Getting Schooled

I’ve only posted a few reviews on Amazon and one was for a book that was so bad it became the Wallbanger of the Decade. I threw that sucker so hard I’m surprised it didn’t go through the wall. Well the author of that book came after me for it (bad mistake, never do this no matter how tempted you are). I was very precise in my explanation of why the book sucked, but she was obviously still upset. Then she said something that absolutely blew me away: Prior to writing the book she’d never read a romance. What? (As I’m writing this I’m still dumbfounded by this disclosure.)

A writer must read, and read a lot. You must read your own genre, but you must also be an omnivore and read other genres and nonfiction as well. You must read magazines and newspapers, in a word: To be a good writer you must be a voracious reader. You must read books by authors that are better than you. How can you grow as an author if you don’t stretch yourself? When I finish writing a book, or a whole bunch of books as I’ve done this year, I start reading my keeper shelf. I call it “going to school.”

There are authors that I love for different reasons: I love Susan Elizabeth Phillips because she can seriously bring the funny. My fave book by her is Breathing Room. She is the master of character development, and I learned how to develop funny characters from reading her books.

I love Roberta Gellis because she wrote historicals that actually had history in them. The events happening around the character aren’t just wallpaper, they’re almost another character. She has said that she stopped writing romance because publishers wanted more romance, less history. I’m very saddened by this. Having a love for medieval history, I adore all six of The Roselynde Chronicles, but my favorite is Joanna. I was thrilled to discover that I love Geoffrey as much now as I did when I first read the book in my late teens. Her Heiress series is equally good and has recently been republished by Ellora’s Cave. The Kent Heiress is my favorite, though I think they’re all stellar. I learned how to write an adventure story by reading Roberta Gellis.

Lisa Gregory is another favorite of mine. I read her Rainbow Season as a teenager in high school and loved the character Luke so much that it’s one of the reasons I named my son Luke. Lisa’s characters really reach out and touch your heart in a way that’s memorable, and she’s a master of building sexual tension, which in many ways is a lost art.

Octavia Butler is another author I love. Her Parable stories are absolute must-reads for anyone who wants to be a writer. It’s inconceivable to me that they haven’t been optioned for a movie. Butler was a master of the use of language, even her word-choices leave me in awe. In Parable of Talents the bad guys have these trucks which are called “maggots.” Without any further description the reader immediately has a very vivid image of what these trucks must look like. Where does that come from, and how can I get some? And she could write a hook like nobody’s business. My favorite is the opening to her book, Kindred: “I lost my arm on my return trip home. My right arm.” Hell, with an opening like that, who wouldn’t want to read the rest of the story. Her world-building was second-to-none, you could all but smell the burning cities and the lack of water leaves you feeling parched too.

These are just a few of my favorite “school books,” and of course, yours will be different. It’s just important that you have some, you can’t be a writer without it.

7 thoughts on “Getting Schooled

  1. I’m not published but I do write and of course adore reading. I have to, reading not only helps me better writer, it gives me ideas, it challenges me. One my new favorites is Alexander McCall Smith after discovering that “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” was more than a television show on HBO, I’m now eating up his books. He uses such simple and pure prose to tell the story although the feelings and actions of characters can be very complex. I find it beautiful and a challenge for me to figure out can I do this and how? I want to one day attempt to write a mystery but you definitely have to read one to know how to write one, if I didn’t what I write would turn out to be garbage.

  2. I love those McCall stories. My mother in law introduced me to them several years ago. They make me want to pack up and move to Botswana. His character development is fabulous, you feel like you know these people, or would like to know them. I’ve read the first 7, and just got the 8th from Paperback Swap. Good luck with your writing.

  3. Thank you Roslyn. I know what you mean, it makes me want to pack up and move to Botswana also. That’s some dang good story telling, because yes you feel like you know the people and feel close to them even the obscure characters. I’m on the third book, now but I can’t wait to read the rest.

  4. Thank you for mentioning Octavia Butler! I’ve been meaning to read her work. I’m off to get “Kindred.” I can’t wait to read it!

  5. I agree, Octavia Butler’s Parables are must reads and the Patternist series is also a favorite of mine. Hell I love just about everything she ever wrote, especially Kindred.

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