What Are the Best Books For Fiction Writers?

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Yesterday Cornelia Dolian (@cldolian) asked “which 5 – 10 works of fiction would you cite as necessary reading for writers?” What a delicious question!

I love this question because there’s really no wrong answer, and it is like a Rorschach test for writers. What you see in the question depends on you– what you like to read, what you like to write, what you aspire to do with your writing. I’m currently writing a middle-grade novel and I find that shapes my answer.

When I read the question I immediately thought of formative books from my childhood– the books that made me want to be a writer because they jump-started my imagination and made me feel like there were amazing worlds out there to be discovered and experienced in books. I could probably come up with a long list, but these four books are the first ones that came to mind– the first and the truest, maybe.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963) – Because I could imagine being Meg Murray; because one of the trio of women (like the Fates!) who visit Meg turns out to have been a star; because the thing that heals and saves these characters is love.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950) – A door to another world at the back of a wardrobe full of boring old coats– who could resist?

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937) – Even though there weren’t really any female characters, I was along for the ride; Tolkien’s world was so big, so full of unexpected creatures and events that I just invented a character for myself.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964) – Harriet is nosy and says mean things about people in her notebook. She’s almost an anti-hero. But I loved her for her curiosity, for her writing zeal, and for her bravery. Even when the worst happens, she doesn’t quit writing.

Then there are the books that I read over and over when I got a bit older; they’re not for children. Something about them– the story, the characters, the imagined world– obsessed me and I could not leave them alone. These books scared me and changed me, and I keep going back to them.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) – For me, the pull of this book was as much about the characters as it was about the world. Our world turned wrong. I read an interview with Margaret Atwood where she said that everything in the book was something that had happened somewhere, at some moment in history. Do you have chills down your spine yet?

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992) – On the very first page you know there’s a murder, and you know who did it. Then you have to know why. When you find out why, you are stunned and fascinated.

Even though I’m writing for children, I’d like to carry some of that strangeness and darkness into my work.

So that’s my list. I’m not sure that this list will help anybody be a better writer, except me. Maybe the key is just to keep looking for the books that delight or obsess you, and then figure out what you can learn from them.




Playing With Dolls


So this is all going on*– my index finger hurts because I bent back the nail; the world is coated with yellow-green oak pollen; the dog is lying here in the living room with both ears up on high alert; my son is out with his friend; and I am sitting in a chair, Trying To Write, with Suffragette City winding around and around in my brain:

Oh don’t lean on me man
Cause you can’t afford the ticket
I’m back on Suffragette City
Oh don’t lean on me man
Cause you ain’t got time to check it
You know my Suffragette City
Is outta sight… she’s alright

Before dinner I went through some old magazines and pulled out pictures to use in collage and I thought again how my hobbies are childish. Cutting up magazines, making jewelry from beads and wire, gluing twine onto a balloon– these seem like the preoccupations of a ten-year-old girl. Is there something childish about wanting to make things with my own hands? Or is it the things themselves– collages, bead necklaces and bracelets, coasters, pillows, mish-mash quilted throws– just a few things I’ve made over the last while– do they lack some adult and serious quality.

I don’t know. Continue reading

What Will You Miss After the Apocalypse?


A few months ago I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The book’s premise is that a deadly flu sweeps the world, killing most of the population. The few people who survive must adapt to a new world without modern essentials like electricity, refrigeration, gasoline, antibiotics, computers, and so on. The book follows different characters as they react to a world they never expected to live in, and their stories intertwine in beautiful ways.

I find with a really good book like Station Eleven the scenes, characters, and ideas rattle around in my head long after I’ve finished it. I found myself thinking about what I would miss if I lived in the world of the book. Obviously I would miss my computer, my car, the Internet, modern medicine, etc. But what about the non-obvious, non-essential stuff of 21st century civilization? Here’s my list of unnecessary, trivial things that I would miss inĀ  the event of a global flu-pocalypse:

  • Brightly-colored drinks with fruit and decorations
  • Cupcakes with icing
  • Glitter glue pens
  • Big glossy magazines with aspirational content, like Martha Stewart Living
  • Swedish fish candy
  • Home improvement television shows
  • Moist towelettes
  • Nail polish
  • Coloring books
  • Fancy needlepoint pillow kits
  • Gifs of cats
  • Gift wrap
  • The Hamilton soundtrack
  • My Dr. Who Pinterest board

What random things would you miss at the end of the world?

Photo Credit

Photo Fancy drinks by Sarah via flickr and licensed under CC 2.0

Mind Mapping Your Revision

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I finished the first draft of my novel back in May and now I’m working on revising it. I’ve been reading Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl B. Klein. Klein is an editor with many books to her credit, including the United States editions of the Harry Potter series and Millicent Min: Girl Genius by Lisa Yee (as well as the other books in the Millicent Min trilogy). One of the things Klein discusses in her book is that writer needs to understand who the protagonist is– what she loves, hates, wants, needs, and fears.

I tried doing some free writing on these topics, but felt like I still wasn’t really connecting with my character. Then I remembered mind mapping. I grabbed my journal and started with the character’s name in the middle of the page. Then I started writing things that I know about her– including the names of family and friends, as well as what she loves and hates. You can see the current map in the picture above. I’m still working on it– at a minimum I want to add needs and fears– but I feel like I’m getting a better idea of who she is and how she changes by the end of the book.

You’ll notice the map is kind of messy– not like some of the pretty mind map examples you can find online. I’m putting something messy out on purpose because while I like to look at pretty examples, I don’t think real idea generation looks like that, at least not when I do it. I find ideas don’t leap from my mind fully formatted with correct punctuation and spelling. The more I let go of the need to be tidy, the more I can generate ideas that make my writing interesting and real.

What Does Your Character Want?


Today I’m thinking about the protagonist of the book I’m working on. Her name is Maddie and she’s eleven. She’s got a dog, an older sister, and a really big secret. But what does she want?

What did I want, when I was 11?

I remember wanting pretty hair. I tried growing it long but then got tired of it and got it all cut off with a cute little Dorothy Hamill-style wedge. (Don’t laugh! They were really popular.) I wanted a ten-speed bike, but I only had a three-speed. I wanted friends, and had some. I wanted to be the best at something.

Continue reading

Getting Past my Monkey Mind


Can otters meditate? (Yes. Obviously.)

It’s winter. My hands are dry and the skin near the top corners of my fingernails is starting to crack. My feet are cold. My back itches. I’m hungry and I don’t know what to eat for lunch. These are the profound thoughts that went through my mind this morning while I lay on my meditation cushion, trying to pay attention to the present moment.

When I took a meditation class, I asked the meditation teacher, “What if the present moment sucks?” She smiled and suggested I pay attention to it anyway. Continue reading

Why Do You Write?

woman sitting on park bench writing

Faster! The deadline approaches!

Someone asked me this question recently and I had no ready answer. I think of reasons why people do things (at least here in the United States) and they basically come down to:

  1. Make money
  2. Lose weight/look better
  3. Impress other people

At least, that’s what I can tell from my Facebook feed. I can pretty much guarantee you that #2 is not a Reason to Write. As to #1 and #3, here are some reasons to write: Continue reading