters with necessary flaws and dreams for the future. This is the third young adult novel Whaley has written, and he infuses his work with a genuine YA voice and engaging, realistic teen dialogue. Sometimes teenage characters can sound like adults in young adult fiction, but not in Whaley’s work, which not only sounds appropriate to the age of the characters but is also specific to each of the characters.

4. Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare, by Darren Shaw

This is a great series to read for any aspiring YA horror writer. There’s a lot here that works well, and I was legitimately surprised by some of the twists along the way. I also responded to the use of the double-I POV in this novel, as it turns out Darren Shaw himself wrote the book we’re reading, and therefore he’s looking back over his life and trying to recreate these important moments on the page (Darren Shaw is the actual author of the book, too, making the double-I almost meta in a way).

5. Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez

Rainbow Boys is an absorbing young adult novel that is grim and realistic, showing the aches and pains gay teens have to go through to find acceptance with their friends and family. Despite being more realistic than some other LGBTQ YA novels I’ve discussed in these lists, though, it absolutely has the same level of romanticism. None of the three characters hates that he is gay; from the first page on, they all want to find love, and by the end, they do. The entire Rainbow Boys trilogy is well worth a look!

Posted in Books, Writing

5 (More) YA Books to Read if You Want to be a Writer

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Last week I took a look at five amazing YA books that have inspired my writing considerably. Today, I wanted to look at five more that I adore and think you should definitely take a look at!

1. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by Emily Danforth

This is a fascinating, observant novel, written with great care and honesty and passion. It reads like a big, sweeping John Steinbeck book — except instead of a story about an Oklahoma family traveling to California, this one’s about a teenage lesbian in rural Montana. If you haven’t checked this one out yet, I’d highly recommend you give it a look!

2. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

Thomas’s book was the best-selling young adult novel of 2017, and it’s not difficult to see why. It takes on a topical subject — the Black Lives Matter movement — and infuses the subject with a compelling narrative told from the perspective of a relatable, flawed, and fascinating protagonist named Starr. The terrific film, which came out last fall, is worth watching as well!

3. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Anderson’s young adult novel has been immensely popular to younger readers in the twenty years since it was published, becoming required reading at many high schools and forever near the top of bookseller charts in children’s literature. I was impressed and enthralled by this book, particularly in the striking voice of the protagonist. Anderson is masterful at beautifully capturing a teenager’s voice, never a moment I felt her own author voice creeping in.

4. The Girl From the Well, by Rin Chupeco

I wanted to find one genuinely terrifying young adult horror novel to read recently, and The Girl from the Well definitely fit the bill! This novel offers that wonderful mix of quiet creepiness and action-packed terror, Chupeco rarely stopping to let the characters catch their breaths before moving on to the next horrifying moment. The eerie scenes and chilling revelations always leave a mark.

5. Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin

I love so much about Golden Boy, which tells the story of an intersex teenager going through the difficulty of adolescence, and Tartellin’s use of the multiple POV in first person, present tense, is indeed one of the most striking things about it. I’ve read multiple POV in other novels before, but what Tartellin does is particularly impressive because she balances six points-of-view and brings complexity and a sharp, unique voice to each one of them. I’ve read this book twice now, and I give it my highest recommendation!

Posted in Books, Writing

5 (Even More) Craft Books to Read if You Want to Be a Writer

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Last week I took a look at 10 amazing craft books (list one here and list two here) that have inspired my writing considerably. Today, I wanted to look at even five more I adore and think you should definitely take a look at!

1. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

This is one of the most famous craft books on writing, and there’s a clear reason why: Anne Lamott gives you some practical writing tips at the same time she’s delivering a wealth of inspiration. Bird by Bird is short enough that you can read it in full on a rainy afternoon, but it has so many great ideas that you’ll be thinking about it for weeks and weeks afterward. If you haven’t checked this one out yet, do yourself a favor and find yourself a copy!

2. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, by John Gardner

This craft book on writing is a bit more dense than some of the other books I’ve recommended, and it’s one that you can’t just breeze through in an afternoon by any means. I would suggest that this particular book is more for the dedicated novelist who wants to slowly read through a sometimes complicated but overall worthwhile text that gives tons of great tips on how to write a novel, and how to write it well.

3. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, by Syd Field

This craft book is more geared toward screenwriters — obviously — but I tell you, I’ve now read through this book twice, and I even taught a screenwriting class last fall using this textbook, and I truly believe this book is helpful to any writer of narrative. Whether you’re writing a full-length script or a novel, a short film screenplay or a work of short fiction, Field breaks down the very nature of story in this book to such a great degree that there’s so much to get out of every chapter.

4. Writing the Thriller, by T. Macdonald Skillman

Writing the Thriller is a craft book about the art of writing a novel in the thriller / suspense genre. The book is split into sixteen sections, which include important topics like Point of View, Setting and Atmosphere, Dialogue, Pacing, and Theme. This book is helpful in the writing process even if the novel you’re attempting isn’t a part of the suspense genre. Writing the Thriller is reader friendly, with most of the chapters focusing on key ingredients that, when mastered, make any kind of book better.

5. Danse Macabre, by Stephen King

Danse Macabre is a craft book about the field of everything horror, focusing on the history of the genre in a variety of mediums, for the most part between the years 1950 and 1980. It’s not as intensely focused on the art of writing like King’s brilliant 2000 craft book On Writing, but for anyone with even the slightest interest in the horror genre, Danse Macabre is a fascinating and necessary text that should be on your bookshelf. Most of the chapters are filled with helpful tips and wise observations that will give any reader a greater appreciation of the horror field, and I can’t wait to read it again!