By reading good how-to books and articles, you can learn a lot about plotting, pacing, editing and character development. But when it comes to the quality of your basic writing style, I believe that the best way to learn and improve is by reading good writing. If you write popular fiction, than you very likely read a lot of books by contemporary authors in your genre/s. It is good to be familiar with the genre you are writing in and with its current trends. But I strongly believe that classic books by the great writers of the past should also have a place on the reading list of anyone serious about writing well. Even if you feel these books are boring, difficult and irrelevant to contemporary popular fiction, their style has a quality, complexity and originality that is not often matched today. These writers were not scared of big words, big sentences or big ideas. If you want to write well, you can do no better than to study the works of those time has crowned the words’ greatest geniuses. Whether it be a children’s book, a romance, or a thriller you are writing, reading right will help you write right.
To help guide you in selecting the most helpful classic for your writing, I have compiled a brief list of useful works to get you going.
For epic history interwoven with personal stories read:
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.
At 560,000 words, this is a long one. But don’t let that put you off. Think of it as a trilogy. The way in which Tolstoy combines wider social and political events with the stories of individual characters’ lives is truly masterful. The book, which encompasses a broad sweep of both time and space, is ambitious in scope, and his philosophical commentary on what causes world events adds an extra layer of richness. If you are looking to write epic, you can’t get much more epic than this.
For characterising your characters through dialogue read:
Anything by Jane Austen.
Jane Austen is famed for her ability to create memorable, individualistic characters who have a unique voice. If you study her work closely, you will notice that she often does not describe her characters’ physical appearance in any detail. All we are usually told is that someone is handsome, or some other fairly general thing. She does it all through dialogue and her own comment. A must for the writer wishing to write sparkling conversation.
For beauty, metaphor, wordplay and creative use of language read:
The Sonnets by William Shakespeare.
If you are new to Elizabethan poetry, the sonnets might seem like an impenetrable thicket that you will never get through to reach comprehension. They did to me when I first tried reading them. But instead of giving up, I got an audio version and listened to that, then went back and tried reading them again. It really worked. Listening to them, I got to experience the beauty of their language and rhythm, even when I couldn’t understand exactly what they were about. I believe the sonnets to be the most beautiful work of written English ever created. The more you read them, the more you see this beauty. A true work of genius.
For coming-of-age and teen emotional drama read:
First Love by Ivan Turgenev.
This lesser-known novel is a touching and realistic portrayal of a sixteen year-old boy’s first love. A thoughtful book filled with bitter-sweetness and gentle poignancy, it places this passionate, youthful first love beside more mature loves and recollections. Sensitive, subtle and moving, this is a wonderful study for the writer dwelling on the quick-burning fire of youthful passion and its place in the journey of life.
For danger, suspense and obsessive love read:
The Chase by Louisa May Alcott.
Better know as the author of Little Women (a great example of a cosy, homely read), Alcott also authored this much more daring and adventurous tale of love, desire and deceit. The quality of her prose is excellent, and her ability to draw the reader into the story is masterly. This book is also proof that women have been writing about dangerous, domineering, sexy heroes for a long time! Phillip Tempest, the man the book’s heroine marries and then tries to flee, would not be out of place between the pages of a modern bodice-ripper.
These are just a few of the many classic books worth reading. As well as being superb examples of style, they are also great reads that entertain, inform and delight. I hope you try some.