10. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
At this point, a lot of you have just written off this list as being ridiculous.
But stick with me: Twilight, the book much reviled by literary types and even the common man for its abhorrent prose and mind-numbing plot (not to mention the gender issues), is also one of the bestselling books out there currently. Sure, it has a little to do with the movies, but the books were popular long before Kristen Stewart started staring out windows for long periods of time.
Twilight is important because editors keep trying to repeat its success in the marketplace. There are plenty of Twilight clones out there. Some of them are even worse than Meyer's books. But the thing here to realize is that people like it. A lot. And as a writer, if you want to be published, this is something you need to recognize. Being good isn't enough. You have to be sellable.
9. 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley
Unlike Meyer, Smiley is an acknowledged master of fiction writing. And in this wonderful exploration of the novel, Smiley blends two important things for writers: knowledge from her own writing life and knowledge taken from literary criticism.
Reading is the most important thing a writer can do, and we often forget that. Smiley blends the two here in a way that should make sense to you as a writer and will probably open new doors of thinking. This book is especially good for those of you writers who never took a college English class. Learning the art of enjoying a book and analyzing it at the same time is an important one if you want to be a success. Smiley also gives some great personal anecdotes about her life as a published writer, which should dispel any dreams of Rowling-like riches for most of us.
8. The Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling
If I'm suggesting you read Twilight to see why something so poorly written is still publishable and popular, then I should also suggest something that is both well-written and immensely popular.
The Harry Potter series by Rowling is simply the most important book series out there. When discussing literature in my classes, I often point out that to become literature, books must last and still be read for a long period of time, even after their authors are gone. And the only books we can reasonably assume will remain in existence is the Harry Potter series.
There's a lot to learn from Rowling, especially her ability to create characters, even minor, background characters, that are incredibly unique and charming. Also, learn from Rowling how to create complex evil - Dolores Umbridge is perhaps one of the greatest villains ever created, and she's not even the series' main antagonist.
7. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
As I mentioned above, writers often forget that half of writing is reading.
The way the human brain deals with language is something that scientists haven't been able to figure yet out, because it's just so damn complicated. But know this: you absorb words and language like osmosis through reading, just like you absorb music. You can sing back a little melody and then slightly alter it from your favorite radio hit, the same way you can absorb the words of Flaubert, Woolf, and Salinger (which Prose all takes a look at here). Then you can use them in your own work.
Learning to absorb and use those words and sentence constructions is one of the most basic but important writing tasks. And one we as writers often avoid.
6. On Writing by Stephen King
This is book is half-way between a memoir of King's life and his take on writing and publishing. In the book, he details what works for him and why it works that way. He details the pitfalls of his own career (and those of the fellow writers in his family, namely his wife). And in the end, you get a beautiful picture of just what the life of a writer is like.
King's advice for actual writing in this book isn't much. He spends more time on the practical side of a writing life and being a working writer. This is another lesson that I think most writers miss out on and need to hear more of. Author Q&As are always about how to write and where do you get your inspiration, but that's not most writers' problems. It's more often how to live with writing that is the problem. If you're a writer, then write. It's the other stuff that's hard.
5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
To be honest, it was either this book for this spot, or Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. That should tell you a little something about what I'm going for here.
The whole point of this entry in this list is that you take a great novel, even one you've read, and you just destroy it. You re-read it multiple times close together. You look for every symbol, every twist of a phrase, every unreliable narrator, and you just tear it apart in your mind. Live and breathe that book for a couple of months until you can talk in that author's voice.
I finally settled on The Great Gatsby because it's a fairly simple read on the surface with so much lying underneath. And that's what's makes a great book.
4. 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them by Ron Tobias
There are schools of literary criticism that believe that all plots can be summed up in just 3 or 10 or 100 types. This book takes 20 of the most common plot forms, describes them, gives examples, and breaks them apart. You get both the literary criticism side of the bargain in the analysis and a blueprint for how to create your own stories.
One summer while getting my Master of Professional Writing degree, I went through each of the plots and created a short story. It was hard work, because many of the plots weren't my cup of tea and I was forcing myself to be very creative in a short time span, by creating that many characters to go with the plots. But it was like a great exercise bootcamp - I came out on the other end a tougher, meaner writer.
It aggravates me to no end when writers say they want to be published, and then have absolutely no idea how the modern publishing industry works. This book is a great starting place for throwing away your preconceptions and romantic ideals of how the New York City publishing world actually functions. There's great advice in this book, as well, if you want to self-publish, which is becoming a more and more popular form of publishing.
In general, publishing is a business, and that's the way writers have to view it when it's time to publish. When you're writing, you've got to be creative. But after that happens, all the other stuff needs to be from a business perspective, because that's how your agent, editor, and bookseller are going to see it. Sure, they're going to love your prose, but at the end of the day, they also need to make money or they don't get to play with books anymore. Understand that, realize it doesn't make them bad people, and everybody will be much happier at the end of the day.
The Paris Review Interviews are a selection of four books that are simply the best writer interviews I've ever read. The interviews cover a wide range of time, genres, and lifestyles, and to be honest, you learn more about writing life and writing style here than you would anywhere else. With it's down to earth tone and style, the interviews feel like a collected version of several reading Q&As that went exceptionally well.
Learning from the best is really what it is all about, but there's also this great feeling of inspiration that I love from these interviews. For the most part, you get masters talking about their fears, which humbles you, and talking about their triumphs, which makes you want to share in their glory. Being a writer can often feel like a lonely business, and this book just reminds you how much you share with others like you.
If you didn't know, The Chicago Manual of Style is what publishers use to create their books. Every one of the Big Six publishers use it, and so do the majority of the smaller houses. Most literary journals use the Manual. So do a lot of professional blogs.
In other words, if you're a writer and you don't know this book cover-to-cover and inside out, then you're doing yourself a disservice. And I'll be completely honest here: agents will reject a manuscript for being messy. Even if it looks like there might a diamond in the rough underneath all the grammar mistakes. The agents and editors simply don't have time to fix it for you.
Learn your grammar. Learn the style the publishers use. You'll get ahead in publishing that way. This is your writing bible. Use it. Love it. Revere it. And avoid those comma splices.