Whether your focus in fiction writing is in comics, screenplays, or good ol’ fashioned novels, every writer can agree that one of the most important tools you can have is a well read, well versed mind. The more you read (in your genre/medium and outside of it), the more ideas you are exposed to; the more you are exposed to, the more you can imagine and create. So here are, in my humble albeit noble opinion, the ten fiction titles which I feel every writer should read.
In no particular order:
1. 1984 – George Orwell
Yes, Big Brother is watching you. Many of us were supposed to read this one in high school, and we picked up the Cliffnotes, the movie, or just didn’t bother at all. But seriously – if you’ve never read it, you are missing out. A story of political upheaval and the question of self, the story is told in such simplistic language you can read it in little over an hour, and only after you finish do you realize how terrifyingly accurate it is to the human mind and governmental spirit. This book is a classic for a reason, and proof you don’t need a thesaurus to write.
Folklore, myths etc., are the spine of storytelling, and every tale every writer will ever tell is going to follow this format – whether they realize it or not. Think about it: we have a main character that has a problem, goes out into the world to solve said problem, has a bunch of adventures along the way, main character dies or lives happily ever after. So get yourself in the know and study the true foundations of the format – not the Disney versions. These tales are filled with death, mayhem, midgets, forbidden sex, torture – you name it. Plus, fairy tales are inspirational. Your new story could be an updated version of the original Little Mermaid… maybe instead of her trying to get legs, she captures the prince and cuts his off to sew on a fishtail.
(And if anybody actually writes that story, I want a credit!)
3. Imajica – Clive Barker
By far the best work Clive has ever done. If you write fantasy, sci-fi, or any other nook that has you creating parallel worlds and weird, terrifying and enduring creatures, then please read this book so you can see how it’s done correctly. Don’t let the enormous page count fool you – Mr. Barker’s creation of multiple dimensions and worlds is not only beautifully written, but easy to understand; this is the go-to book to learn how to tell an epic story with no fat – just lean, tender goodness. Ten pages in and you will know-breath-live these characters, and have an overwhelming desire to climb inside the book and live there forever. I laughed, I cried, I flung the book across the room in anger. And then I picked it up and started again from the beginning – because it’s just that good.
4. The Border Trilogy – Cormac McCarthy
Write brutal. Write without shame. Don’t worry about those silly grammar rules you learn in school. And ignore the need to construct a basic sentence. You don’t need any of that bullshit where we’re going.
This may very well have been what the voice in Cormac McCarthy’s head was whispering when he began writing the Border Trilogy. The three books – All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain – break every tradition of conventional storytelling, but you hardly notice. Okay that’s a lie. You definitely notice, but you don’t care. Whether that’s because you’re too affected by the plot or too busy trying to crawl through page long sentences with no punctuation…
Either way, you can learn much from reading these books, specifically how not to be afraid to write what those voices tell you to, and how to alter the basic formatting in order to elevate your story to where it needs to be.
5. American Gods – Neil Gaiman
It’s Neil Gaiman – which pretty much speaks for itself. Yes, the book is entertaining, and thought provoking, and has the occasional emotional upheaval. I could go on forever about what an awesome story it is. But the reason “American Gods” made this list is not just the cool plot and the stellar writing, but the amazing amount of research and imagination that went into this text.
As we discussed with Grimm’s Fairy Tales – every story every writer will ever tell follows the style and art of myth/folklore. And this book is a beautiful modern example on how stories that are centuries old can be updated, expanded, and made to live and breathe again; how a story never truly ends, but just keeps moving and flowing as long as there is someone to witness it. Need to mix genres with history and legend? This one’s for you.
6. The Bible – Anonymous, Unknown, N/A
Yes, I’m being totally serious. This book is filled with everything you could ever want in a story: love, revenge, witches, wars, deceit, betrayals, miracles, good sex, savior complexes, and a constant battle between good and evil. And each tale has the framework to be adapted into a kick ass 21st century movie or book. Like any myth, folklore, or fairytale, the Bible is full of inspiration. Just forget it has anything to do with religion, and get to reading. (There are lots of different translations of the Bible – I’m a fan of the NIV myself)
7. Now is the Time to Open Your Heart – Alice Walker
Nothing happens in this book. There is no driving plot, no explosions, no long lost loves found – which is why it’s on this list. The text is purely a character study, subtly inviting the reader on a journey of the mind and spirit, bouncing between political epiphanies and self discovery. This is one of those fiction books that makes you rethink who you are, how you relate to the world, and how the world relates to you. As far as style, it’s also a book that uses no quotations or other grammatical tools to signify speaking parts or thoughts, which creates a feel you’ll have to experience to understand. And oddly enough, it’s that little detail which makes this tale outstanding.
Vonnegut definitely has his own style that flashes like a neon sign in every manuscript he ever penned. There is a blatant piece of himself in all of his characters and stories, and every writer should be acquainted with that method of delivery. Vonnegut can give you a whole new take on that whole “write what you know”, “every character is you” advice given out at conferences and in classrooms… particularly if what you know can’t be proven by modern science but still makes a damn good tale.
9. The Long Walk – Stephan King as Richard Bachman
You want to learn how to write involving, strong, brutally heartbreaking characters and actually move them through a working plot? Then pick up this novella, one of the Stephen King’s earlier works under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. We all know Mr. King is an authority of the horrific and strange, but what most fail to mention is it’s his characters that make his stories so addictive. Read this one to study how a character can make a reader cry by simply walking down the street while eating tuna paste. And then study how something as seemingly simple as walking can be a plot.
10. The Elements of Style – William Strunk and E.B. White
No, this is not a fictional title, but I figured since so many writers treat it as such, it should be on the list. It’s true that a lack of grammar and punctuation can be the specific style of your story. It’s also true that more than likely you’ll have an editor who can correct these types of things for you. But if not, then please, for the love of all that’s holy, stop using commas in place of periods. Remember that names should be capitalized. Unless you’re writing poetry, stop hitting the ‘enter’ key in the middle of a sentence. And I’m begging you to proofread.
Whether you are publishing your work online in eBooks/blogs or sending it off to a publisher, trust that no one wants to read a document with blaring typos. There are too many other authors out there writing amazing things who know the difference between a colon and a semicolon. Even if your particular writing style never, ever follows the rules in this book, do yourself a favor and familiarize yourself with them anyway. Then you can break the rules effectively in your storytelling because you know what they are – not because you failed English class. Your readers are smart, and they can tell the difference.
Got another book to add to this list? Leave a comment below!