This week, we've been racking our brains to choose just one book that helped make each of us a better writer. Whether it's a well-known childhood favourite or a beautifully written collection of short stories, each of us has our reasons and we may just surprise you with our recommendations.
I think every book a writer reads helps them improve in some small way, so a writer needs to read greedily, and forensically. Enter a dialogue with writers through their words - why have you chosen this verb? How much heavy lifting is it doing in this sentence? What did you mean by that metaphor? Why are you focusing on this, now, and now, this?
Of course, you won’t do this with every book you pick up; you’d drive yourself mad and probably give up reading altogether within about six months; but I would say if you find yourself returning time and again to books by the same author, find a quiet moment now and again to play close attention to what exactly it is they’re doing so right. It’s clearly working for you, and you can learn so much from the things you love.
The book I think I learnt most from is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver. Although my stories don’t have Carver’s brevity, he taught me that you can trust your reader to figure out what’s going on. You don’t need to provide acres of detailed exposition and backstory before you get to the crux of the story. This book taught me that a short story can, and usually should, start bang in the middle of the action. A beginner writer often takes a good long run-up before the story starts properly. That’s fine - but Carver’s stories taught me that it’s better to delete that whole lengthy introduction, which is basically the equivalent of the writer warming up on the starting line. By all means, do your warm-ups - but there’s no need for anyone to have to read them.
Which brings me to the next lesson reading Carver taught me - to edit, edit and edit some more. And when you’ve think you’ve edited enough, edit again. If your chosen form is short fiction, less is always more.
Carver’s stories also taught me that simple vocabulary is often the most effective; that a well-drawn character is the be-all and end-all of fiction; and that not much has to happen for a story to be compelling. Just show people, being people, in such a way that your reader just can’t look away from them, because of what might happen.
All the above makes writing short fiction sound easy, and Carver’s stories certainly make it seem so. But it isn’t easy - it’s hard work. And that is the most valuable lesson of all.
Lives Other Than My Own by Emmanuel Carrère was a turning point. This book unlocked something in me; while I was reading it something connected and I suddenly understood what good writers mean when they say ‘write what you know’.
This book is one that I would never have read without having my arm twisted. Ostensibly, it’s a nonfiction book based on Carrère’s observation of other people’s lives during a number of significant events, which tend to err on the tragic side. But what it really is, at least to me, is a study of self. The author doesn’t shy away from writing down his thoughts, even if they are petty, or selfish. While on the surface he’s writing about these huge events - the aftermath of a tsunami, the sudden and slow death of children and family members respectively - he so beautifully picks out and focuses on little moments that pack a huge wallop.
I learned a few things from this book:
How to write what you know
This book taught me how to reach inside of myself for little granules of truth. I started by writing these down undiluted, and then graduated to weaving them into larger works of fiction. I learned how to stitch my own grief into a story. I learned how to build parts of myself into characters, to give them a little extra spark of soul. I figured out how to notice what I was feeling and experiencing, and then draw on it for inspiration and depth. I started to learn how to bring emotion into my work and create prose with the ability to move a reader.
How to create characters with genuine nuance
Before this book, I don’t think I ever properly appreciated that a character could be cowardly, have selfish thoughts or be genuinely less than perfect (in other words, human) and still be a good guy and likeable. And I’m not talking about being lovably grumpy or giving characters false bad habits that are actually poorly disguised humblebrags. In fact, these days, I think I prefer a character who’s a bit of a dick at times. I suspect that’s why we enjoy anti-heroes so much. Build in some shades of grey; ironically, it adds a lot of extra colour to a character.
Moving between big picture and little moments
Sometimes when I’m pushing through a plot, after that initial rush of energy has dropped off a bit, the story starts to feel mechanical. I think that’s because I’m too high level, moving from action to action, describing the big picture - I’m not writing from within the story anymore, I’m above it, describing what I see. That distance makes me miss the little details that make the narrative feel real. We humans don’t just notice the big things that are happening around us; our attention wanders and we notice weird little things. A lot of life happens in those little particles of reality, in those odd fleeting thoughts. Don’t forget about them.
The books that really touch us are different for us all. When you stumble across something that opens your eyes, you’ll know it; don’t ignore it. And give Lives Other My Own a go. There’s an odd bit all about the French legal system in the middle but otherwise it’s fantastic read.
I'm not exactly sure I know how to answer this because I've always been taught that to be a good writer you must be a good reader, so with that in mind every single book I've ever read has made me a better writer.
If I have to choose one, the first that came to mind was Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree. Not for any earth shattering reason, it's just the first book I can remember reading repeatedly, wanting to dive right into the world she'd created. It's also the first book that I went back to, as a teen, to try and figure out why I was so drawn into the narrative and invested in the characters. It's undeniable that Blyton had a fantastic hold on how to capture a child's mind with storytelling, and make them fall in love with reading.
While I don't personally write for a young audience, it's the use of narrative, characterisation and other devices to capture the intended audience perfectly that I strive to emulate. Having an example of that at such a young age, that I could return to and figure out all the how's and why's, as well as making me want to figure them out, is why The Magic Faraway Tree made me a better writer. It made me ask the questions, find the answers and strive to emulate the aspects I liked, but in a way that suited my writing and my audiences.
Now, if I'd chosen a book that made me a writer because of all the things I didn't want to emulate, that would have been an entirely different answer...
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Cover image by Gabrielle Dickson via Unsplash