Nine Fiction Novels that Made Me a Better Writer

Many of you already know that I have a Bachelors and a Masters degree in English Literature, which is a fancy way of me telling you I’ve read a lot of books. Like, a lot a lot. While I was in school, I reached a point where I was telling people to stop giving me book recommendations because I couldn’t retain any more information. But even so, I don’t regret a single story I’ve read (well, that’s not true, I wasted half an afternoon reading the first Fifty Shades).

Every novel I’ve picked up has made me a better writer in some shape or form.

I’m a firm believer that in order to be good writer, whether you want to write blog posts, novels, poetry or so on, then you need to be a reader first. When you become a reader (as in someone who enjoys reading and dissecting literature) then you open yourself up to better understanding not only yourself but also others, and good writing is the kind that speaks to readers from the very beginning. By becoming a reader, you start to give yourself the tools to engage readers.

In this post I’ve listed nine fiction novels, which have influenced my own writing. These are books that influenced everything from subject matter to style, as well as inspired me to become a writer. They range greatly in genre/subject matter/and some are classics while others are contemporary, so I hope you take the time to read about each of them. And if you’re interested in writing, or just looking for some damn good books, then this post is for you!

(Side note, the order of these books is just oldest to newest, and doesn’t carry any other significance.)

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë, 1874

Summary: The story follows experiences of the heroine and protagonist, Jane Erye, as she grows from a young orphaned schoolgirl into the governess of the mysterious Thronfield Hall, where she also meets Mr. Rochester. During her time at Thronfield, Jane falls in love with Mr. Rochester and is thrown into an emotional journey of spiritual and moral growth.

My thoughts: Now, I know a lot of you might have been “forced” to read this story in high school. If you haven’t read it since then (or never before) I really urge you to give this piece a chance. Brontë was one of the first writers to truly dive into a protagonist’s consciousness and write a story in which a reader’s understanding of the story is influenced by the narrator’s point of view. What may seem like nothing more than a love story, illustrates the power and depth a writer can have by utilizing the first person narrative. This coming of age novel, is a combination of ghost story, meets mystery, meeting early ideas about feminism.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, 1926

 Summary: A modernist novel about a group of American and British expatriates, who travel from Paris to Pamplona to witness the running of the bulls and bullfights (part of the Festival of San Fermín). This novel illustrates the disillusionment, but more importantly the strength, of the “Lost Generation” after World War I.

My thoughts: This isn’t my favorite Hemingway story, but it is a fantastic example of the author’s ability to convey characterization and action through sparse, but concise, language. Hemingway’s style of writing is what we call “the theory of omission” or Iceberg theory. It is when a writer uses a minimalistic style and doesn’t directly address a piece of writing’s greater themes. Instead he/she relies on the simplicity and conciseness of language to convey themes/ideas. This isn’t an easy style of writing and it isn’t for everyone, but it can help teach the crucial idea of “showing versus telling” in your writing.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1949

 Summary: A dystopian science fiction novel, set in a world of perpetual war as well government surveillance and manipulation. The story follows protagonist Winston Smith, as he comes into conflict with the Inner Party when he attempts to self-educate and rebel against the government.

My thoughts: This novel is one that has been hugely influential on my own writing. My first novel is a dystopian science fiction as well, with a focus on how technology can be used as a tool for manipulation. I feel that Orwell’s use of classic plot style is perfect for anyone interested in writing a science fiction or fantasy story and is looking for a way to get started with story telling. It is also relevant in many ways to issues and fears we have as a culture/society today.

Catcher in the Rye, J.D Salinger, 1951

 Summary: A coming of age novel from the point of view of the protagonist, Holden Caulfield. In this novel, the author addresses many of the feelings young adults experience, most importantly a sense of alienation and struggle when moving from teenage to adult years.

