11 Books All Aspiring Writers Should Read, Because Spending Time With These Titles is Like a Mini-Workshop

Whether you've already got your sights set on an illustrious education at The Iowa Writers Workshop or you're determined to take the literary world by storm all on your own terms, there's only one way to make it as a writer — and that's by reading. In the immortal words of Stephen King, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” 

Or, at least, it seems simple enough, but then again just yesterday I found myself at the local bookstore staring blankly at a wall of titles with simply no idea what to select. And for the aspiring writer, the task of choosing what to read can be even trickier. With the whole world of fiction at your very fingertips, how do you decide which books will be invaluable on your quest for authorship, and which books would be just as well left by the wayside?

You read books that'll teach you something. And that's where this list comes in. Whether you're looking to write the next great American novel or just shock the world with something steamier and more seductive than 50 Shades of Grey, make sure your reading teaches you tricks of the trade with each page turn. These 11 works of literary genius will do it; they're like a mini-master class.

Start with Story

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Before you can put words to paper you need at least the germ of an idea — you need a story to tell, and not all tales are those of daring do. The very smallest, simplest moments are often packed with meaning, and learning how to share your story might just be a matter of deciding where to look. There's no better way to get a grasp on the broad reaches of narrative possibility than with Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Munro's quiet, simple prose. Once you've learned how tell the story of a single glance, then you'll be ready to tackle greater and grander tales; unless, of course, you decide that like Munro your passion lies in immortalizing those intimate parts of daily life so often left out of the literary canon.

Learn the Language

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Words are the building blocks of stories, and without the right word you'll be left struggling to finish your tale, like the kid who came late to class and simply doesn't have the Legos she needs to get her castle off the ground. Of course, every castle might not call for bartizan turrets or bright blue bay windows, but the more blocks you have to begin with the better you are at making the choices to suit the architecture of your story. So begin building up your vocabulary with a careful reading of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I consider myself a lover of language, schooled in synonyms and esoteric to a fault, but I had to read this novel with a dictionary by my side and a good thick slice of humble pie. Trust me, it's worth it.

Pick and Choose

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Just because you've developed a vocabulary to rival Merriam & Webster's doesn't mean you need to make a mockery of good old fashioned common sense. The perfect word isn't always the prettiest or the most pretentious, and the sooner you can learn to say what you mean rather than what just sounds good, the sooner you'll be on your way to true literary success. There was no writer on earth more dedicated to honest, simple prose then Ernest Hemingway, and with a quick dip into A Moveable Feast (especially on the heels of Infinite Jest) you'll learn what it means to be truly selective when it comes to choosing the right words to represent life as it is, or at least as you want it to be.

Perfect Your Poetry

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Once you've amassed a linguistic array worthy of your creative intentions and learned to select with skill and honesty from the writhing verbal milieu of your mind, elevate your prose with rhythm, cadence and tone — now's the time to learn to sing little bird. Sing like the soulful poetry of Maya Angelou, America's master of the sly, shimmying, succulent phrase that explodes on the tip of your tongue with a burst of sweetness and a slight tang. After all, what's life without a little song, and what's fiction without a little poetry?

Remain True to Yourself

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There are as many stories in the world as individual souls to tell them, so don't waste your time trying to co-opt a narrative that's not yours to tell. Follow the example of Richard Wright's dark, brilliant, scathing story of institutional racism and structural poverty and learn how to bring your passions to life while letting the world revel in your particular point of view.

Give The People What They Want

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If you can't stay true to your voice your story will never ring true, but if you don't give the people what they want your voice will never be heard. So, take a few notes from the pages of Edgar Allan Poe — inventor of the modern detective novel and the only author I've read who negotiates the line between popular fiction and artistic prose with excitement and integrity. Poe was one of the first to turn sensationalist stories into true narrative genius, so this lesson is guaranteed to be both creatively enlightening and a more fun than a night with Netflix.

Be The Master of Your Own Domain

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When you're writing a novel, you're starting with a blank white page, and the world you construct is entirely of your own choosing — is the sky pink instead of blue; do people say "dope" or "aces"; are there diners on the corners? You're the only one who knows, and it's up to you to build a full, rich world for your characters to inhabit. Whether you're looking for Dickensian realism or dystopian desolation, the secret to a believable universe is authenticity, detail and utter devotion to your vision, all of which Margaret Atwood serves up in spades. So whether or not you're looking to speculate on the future of our fair society or convey an image of the world exactly as it is, try The Handmaid's Tale for an introduction to true and honest world-building.

Character is Key

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A truly great novel is about so much more than a well-structured plot and some singular prose, the true force of any great story is a rich, layered truly loved character. Of course, if Breaking Bad has taught us anything, it has taught that loved doesn't mean "good" and "rich" doesn't mean likable; and so, bringing depth and development to a complex character can be difficult and confusing, unless of course you're Virginia Woolf. With To The Lighthouse, Woolf offers a primer on complex, lively, flawed and forceful character development, so start taking notes.

Structure for Substance

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Marilynne Robinson's quietly glorious novel Gilead takes the form of a letter from father to son; and yet, unlike most epistolary tales, this story is elevated by and not tethered to it's engaging and unusual format. So take a leaf from Robinson's gorgeous epic of a small town tale and find the right form for your fiction, whatever that may be.

Steal from the Best

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As Picasso once said, "good artists borrow, great artists steal," and from symbol to metaphor, allegory to aphorism, character to plot, setting and style, no one has inspired more great theft than the bard himself. If you don't know your Shakespeare you're nowhere, and if you've got the guts to steal from one of the greatest that ever was you'll know you're really on the right track. 

Forget Everything You've Read Here

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In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, “You're off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So... get on your way!”; and, I might add, don't stick around here rehashing everything the great writers of the past have already explored. Donald Barthelme's Sixty Stories will challenge every idea you've ever had about what a story could and should be, and then hopefully it will inspire you to go out there and come up with number 61. Come on now, it's graduation day — show us what you've got.

Image: Nicola Sapiens De Mitri/flickr

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