Friday, April 20, 2018

5 Books That Taught Me Everything I Know About Writing

Okay, not really. It took more than five books. And everything I know about writing didn't solely come from reading--a huge part of it came from working with editors through the years, starting with Jacqui Bianchi back at Mills & Boon  (!?).

But a lot of what I've learned did come simply through reading.

Here are five of what I consider my "break-thru" books.

SUBTEXT - The Hollow by Agatha Christie 

What the hell are these people talking about??!!! That was my initial reaction reading The Hollow. I was in high school and I was on a mission to read every book written by Christie. The Hollow turned out to be one of my all time favorites by her, but when I started reading it I was confused by the fact that the Angkatells were clearly speaking in code to each other. Even the servants were speaking in code to the Angkatells! So much of the conversation was verbal shorthand. In fact, most of the key communication was unspoken or delivered in the personal, private language of families.

This was the first time I understood what was meant by subtext and saw how very effective it could be in, amongst other things, illustrating relationship dynamics.

 BACKSTORY - Weep and Know Why by Elizabeth Ogilvie 

Did I miss something? This was another book I read in high school, and a lot of it takes place in flashback, which I was a little confused by. Not because I hadn't read stories with flashbacks before, but because the flashbacks were woven so subtly, so craftily throughout the text. No asterisks, no double spaces, no time stamp. Just the memories of Mirabell as she's working her way through some pretty terrifying events.

Not just that, it was clear that all the characters had complicated histories and relationships, i.e., backstory and Ogilvie did not painstakingly explain them all in convenient info dumps for the slower kids in the class. I had to read the whole book to understand both past and present--which is how it's supposed to be, though that didn't dawn on me until this very book.

SETTING - The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart

I read The Moonspinners in junior high school. I'd seen the movie and I was a little taken aback at how very different the book was--but in the end was won over entirely. It was wonderful, and one of the most wonderful parts about it was how vivid the descriptions were of...well, everything. Everywhere. Every single place the heroine went...from the goat-scented interior of a gassy, groaning bus to the chilly dank interior of a tomb... it was all so real.

In fact, the writing was so evocative, I didn't skim past all "The Description" as I usually did with the generic settings in so many novels. This was the book where I realized that setting was a key element of making the story world come to life.

DIALOG - The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer

Okay, this--possibly my all-time favorite of Heyer's work--is a beautiful illustration of how to handle subtext, backstory, and setting, but what really made Heyer stand out for my junior high school self was the dialog. It wasn't just what Heyer's characters said--though my God, she was funny--no, witty--it was their delivery too. The timing! The expressions! The tone! It was a revelation to see how someone who understood how to use descriptive tags could enhance already really strong dialog.

Even as a very inexperienced aspiring writer I couldn't help noticing that every single conversation was either amusing in its own right or served to advance the story. There was no filler, no babble, no turning pages to get to the action because there was plenty of entertaining action in the dialog itself.

METAPHOR - The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

I didn't get around to reading Chandler until I was in college, and had it not been part of the course curriculum I probably wouldn't have read it then (which means...holy moly! I might not have ended up marrying the SO--because it was at least partly our love of hard-boiled fiction and Chandler that
brought us together)! Anyway, until college I assumed Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald were all on a par with Mike Hammer and The Executioner. :-D So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across lines like:

“He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.”

“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.”

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”

Coming from the world of He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree, this was enlightenment. Until that moment my use of metaphor had been constrained to similes.

BREVITY - Fadeout by Joseph Hansen

Ironically, Hansen was a writer who knew his way around a metaphor or two--as evidenced by his work as James Colton--but part of what set him apart from his contemporaries, was his sparing, occasionally spartan, use of language. Less is more was the lesson I learned from Hansen--and it was a lesson that came long after college and after I had published my own first novel. Quality over quantity. Cut, cut, cut down the bone. Brevity, may or may not be the soul of wit, but the tighter the prose, the sharper the point.

Any books change the way you write or even the way you read? Share them below!


  1. Wonderful post! Couldn't agree more. Getting these things right makes such an incredibly huge difference.

  2. Jane Austen is and always has been my biggest inspiration--which is ridiculously cliche, but also very true.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful, evoking post, Josh.

    Along with Josh Lanyon books—which truly have changed my life—I love, love, LOVE both Hansen and Chandler. And thanks to you, also Mary Renault's The Charioteer is one of my very favorite, earthmoving reading experiences.

    Long before that it was Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck who shook my reading self. Specifically Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which was the first book I ever read from him. And before those two it was Guy De Maupassant and his efficient and powerful short stories that really were a massive 'a-ha!' moment for me in high school.

    By the way, I just bought both Weep And Know Why and The Hollow, so thank you for the recommendation! Again. :-)

  4. Wow Josh! All books that I have read and loved especially books by Elisabeth Ogilvie. We moved to Maine because of her! Came here on vacation and fell in love. Thank you.

  5. I love seeing THE MASQUERADERS on this list! One of my all-time favorite books, and it doesn't get nearly enough attention for the perfect dialog, queer plot, delightful characters, sly humor, and nonstop action.