My thoughts: Now, this is one of those stories that I personally don’t love as much as other writers/readers. I recognize the cultural importance, but cannot say it is my favorite Salinger piece. But! That being said I think it is a great, more modern example, of the same “protagonist’s consciousness” approach to the first person narrative that Brontë used in 1847. The entire story is influenced by Holden’s internal dialogue, struggles, as well as his perceptions about the world around him. It is also noted for its use of colloquial speech from the time period.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R Tolkien, 1954-55

 Summary: It would be hard to summarize this because it is three very long fantasy novels, but I’m assuming most (if not all) readers will recognize the name and know a few things. In short (in very short) the trilogy follows the adventures of the hobbit Frodo Baggins as he goes to destroy the One Ring in order to defeat the Dark Lord Sauron.

My thoughts: These are my favorite books of all time. And I could talk about them and the millions of ways they are perfect for days and days and days. Instead though, I will tell you the biggest thing this series taught me as a writer: world building. If you haven’t read the books, you’ve likely seen the movies (or at least one if you’re not living under a rock somewhere) and have a general idea of how rich the world is. But unless you’ve read the books, you’ve only seen the surface of how deep a world Tolkien was able to create. It is why to this day his son Christopher is still publishing stories from Middle-earth. Tolkien is a great example for writers of how to create a world that is engaging, beautiful and lifelike for readers.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, 1963

 Summary: This roman à clef (or semi-autobiographical novel) follows the life of Esther Greenwood, as struggles to try and forge her own path and identity in the oppressive patriarchal society of mid-20th century America. The novel touches on the hardships of depression and mental illness.

My thoughts: Plath wrote with a heartbreaking honesty. Her clear and concise language clearly illustrates the sadness she felt inside. A roman à clef novel is one in which “real life” is overlaid with fiction. This is considered one because Esther’s own battle with depression mirrors what Plath went through. I think, although dark, this novel is great for writers trying to understand/write what mental illness (or internal struggle) feels like from the protagonist’s point of view.

The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K. Le Guin, 1976

Summary: A science fiction novella, set on the fictional planet of Athshe , which has been turned into a military logging colony by the people of Earth. Humans have enslaved the native Athsheans and are using for both slave labor and personal servants. The storyline follows the tensions and subsequent fights between the natives and the human colonists.

My thoughts: I love Le Guin’s ability to place modern days issues (environmental, the effects of colonialism, mass violence and much more) into a science fiction setting. This novella can teach writers how to approach cultural and societal issues from a science fiction or fantasy standpoint, but not have the meaning become lost in a “new world”.

White Teeth, Zadie Smith, 2001

 Summary: The story follows the intertwined lives of three British families, the Joneses and the Iqabals, as well as the Chalfens, and touches on the issues of immigration, ones cultural roots, the things that set us apart, but also what can bring us together. The novel satirizes the culture of middle and working class British cultures.

My thoughts: Zadie Smith is one of the world’s most gift writers. She’s written several novels in addition to White Teeth and each is an absolutely brilliant piece of work. Smith is a great of example for writers who want to capture modern culture. Although Smith is a British author, her observances of British life and the way she is able to translate that into a large cast of characters, is beneficial to writers from any country. Smith has also mastered writing from multiple points of view.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Christopher Moore, 2002

Summary: Follow Biff, as he shares what happened during those “missing years” of Jesus’ life that aren’t in the Bible. The story is from (as you guessed it) the perspective of Biff, who grew up with Joshua (Biff says early in the novel Jesus is the Hellenized version of his friend’s name) and goes with Joshua as he struggles to find out what it will take to become the Messiah.

My thoughts: This is easily my favorite novel by Moore. It is charming, hilarious, and sweet with the right amount of satire and debauchery. I think this is an excellent example of taking a very touchy subject (the life of Jesus would not be considered “humorous” material to most folks) and turning it in a way that no one would expect. The story, in my opinion, doesn’t degrade the Bible or Christian faith, but rather uses it as a way to tell a beautiful story of friendship and touches on many ideas we see in coming of age novels.

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