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5 Things The Great Books Taught Me About Writing

Categories: Craft & Technique, Guest Post.

Today’s guest post is by Robert Bruce, a full-time writer and a book blogger at 101 Books, where he is currently blogging through Time Magazine’s 100 All-Time Novels. Follow him on Twitter

Last summer, I started a personal quest to read through Time Magazine’s “All-Time” Top 100 books (plus Ulysses), blogging about the experience as I read.

What started as a project to reignite my love for fiction has also become a casual study of how some incredible authors approach writing.

As a nonfiction writer, I’ve always errantly sought inspiration within my own world of writing. But reading these novels has helped me see that the other side of the street isn’t all that different.

I’m still early in this 101 book project—16 books completed—but here’s what I’ve learned so far:   

1. Choose substance over style.
In deference to the title of the blog on which I am guest posting, “There are no rules.” Read George Orwell, John Updike, and Cormac McCarthy consecutively, and you’ll see that there’s no formulaic method to writing well. Every great author has a unique style, but they all have one thing common—powerful stories.

2. Embrace the dark side.
Bad things happen in real life. Some of the most powerful passages I’ve ever read were also some of the most depressing passages I’ve read. Whether it’s Janice Angstrom accidentally drowning her infant daughter in Rabbit, Run or Joelle Van Dyne attempting to kill herself with heroin in Infinite Jest, some downright brutal stuff happens in great fiction—as in real life.

3. Open with a bang.
I love the opening line of Lord of the Flies: “The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.” So many questions: Who is the boy with fair hair? Why is he climbing down a rock? Why is a kid in a lagoon? Great books have a way of pulling the reader in within the first page. The writer doesn’t necessarily have to drop you into the middle of a car crash or fiery explosion, but they paint a picture of a setting or a scenario that’s hard to resist.

4. Explore deeper issues.
I think a misconception about fiction is that it serves only as an escape. While everything isn’t spelled out in black and white, every good novel has great lessons buried within. What can you learn about power from 1984? Or social justice from To Kill A Mockingbird? Or self-indulgence from Infinite Jest?

5. Read with purpose.
It’s been said many times before: To write well, you must read, read, read. But don’t read passively, as if you’re skimming a biology textbook in high school. Unengaged reading will never spark creative writing. Read with a purpose. Highlight. Look for something that moves you, and keep coming back to it. 

If you’re struggling with the pen lately, read a little Hemingway, Orwell, Fitzgerald. What better people to emulate, and be inspired by, than some of the greatest writers to walk the planet? Just find some of the great books and read them. Your writing will thank you. 

Go visit Robert’s blog, or follow him on Twitter.

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7 Responses to 5 Things The Great Books Taught Me About Writing

  1. C Fisher says:

    I’d add Muriel Spark’s Girls of Slender Means and Memento Mori, and any novel by Elizabeth Taylor (the English novelist not the Hollywood star). They’re fine examples of the importance of characters with substance, a looser narrative structure or drive and just letting a novel end without the need to explain everything.

    Good luck with the project. I’m using Arnold Bennett’s How to Form a Literary Taste as the basis of my reading list as I attempt to indeed form a literary taste. The results can seen at:
    http://literarytaste.wordpress.com/

  2. D.G. Hudson says:

    What a great project, Robert, to try and read some of the old classics!

    I’m currently trying to read Flaubert on my e-reader since he’s mentioned many times as having influence on some of the greats, like Hemingway. Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books sit on my reading table (these are physical books). Had to acquire those after visiting literary and artistic haunts in Paris last year, and Key West several years earlier.

    This post offers some great suggestions. I’ve found that I’m reading now with an eye towards how the author is constructing his tale. It slows me down a bit, but gives me ideas as well.

    Good Luck on getting through the list!

  3. Annotation Nation (http://annotationnation.wordpress.com/) was founded by fiction writers Kate Maruyama and Diane Sherlock for the same reasons you describe. In annotating books for Antioch’s MFA program in Fiction, we examined books in terms of craft. These aren’t reviews (although you will hear definite opinions expressed) or critical essays, but a closer look at writing, answering questions such as, “What made that so great?” “Why didn’t this work for me?” or, more importantly, “How’d they do that and how can I use it in my own writing?” We just added a Creative Non-Fiction page as well.

  4. This is a good reminder, especially number one. It seems that market forces put pressure on creating a unique style and voice so much that it is easy to forget that the substance is king. Muchas gracias.

  5. Subscribing to Robert’s blog made me want to create a list of books to read in order to learn from them. Its a great idea and it has evidently paid off so far. Congratulations on the guest post at "There are no Rules"! These are great tips to keep in mind when reading.

  6. Great piece, Robert. I agree with all your suggestions. My favorite is to choose substance over style. Find a great story and tell it. In the telling, you will find your voice and style.

  7. Mary Tod says:

    Thanks for this great list to keep us writers on track. I think I will post it on my bulletin board.
    To add to the conversation, two good friends gave me a book a while ago called Write Like the Masters by William Cane. In it, Cane describes and illustrates the techniques and strengths of twenty-one legendary authors including Balzac, Dickens, Wharton, and Hemingway. I dip into Cane’s examples time and again particularly as I edit – perhaps it could add to the reading you are doing?

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