“The greatest part of a writers time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” – Samuel Johnson
Something odd happens to me in the months before I begin writing a novel. At some point after finishing one novel and beginning the next, I stumble across a book that moves me. I always feel the same after finishing one of these books: shaken, delighted, in awe. These books become landmarks in my own journey as a writer and their authors an unknowing mentor. While I read dozens of books between projects, there is always one that rises up and becomes the new standard for my own writing. Three books come to mind now, each having found me in that very moldable state prior to beginning a new work of my own:
Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. This book was recommended to me while I was still in the concept stage with my first novel. An editor who knew my love of smart historical fiction suggested I give this thousand-page tome a try. I adored its intricately woven plot and abundance of historical minutia. I marveled at the creativity and top-notch writing. But there’s something else that Stephenson does very well. He gets you by the throat at the beginning and ending of every chapter and scene break. I won’t soon forget the opening line: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” Who is this woman? Why is she being hanged? How can you not keep reading after a line like that?! Neal Stephenson taught me how to weave history and plot in a way that forces the reader to keep turning page after page.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I’d heard about this book for years before I finally picked it up. A long road trip with my family proved to be the perfect excuse to see what everyone was talking about. Five hundred pages and two thousand miles later I was completely changed as a writer. In my opinion, Setterfield writes mystery better than anyone else on the market today. Not in the traditional, Agatha Christie way, where the red herring is king. But in this fantastic, sprawling, intelligent, trust-your-reader sort of way that makes for epic fiction. Setterfield takes you on a journey and sets the most delightful traps along the way—not just for her characters, but for her readers as well. She never inflects her writing. Never makes it easy for us. Never assumes that we can’t follow along. Diane Setterfield taught me that readers are smart enough to figure it out, and if by some chance we don’t, even better! We will love you for the thrill of not having figured it out!
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I read all eight hundred pages of this novel in three days last November. She has two profound talents in my opinion. The first is that every scene, every character, every piece of dialogue in her novels serves a purpose. There is nothing superfluous. No dead weight. Every single thing matters. She may introduce a seemingly random character or plot thread at the beginning of the book only to build upon it so that it becomes the pivotal twist at the end. The second is that she takes her reader to the broken, exhausted, exhilarating point of every emotion. Whether writing a knife fight, a journey, a love scene, a homecoming, a betrayal, or even torture, she builds her scenes (none of them are short) until the page quivers with tension. Where a lesser writer would have mercy on the reader and cut the scene short, she takes it to the most brutal, unexpected, and profound conclusion. Her characters and readers suffer alongside one another. They weep together. They are redeemed together. Her devoted, almost rabid following is proof that readers invest themselves entirely in her work. Diana Gabaldon taught me to earn the trust of my reader by never, ever letting them off the hook. When I pick up one of her novels I know that I will be shaken and grateful at the end.
All of these are things I have needed to learn before beginning a new project. And I believe they are lessons that can only be fully grasped through the act of reading. I couldn’t have learned them in a classroom. I had to feel them first.
Question for you: what authors have changed you as a writer? How? What did you learn from them?