Thursday, August 11, 2016

Writers, Read This Book!

If you want to be a writer, you have to read. A lot. A whole lot.

The more you read, the more you notice writing styles you admire. The more you read, the more you notice how the authors create that style you like. Then, comes the hard part: creating your own style.

I'm going to share some books that I think provide useful guidance for all writers, whether you're writing short blog posts or the next great American novel. Some will be fiction, others will be nonfiction. They just have to be helpful, entertaining, and relate to writing.

To start off this series of book recommendations, I thought I'd start with a fun, yet complex work of fiction that models excellent first-chapter writing--times 10. Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Stranger (1979) pushes impatient book lovers to the limit. If you must finish a story, you may not like this book. Just breathe into a paper bag and read it anyway.

The main story line takes "the Reader" through an experience of reading the first chapters of 10 different books. What prevents him (and therefore us) from progressing beyond the first? The book he buys only contains the first chapter, and then to correct the mistake the publisher sends him the wrong replacement book, which also is defective. He meets with the publisher, who gives him the first-chapter manuscript of another book, etc. One cruel twist after another leads him to seemingly endless dead ends as he tries to finish the story, any story!

Why would I recommend such a frustrating book? Simply put, introductions and first chapters are hard, and Calvino nails several in a single book. In my favorite first chapter, the character is running, something his doctor said would "calm his nerves." However, as the character runs, his train of thought runs away as well. I felt that character's panic and confusion and the intensity of his situation. Turns out, his panic was justified after all. By the end of the chapter, I was sincerely invested and wanted to know what came next.

His style and mechanics are worth studying and possibly emulating.

In addition to providing exemplary literary devices, If on a Winter's Night also discusses the experiences of writers, readers, and their relationship to each other. I can't count how many times I said as I read, "That's me. I do that too." If anything, read this book to feel understood both as a reader and a writer.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? What books have helped you develop as a writer?

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