The Reading Writer: Learn from The Novels You Love

Most of us were readers long before we became writers. We first taste, appreciate, and then consider ‘can I make something like this myself’? This is true of all art forms.

I didn’t study writing at university. I went in a completely different direction. But when I did begin to consider further education in writing, I quickly realised that everything I needed to know and, more importantly, how I wanted to write could be found in the pages of the books I loved reading.

In a society that endows only the graduate with the right to call themselves a professional, it’s tempting to want to go back to school for an MFA so you can rightfully call yourself a writer. And, maybe, if I’d had the money to do so, I might have caved to social pressure.

Luckily, I didn’t. I found a lot of advice from successful writers saying that the best way to improve your writing is to read. That made sense to me. After all, reading had inspired me to write in the first place. Why not go back to reading for my education?

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”― Stephen King

As I considered reading for educational purposes, I endeavoured to read more widely and purposefully. I sought out comparative literature reading lists from prominent institutions. I started paying closer attention to literature prize-winning books, past and present. And I changed how I read.

I started a reading journal to capture my thoughts and any quotes, new words, or striking sentences I encountered. I slowed down my reading to pay closer attention to sentence structure and punctuation. I took my existing love for reading and turned it into my education simply by being more intentional about what I read and more mindful when I read.

I learned a great deal about writing this way, but I gained more than just an education. This approach trained me to think more deeply about what I was reading. It inspired ideas and helped me form a habit of exploring those ideas. It showed me what I wanted to write about.

This is not to say that your reading should become boring or that you should read books you don’t enjoy purely because they are exalted as classics of literature. No. Continue to read what you love because what you love is a strong hint toward the direction you should probably take your own writing.

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”― Toni Morrison

Think of Toni Morrison’s advice to write the book you want to read. It follows, then, that you should read the kinds of books you’d like to write.

I wanted to share with you a list of the novels that I have both loved and learnt from. If you’re hoping for a reading list of the ‘classics’, you might be disappointed. What’s on offer is simply a list of the books I loved reading and which taught me something important about storytelling.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Thankfully, I read this beautiful love story long before the movie came out. The movie was good, but it left out most of what the book taught me about how to structure a story that spans a lifetime and involves a character not beholden to linear time.

What worked so beautifully about The Time Traveler’s Wife was how Niffenegger chose to structure the story. The order of events and the point of view of the story both served to clarify and surprise in different parts of the book. It showed the importance of picking the point of view that best tells the story, which isn’t always the character you think it’ll be.

This book was a great lesson in story structure and an enjoyable love story with a sci-fi twist.

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

I’m a sucker for a book that takes me somewhere I’ve never been before. The Hungry Tide is set in the Sundarbans, a cluster of 102 islands in the Bay of Bengal and the largest coastal mangrove forest in the world. It is a unique and awesome environment.

The magic of Ghosh’s novel is its powerful sense of place. The Sundarbans is a living, breathing, multi-faceted character that plays the most important role in the book. The Hungry Tide shows that some story settings are far more the mere backdrops. They have the power to act and affect, to drive and star in the story.

This book taught me the power of place. Some settings are characters in themselves. It is also a stunning novel about overlapping worlds: animal and human, traditional and modern, urban and rural.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic novel that follows Hig and his dog, Jasper, as they try to survive in a world where most of the world’s population has been wiped out by a flu pandemic.

The beauty of this novel is in its details. Heller has done an incredible job of showing through the use of great details. Early in the book, Hig and Jasper live in an abandoned house but at night they don’t sleep in it. Instead, they leave the lights in the house on and then sleep outside a distance away so they can see anyone coming because a house with lights on attracts other people. That detail communicated a lot of story. It shows that people can’t be trusted and are hunting other people. It shows that living in a house — something that used to make us feel safe — is a way to get yourself killed. And it shows the old ways of living are dead. One detail but massive storytelling power.

This book taught me it’s all in the details and I really enjoyed reading it.

Peace Like A River by Leif Enger

Peace Like A River is about character, family, faith, and unconditional love. It is heartachingly beautiful with prose to die for. This book shows the power of theme. The story itself is simple in its events, there are no major twists and turns. The impact of the story is in its message.

Enger has woven words and created characters so meaningfully that every moment in the book is thick with theme. It’s a heady experience reading Peace Like A River, and an achievement every writer would be proud to call their own.

This book taught me about theme and the depth of characterisation needed to carry it.

The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing

This is a powerful story that tackles prejudice, privilege, power, and murder. The genius of this book has to do with perspective. Lessing tells the story from one perspective most of the way through the book and then at the end she hits you with a sledgehammer by showing the same events from the different perspective of another character.

This book taught me the power of perspective, how one event can be perceived as both good and evil depending on the character’s perspective. An unforgettable and brave novel.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of Pi is a well-known story. It is beautifully written, imaginative, and wonderful to read. But the kicker of this book is its ending. You thought you knew what happened and when you get to the end you realised there’s a massive question mark.

That question mark is what makes this book special. It asks you, ‘are you sure you know what happened’? Life of Pi teaches the power of the ending to provoke big questions about big themes like human resilience, truth, and human nature.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Hard-Boiled Wonderland is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s Alice-in-wonderland, world-inside-out-and-up-side-down weird, but you get a clear sense that it’s saying something important about consciousness. That’s my take, anyway.

The lesson from Hard-Boiled Wonderland is in its world-building and the messages you can communicate through that but, much like Life of Pi, the ending is where it all comes together. You go through the whole book thinking these made-up worlds exist only to get to the end and question everything you thought you knew.

It also teaches that a story can be powerful without explicitly communicating the ending — you can leave some stories’ endings up to the reader.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day is a historical novel which tells the story of Darlington Hall’s long-serving butler, Stevens, as he recounts the glory days of the past and tries to figure out what’s next for him as the period of lords, manor houses, and butlers comes to a close.

This book has a lot going for it. It won the 1989 Booker prize, after all. I loved reading this book, but the big takeaway for me was dialogue and character.

Stevens’ dialogue tells half the story. I realised that in stories that deal with different times and places, you can use dialogue to show these differences and drive the story.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni was a mesmerising and rich reading experience. I’m still waiting for the sequel, years later. This story is a historical romance that blends mythology, culture, and immigration. It is richly detailed and beautifully crafted.

I came away from this book with a profound appreciation for the research Wecker did to bring this unique novel to life. With good research, you can breathe new life into old characters of mythology and create something magnificent. Research also means you get good details, which abound in this book.

The Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis

I loved this short book. The Screwtape Letters is about spiritual life and where we humans sometimes go wrong. It’s told from the point of view of the demon Screwtape in the form of letters to his nephew, a demon on Earth trying to tempt a man down the wrong path.

This book is a good example of form, particularly the epistolary form, and how you can explore different forms to communicate a message in unique and impactful ways. It’s also a good example of how you can use a character from an opposing perspective to give your message more weight or emphasis. It’s also very funny and light despite its subject matter.

Here are a few more of my favourite novels that echo some of the lessons I’ve already discussed:

How To Stop Time by Matt Haig
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Euphoria by Lily King
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Ice Child by Elizabeth McGregor
The Passage Trilogy by Justin Cronin

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