Writing Your First Novel? Read These Books First

by Emma Cueto
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As any author just starting out knows, the most common advice for how to improve your writing is to keep writing (writer's block be damned), and to make sure you read a lot. And there's a reason for that; reading is one of the most surefire ways to improve your craft. After all, why reinvent the wheel? Authors who have come before you have already learned how to do some really cool stuff, and learning from their examples will only make your writing better.

Because let's face it: a lot goes into writing a book. Authors have to worry about structure, pacing, dialogue, sentence flow, character development, plot development, themes, symbols — the list just keeps on going. With practice, most of this stuff starts to come more and more naturally. But in order to get to that point, it helps to not only practice by writing, but also to do a lot of reading and get a feel for how the masters handle this stuff.

So if you're just starting out, take the time to sit down with a few of these titles and learn from some of the best teachers out there.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath's only novel is brilliant for all sorts of reasons — the language, the psychological realism, the beautiful imagery — but it also provides a fascinating portrait of a young artist. Anyone who's ever tried to write a novel can appreciate Plath's passages about sitting down intent on writing the next Great American only to find the task isn't so easy. Writers can learn plenty about writing from The Bell Jar's brilliant prose, but the book also helps you remember you are part of a fellowship of writers who have all been through this sort of thing as well.

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is one of the only writers I know who can use 20 words when he could use one and actually gets away with it. Enchantress of Florence, however, stands out even more than his other works as being a book that can make you positively drunk on the language. Here the joy that one senses Rushdie must get from words bursts forth, unrestrained, and the result should inspire any budding novelist looking to get lost in the beauty of words, words, and more words.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

If you want to learn how to write a coming of age story that packs the biggest emotional punch possible, spend some time studying Louise Erdrich's National Book Award-winner, The Round House. The book is also an excellent example for anyone who wants to weave in large, complex issues into her narrative while still keeping the story and the characters at the forefront. And, really, anyone who wants to learn how to write some of the most quietly beautiful passages around.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Nnovels aren't the only teachers for writing; there are plenty of books about writing that aspiring novelists can turn to, as well. Bird by Bird is a classic in the "how to write" genre, and it's a classic for a reason. Veteran novelist Anne Lamott can make getting started as a writer easier for anyone, and even people who have been at their craft for years can learn skills and gain new perspective from her book.

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

There's no question that James Joyce is a master, but in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he's also much more accessible than in his more famous works like Ulysses or (heaven help us) Finnegan's Wake. So not only is this novel a chance to get a feel for what makes Joyce's writing so intricate without getting lost, it also provides the reader with insight into the experience of being a young artist, which is always useful, too.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Maybe the novel you have brewing looks more like a series of interconnected short pieces than a more traditional structure, in which case you should take a look at Amy Tan's first novel. The Joy Luck Club follows four mother-daughter pairs all living in Chinatown, San Francisco. The interconnected families and interconnected stories could all stand alone in their own right, by Tan uses them together to create a whole that is far greater than the sum of its part, something every novelist would do well to analyze.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

If you want to learn about structure, Cloud Atlas might be the ultimate teacher. The novel is set up like a set of matryoshka dolls with stories nestled inside one another, linked across time and space. It's an innovative format that Mitchell somehow manages to make work absolutely beautifully, so if you're looking to try out an unorthodox format, you can find inspiration and more than a few lessons by analyzing what makes this novel hold together so well.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston's work is brilliant and visionary for any number of reasons, and her most famous novel has plenty to teach you about working wisdom into a story naturally. We all want to write a novel full of big ideas and insights into human nature, but often times that goal can result in a text that seems preachy or scattered. But in Zora Neale Hurston's work, observations about the human condition arise naturally and are written in subtle yet beautiful language sure to bring a light to your writer's eye.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Everyone loves a plot twist, but often times they can feel hokey and cliched, which is the opposite of what you want with a plot twist. Yet Gillian Flynn manages to pull off the plot twist brilliantly. So when it comes to how to direct your readers' expectations, there is perhaps no better teacher than this book. And while you're picking it apart to figure how she pulls off the plot twist so excellently, you can also take some time to appreciate Flynn's ability to paint vivid and complex characters.

On Writing by Stephen King

Stephen King is one of the most masterful and prolific storytellers of this literary generation, so if there's anyone qualified to give writerly advice, it's probably him. On Writing is both a book of writing how-tos and a memoir of King's own life as a writer, and it's a worthy read for anyone looking to create a writing career of her own.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

No one does social commentary like Jane Austen, and many of her dry observations often go unnoticed during a first read, so even though you probably picked this one up at some point in high school, I'd recommend a thorough re-read. Because really, if you're going for social commentary, especially the kind that subtly pokes fun at other people's hypocrisy, not even Oscar Wilde can top Jane Austen.