Saturday, March 12, 2011

Good Books for Learning Different Writing Skills

For several years I worked via email with a small group of new book writers.  I'd just graduated from my M.F.A. program and I wanted to see if others would learn as much as I did from reading certain books.

One of the writers, working on his first novel, emailed me after our first year.  He had compiled my list of recommended books by what he'd specifically learned from each--about aspects of

I loved this idea.  It made sense that different books would teach a writer different skills.  So I began teaching this way, recommending specific books for specific lessons that a writer wanted to practice.

My list grew and grew as I discovered new books to read, enjoy, and learn from.

After my post last week, a blog reader asked me to please share my list, so here it is.  I've culled it down to titles that have proven the most useful to writers I've worked with in classes and workshops and privately over the year.  This list is very subjective; you may notice there aren't that many "classics" on it, the titles that would appear in Freshman comp classes in college.  They also aren't all books I would recommend as good beach reads or books to help you zone out pleasurably.  Many of them take work to absorb and savor, but all will educate you and help you become a better writer if you read carefully.

To learn about organizing multiple-layered plots:
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffennegger 
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri 
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Homestead by Rosina Lippi
Medicine Love by Louise Erdrich

To learn about pacing:
Shadow Baby by Alison McGhee
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Catfish and Mandala by Andrew Pham
Back in the World by Tobias Wolff (short stories)
Cheating at Canasta by Trevor Williams (short stories)
The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper (young adult)
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Interpeter of Maladies by Jhampa Lahiri (short stories)
Girl by Jamaica Kinkaid (short story)
Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston (short stories)

To learn about characters:
A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor (short stories)
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
How to Be Lost by Amanda Eyre Ward
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (short stories)
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Stop Kiss by Diana Son (playscript)
Talk Before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg
Name All the Animals by Allison Smith
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddom
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro (short stories)

To learn about weaving in backstory:
The Color of Water by James McBride
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka 
No More Words by Reeve Lindbergh
Little Bee by Chris Cleave 
Almost There by Nuala O'Faolain
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
Peace Like a River by Lief Enger

To learn about complex plots--having enough happen:
The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks
The Passion by Jeannette Winterson
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Liars Club by Mary Karr
Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre (fantasy/sci-fi)

To learn about container (environment of story/culture/beliefs):
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick
Away by Amy Bloom
Thinking about Magritte by Kate Stearns
Blindness by Jose Saramago
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

Of course, with many of these titles, you can learn much more than the category I've given them.  But that's my primary learning tool from that book.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Imagine you are in a classroom to learn about becoming a better writer.  What do you need to focus on next, in your writing?

2.  Pick a book from one of the lists.  Buy or borrow or download it.  Read it as a writer would.

3.  Think about your favorite books, the ones you've learned the most from.  Post your list here as a comment.


  1. Hi, just stumbled across your site, very interesting. Great list of books too. I've heard of about half of them, read maybe a third (and remember about a tenth — not as young as I used to be). Will have a mooch round the list and maybe give a couple of them a go.

  2. Great post, Mary. Reading is such an important part of being a writer and learning the craft. Here are five of my favorites in the "beautiful writing" category:
    1. Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
    2. Jim the Boy by Tony Earley
    3. Qualities of Light by Mary Carroll Moore
    4. One Vacant Chair by Joe Coomer
    5. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

  3. Mood,
    Thanks for visiting. Glad you liked the list!
    Stop by again.

  4. Thanks for adding your list, Cindy, and for visiting the blog! (So happy to see my novel among your favorites.)


  5. This is a great list, Mary. I'm printing it out and taking it to my writers' group today - it will spark a good conversation. And then I'm going to spend some time planning my reading. I bought "Shadow Baby" on your recommendation, and have yet to read it.

  6. My suggestions are "Revolutionary Road" by Richard Yates for a beautifully plotted novel, also for how character development drives the plot. The two main characters can't do anything except collide. Also, I just read "Lolita" - the disturbing narrator manipulates the reader in an amazing way. Not sure where that fits, but it's an incredible book and I kept trying to figure out how Nabokov managed to pull it off, and make it oddly funny.

  7. Thanks for contributing your list, Gail! It's fun to study these and try to figure out how they were constructed.

  8. Thanks, Gail, enjoy Shadow Baby--a super book.