Writers crave a steady diet of fierce, thoughtful, and heartbreakingly well-worded books. These books should have the paragraph structure of the gods, dialogue to die for, and a narrative voice you would follow through gates of hell (though it would never lead you there). And it is through enjoying and analyzing these rare and inspired books that writers can best hone their craft.
But which books in particular are good examples of such technical expertise? Well, you could make the argument that you can learn something from just about every book you read—brilliant or not so brilliant. And that even if something is not to your taste, there is something to be gleaned there. But, I have to say, I prefer to learn while enjoying my pants off.
So! To that end, I’ve put together a list of five books I think make great studies for writers. Now, I understand that traditionally, these lists are temporally discriminatory, in order to keep Harry Potter, Twilight, and George R. R. Martin from ruling the world (or rather, this corner of it). However, since I don’t just read books that came out this year, this is not going to be such a list. Instead, I will attempt to immortalize five (just five!) of the many inspiring and instructive books I read this year. (Or maybe the year before. Hey, it’s my first list, cut me a little slack!)
May I present, in no particular order, five books for writers, how I found them, what they’re about, and what you can learn by studying them.
The Book(s): The Dreamblood duology (N.K. Jemisin)
Tags: Paragraph Structure, Narrative Distance
How I Found It: I came across the first book of this series, The Killing Moon, when Tu Books Editorial Director Stacy Whitman tweeted about picking up an Advanced Reader Copy a while back. Curious, I read the sample chapter up on Amazon (my favorite way of picking new books) and I was immediately hooked. Not three weeks later, embarrassingly, I’d read all five of her books. Thank goodness for the immediate gratification of the Kindle!
What It’s About: The summary reads: “In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers – the keepers of this peace. Priests of the dream-goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe . . . and kill those judged corrupt.” Of course, there are quite a few interesting, alternative uses for such holy assassins, aren’t there? Especially when they grow in power and madness when they can’t kill. And when the best of the Gatherers is the brother of Gurjaareh’s ambitious and ruthless Sunset Prince.
What You Can Learn: You can probably tell that I think the paragraph structure in this series is divine, based on the way I dissected and applauded the first paragraph of the second book in this series, The Shadowed Sun, in one of my columns. But aside from that, the things I’m most impressed with are her excellent uses of both telling and showing, which work in concert to create an absorptive rhythm and a beautiful, fablelike flow.
The Book(s): The Brimstone Angels series (Erin M. Evans)
Tags: Dialogue, Character Development
How I Found It: Erin M. Evans is one of my favorite new up-and-coming authors, and has been ever since I picked out one of her short stories for an anthology (you can read her short story, “The Resurrection Agent,” online for free). But I’ve particularly enjoyed this series she’s started, Brimstone Angels. As a side note, she also is currently running a contest on her website (where you can win free books) in honor of the release of the second book in the series, Lesser Evils.
What It’s About: Farideh has always been so very careful—the opposite of her rash twin Havilar. Until one day, faced with the choice between vulnerability and power, Farideh does something her sister would never have done: she chooses power and, inadvertently, a deal with a devil. The Brimstone Angels series has a rich, character-driven plot which, especially in regards to the moral quandaries, in many ways mirrors one of my favorite shows: Supernatural.
What You Can Learn: The dialogue in this book is amazing. Natural, effortless, witty, heartfelt. And the characters have very strong, distinct, but complex personalities. You need only read one scene with a character to be able to know how they would react to any given situation, and what words they would use to describe it. And that is awesome, because it really ups the emotional tension.
The Book(s): The Kingkiller Chronicles (Patrick Rothfuss)
Tags: Description, Voice
How I Found It: When you read a lot of books, you for some reason end up spending a lot of time reading book recommendations. And for some presumably other reason, Patrick Rothfuss kept showing up on every damn list I read. Now, I have a stubborn bone or two in my body, so I resisted it the way I resist all inevitable books.* But once, in a moment of procrastination and weakness, I read the sample chapter online? I had to read the rest.
What It’s About: This is the legend of Kvothe, a man who is both brilliant and brazen, and perhaps not the most politic. It starts at the beginning, with Kvothe’s wild childhood as part of a troupe of traveling players, continues through his ensuing days as a feral orphan, and then tackles his education at a dangerous and difficult school of magic, as we hear the story of how he came to become the notorious magician, thief, musician, and finally assassin that forms the basis of his legend.
What You Can Learn: His descriptions are hypnotic. Poetic and apt, with metaphors and similes that strike a perfect balance between crisp and profound. It’s almost enough to distract you from the other strength you would do well to study: his strong narrative voice. (Seriously? I could just read his descriptions all day, and not even care what they’re about. It’s that ridiculously pretty.)
*I didn’t start reading Harry Potter until someone threw literally it at me and then ran away—and damn my short legs, but I couldn’t catch them. Nor could I leave a book to languish on the ground. It was a short road to addiction after that.
The Book(s): The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)
Tags: Mood, Present Tense, Second Person
How I Found It: I love getting book recommendations from friends, not only because we learn which friends have similar taste to our own, resulting in better reading experiences, but also because it is the only sure way to guarantee I’ll have another person with whom I can discuss the book afterward. And discussing books? Is one of my greatest pleasures, right after reading them. This book came from one of my most trusted reading recommenders.
What It’s About: I think the summary is spot on: “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.” This is the gorgeous, absorptive setting for a contest of wills, started by two ancient magicians, both blinded by their philosophical rivalry, and enacted by their two young pupils, raised to the task without knowledge of the price.
What You Can Learn: What The Night Circus accomplishes more than anything else is creating a world so real, so visceral, so immersive, you can close your eyes and visit it. And while part of that is certainly description and voice, a lot of it is also the author’s uncanny knack for managing and stoking the moods and themes of her book. In addition, this book is written beautifully in present tense, and contains surprisingly awesome examples of second person.
The Book(s): Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology (ed: Charles A. Tan) Tags: Short Story Arcs, Vignettes
How I Found It: One of the places I frequent to keep up to date on SF/Fantasy/Horror news is SF Signal’s Tidbits, written by Charles A. Tan, which collects interviews, news, articles, events, and more from around the web. Tan, it turns out, also just so happens to read a lot, and after following through on a few of his suggestions, I found to my delight that we have similar taste in writing. So, when he edited an anthology, of course I had to check it out.
What It’s About: I’m not quite sure how to properly summarize an anthology of stories! But all the stories in this anthology are speculative fiction and have Filipino-Chinese elements in them. They’re largely very personal stories, as well, which is nice. For a taste of the variety, the summary describes some of the stories thus: “voyeur ghosts, taboo lovers, a town that cannot sleep, the Chinese zodiac, and an exile that finally comes home.”
What You Can Learn: Even in the best of anthologies, there are usually a few stories that, while good, are not quite to my taste. Lauriat surprised me in that I really enjoyed every single story. One of the reasons was that every story either had a nice, strong arc, or was that rarest of beasts, a truly satisfying vignette. The other was that each story was an excellent example of how to take an innovative thought and flesh it out until it is a full (and fulfilling) story.
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