Paperback Writer: 10 Writing Lessons from Vintage Paperback Books

The advice to read widely is sound, but are you broadening your horizons enough? Forgotten paperback books from decades past can offer essential writing lessons as capably as any new hardback.
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The advice to read widely is sound, but are you broadening your horizons enough? Forgotten paperback books from decades past can offer essential writing lessons as capably as any new hardback.

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Here’s an awkward confession from a writer trying to make a living from his work: I love a good used bookstore. Nothing beats walking out with a stack of books for pennies apiece. One of the most overlooked aspects of a secondhand store, however, is how it acts as a time machine.

Every writer is admonished to read widely. This is usually interpreted to mean that you should read outside your preferred genre—and that’s true enough. But it also means you should read outside your current time period. It’s easy to become locked into a chase for what’s modern and hot, the trends that are getting published right now, today. But the books being published today are the tail end of trends that started two years ago; the past has a lot to teach you; and it’s all happening at the used bookstore.

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Good writing wasn’t invented in the year 2000. These old novels and collections, many of which you’ve probably never heard of, are chock-full of writing lessons. If you want to learn how to pen a great story, you could do a lot worse than to study old paperbacks and see what the past masters were doing decades ago—which is exactly what I’ve done in my own career. The following 10 paperback books were purchased in funky, dimly-lit used bookstores over the years, and each one has taught me something vital I employ in my own writing every single day.

Writing Lessons from 10 Often-Forgotten Paperback Books

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Paperback: Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler (1962).

Lesson: Good storytelling is future-proof.

This story of accidental nuclear war (which was so similar to Stanley Kubrick’s film Doctor Strangelove and the novel it was based on, Red Alert, that Kubrick sued) should in theory be dated. Instead, it’s a gripping, tense story that keeps you flipping pages even though we’re no longer as worried about atomic Armageddon (for the most part) as we were at the height of the Cold War. Burdick and Wheeler teach a very important lesson: Stakes matter. Not only is the entire world in danger, but each character has something personal at stake that weighs their actions with real gravitas—and that’s an evergreen lesson for any writer.

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Paperback:A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman (1978).

Lesson: Everything is world-building.

This is a work of nonfiction, detailing the chaos and upheaval that plagued Europe in the 14th century. Tuchman’s magic was making history seem like an exciting adventure story, and she makes the brilliant decision to use a single person as a unifying figure who grounds the swirl of history in the personal. More importantly, Tuchman world-builds, laying out the politics and culture of the various regions at play. I realize now that her technique is no different from, say, George R.R. Martin’s in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, because the 14th century might as well be a fantasyland to modern readers. Seeing the way she drops details and weaves together the various aspects of life in the Middle Ages is basically a master class in world-building, grounded in the real world.

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Paperback:Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard (1988).

Lesson: Good writing doesn’t have to be formal.

Sure, Leonard is pretty famous and not hard to find new on the shelves, but my experience picking this one up on a whim was formative because of the opening lines: “Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, 2 in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb. What happened, a guy by the name of Booker, a 25-year-old super-dude twice-convicted felon, was in his Jacuzzi when the phone rang.” The only thing technically right about those two sentences—especially once you realize Leonard is employing an anonymous omnipotent narrator—is that he capitalized the brand name “Jacuzzi.” At the time, it was a revelation to realize writing could be conversational and casual and still, you know, great. Like a lot of writers, I was going through a phase where I thought everything I wrote had to be super important and poetic, and Leonard’s simple, elegant prose was a jolt back to reality.

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Paperback:Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956).

Lesson: What’s considered shocking today won’t be shocking tomorrow.

One of the most interesting lessons you learn in a used bookstore is that the paperbacks that were sensational—those considered groundbreaking or edgy or a bit naughty back in the day—eventually seem tame and a little quaint. Published in 1956, Peyton Place was the sort of book that got people riled up, with plot points revolving around extramarital sex, incest (!) and abortion. Nowadays those storylines each have a sublist on the Amazon Bestsellers page. The takeaway: You should never self-censor your work or assume that it’s too shocking to sell. While Fifty Shades of Grey might have seemed racy because of the graphic S&M content, in a few short years it’ll be amusing to think anyone could be so easily offended by shackles and riding crops.

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Paperback: The Right Man for the Job by Mike Magnuson (1997).

Lesson: Your opening line doesn’t have to be a line.

