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8 books to read during college to improve writing (Part 1)

Updated on September 13, 2017

The Reading List

  1. John Steinbeck—"A Russian’s Journal"—1948
  2. Norman Mailer—"The Armies of the Night"—1968
  3. Joan Didion—"Play it as it Lays"—1970
  4. Brian Turner—"Here Bullet"—2005
  5. Mohsin Hamid—"The Reluctant Fundamentalist"—2007
  6. Flannery O’ Connor—"The Violent Bear it Away"—1955
  7. William Gibson—"Neuromancer"—1984
  8. James Baldwin—"Notes of a Native Son"—1955

Steinbeck:

If you break his sentences down, record his syntax, find his diction, and watch for his descriptions. Steinbeck is famous for simple syntax and diction that contrasts his complex descriptions. There are six keys things to his writing:


“1 Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2 Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3 Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4 If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5 Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6 If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”


For more check it out here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/03/12/john-steinbeck-six-tips-on-writing/

Also a great insight is Paris Review. They interview authors, and get the in-depth reasoning of how they view their own writing.

https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3810/john-steinbeck-the-art-of-fiction-no-45-john-steinbeck

Mailer:

Mailer can teach you many journalistic techniques in this book. He also refers himself in the third person. He uses very complex syntax and imagery filled with lots and lots of thoughts and beliefs and values.


https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4503/norman-mailer-the-art-of-fiction-no-32-norman-mailer

Didion:

Didion can teach you how to write in a masculine syntax, the same syntax and descriptions as Steinbeck. Didion even admits she broke Steinbeck’s sentences down to understand them and learn how to write like him. She writes fiction like nonfiction, can be intimate as well as distant with her characters. She also omits commas and has very short chapters within this novel.


https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3439/joan-didion-the-art-of-fiction-no-71-joan-didion

https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5601/joan-didion-the-art-of-nonfiction-no-1-joan-didion


11 Writing Tips From Joan Didion, Because She Knows A Thing Or Two About It on bustle.com. Here they are:


1. “Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”

2. Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one.”

3. “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

4. “The impulse to write things down is a particularly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

5. "It's hostile in that you're trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It's hostile to try to wrench around someone else's mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else's dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.”

6. “Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.”

7. "All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.”

8. 8. “As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs... The way I write is who I am, or have become...”

9. "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

10. "What's so hard about that first sentence is that you're stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you've laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone."

11. "I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you're eliminating possibilities.”

Turner:

Is a poet. He can teach you how to observe the outside world and describe the details on the inside. Also how to use strong images and strong metaphors to explain the world too.


You can check him out here:


https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/brian-turner


http://www.brianturner.org


Hamid:

He can teach you in this book, how to place a setting, gender position of the narrator, an exchange as a form of storytelling by using archetypes to exchange the story with. How to set the tone of a story. These interviews also show light into his writing that any writer can pick up and use at any time within a book.


See his writing style and thoughts here:


https://nineteenquestions.com/2015/03/02/mohsin-hamid/


http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/mohsin-hamid-writing-a-novel-is-more-like-digging-a-well-than-climbing-a-mountain-1.1381728


O'Connor:

You want to write a confusing and complex story that confuses the hell out of your reader? Read this book to learn how twisted your readers can get over one story. Also, if you want to learn how to write in the 1950’s this is also a great book to learn diction of the time from. She uses repetitive images throughout to carry the theme of the book as well.


Check out her thoughts on style here:


https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/04/30/flannery-o’connor-and-the-habit-of-art/


http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2011/11/november-is-national-novel-writing-month-ive-never-participated-in-the-actual-month-but-i-did-follow-the-excellent-system/


https://home.isi.org/flannery-oconnors-writings-guide-perplexed


Gibson:

If you want to learn how to write Cyberpunk, here you go. He is kind of the forefather to this genre even though he refuses the title. The great thing about Cyberpunk is it can teach a writer how to create complex descriptions about a single thing using several figurative language techniques. These quotes are both from his book:


“His eyes were eggs of unstable crystal, vibrating with a frequency whose name was rain and the sound of trains, suddenly sprouting a humming forest of hair-fine glass spines.”


“A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he'd taken and the corners he cut in Night City, and he'd still see the matrix in his dreams, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colourless void... The Sprawl was a long, strange way home now over the Pacific, and he was no Console Man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through. But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he'd cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, hands clawed into the bedslab, temper foam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn't there.”


His book and writing style is very dense. He is his interview from Paris Review: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6089/william-gibson-the-art-of-fiction-no-211-william-gibson

Baldwin:

What’s makes his writing so unique is the eloquence of his syntax and his rhetorical attack to any topic. To let readers view the world the way he views the world. His sentences may be short, but they are packed with dynamite syntax. He likes to write a sentence that has heart making the reader feel. However, his style was criticized in being over-bearing, too moral, and direct with any moral statement. Most of the characters he writes are morally complex, so if you want a character who can be complex with morals, learn from Baldwin.


His history and up-brining also makes him an interesting writer. Check out his interview here: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2994/james-baldwin-the-art-of-fiction-no-78-james-baldwin


What book have you read and changed your outlook on writing?

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