Among the writing tips that get passed around the most is the insistence that your opening line should be “grabby”—that it immediately draws readers into the story so they don’t get bored and slide your book back onto the shelf. And sure, that’s good advice as far as it goes, but it makes young writers—including a Young Yours Truly, wearing shapeless khakis and glasses the approximate size of the moon—think that you have to start every story with a real line, a razor-sharp sentence that incises itself into your reader’s memory. Magnuson’s underrated debut novel, however, does no such thing. Instead, it opens with a rambling paragraph, a stream-of-consciousness monologue of self-reflection. There’s nothing sharp about it. But it grabbed me in the bookstore and never let go.

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Paperback:MASH by Richard Hooker (1968).

Lesson: You should be able to sketch a character in one paragraph.

Did you know that the classic sitcom of the 1970s and 1980s, M*A*S*H, actually had source material? I sure didn’t. Stumbling across this work in a bookstore, I initially assumed it was some sort of terrible tie-in novelization published at the height of the show’s popularity. It was actually published in 1968 and was the source for both the television show and Robert Altman’s classic 1970 film. And what’s remarkable, when you crack it open, is how effortlessly Hooker introduces the character of Radar O’Reilly. In one brief paragraph you get a full sense of who this person is, formed up in your mind completely—in one paragraph. It’s a little master class in writing, and demonstrates how short descriptions and anecdotes can reveal so much more by way of subtext and suggestion.

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Paperback:Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg (1972).

Lesson: Superpowers don’t necessarily mean superhero.

When I was a kid, most of the short stories I wrote (and the books I read) were science fiction and fantasy, and generally involved an unassuming young man suddenly finding himself with superpowers, or in a fantasy world … where he suddenly had superpowers. There’s a reason, after all, that these sorts of stories are so popular; wish-fulfillment is a powerful motivator. When I came across the startling cover of this paperback, I bought it for a quarter without knowing much about it. It’s the story of a man who was born with the ability to read minds, and details the slow death of this ability as he moves into middle age. His bafflement and panic as his secret power slowly fades just underscores the fact that he used his ability to secure minor advantages for himself throughout life. He wasn’t a superhero or a supervillain. He wasn’t super anything, and the idea that you could tell a story about someone with superpowers who doesn’t dabble in the balance between good and evil was—and remains—pretty damn exciting.

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Paperback:The Floating Admiral by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, et al. (1931).

Lesson: Even the greats screw up.

Christie is one of the bestselling authors of all time, and the writer of several works of absolute genius—as are Sayers, Chesterton and the others who worked on this roundabout, wherein each writer drafts a chapter and passes it on to the next to continue the story. That notion crops up every now and then as a clever idea for a compilation and almost always fails—but rarely as spectacularly and completely as in this muddled, meandering mystery novel. As a huge fan of almost every writer involved, it was kind of comforting to know that even the greats occasionally make terrible decisions—and write truly awful books.

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Paperback: Bored of the Ringsby Harvard Lampoon editors Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney (1969).

Lesson: Have a sense of humor about your work.

So, I may have alluded to my love of sci-fi and fantasy novels as a kid. In fact, The Lord of the Rings was the third book series I ever read, and it embedded in me the idea that a book of true power needed to be super serious. I mean, it’s not like Tolkien had zero sense of humor, but his wit tended to linger on the fringes of the tale—the main story was supposed to be dire and earth-shaking and monumental, and it convinced me that my own work had to be the same. Thus reading this riotous, horribly dated, slightly immature parody of Tolkien’s greatest work by the founders of the National Lampoon was eye-opening. It taught me that being solemn and weighty often invites mockery, and that the more serious you are, the more fun can be had at your expense. Ever since, when someone mocks my writing, I try to remember that it’s actually—in some ways—a compliment.

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Paperback:Sharpe’s Eagle by Bernard Cornwell (1981).

Lesson: Read outside your comfort zone.

Perhaps the best thing about cheap used books is the cheap part, because you can purchase recklessly. I was a callow juvenile when I came across Sharpe’s Eagle and had never heard of the character Richard Sharpe, or Cornwell (or Patrick O’Brian or Horatio Hornblower, for that matter). If you’d asked “Callow Jeff” if historical fiction set during the Napoleonic Wars was his jam, he would have finished his wine cooler and offered a definitive, No. But this book just sort of called out to me and was so thoroughly enjoyable it inspired a real tear of historical fiction reading—reading that continues to inform and influence my writing to this very day.

Reading is the number one way writers can expand their toolset, and while the desire to have the newest, coolest tools is natural, don’t forget that most of those hardbacks were built on the cornerstones of past masters. Next time you come across a used bookstore, go in with a handful of change and take a few moments to buy some books you might not be familiar with, but which have really cool covers—the sort of cracked, well-loved covers that indicate someone really, really enjoyed that book. You might be amazed at the tricks of the trade you can pick up for pennies on the dollar.

This article originally appeared in Writer's Digest magazine. Subscribe today to get WD all year long.

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