The Craft: What New Writers Should Read

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Every writer starts as a reader. You read something good, then something great and one day you think to yourself, “Maybe I can do this?”

For me the gateway, that first great work, was The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. I was in high school, sophomore year and I got hold of the junior/senior reading list. The list had Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and the Possessed on the list, but it was The Brothers Karamazov that really grabbed my eye.

It was the first book to grab me and never let go. It was especially the famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor” that blew me away. I can’t say that was the moment I decided to be a writer (that came a bit later), but there was something special, I would even say, sacramental, about that moment. I can’t recall ever being so moved by a work of art—a book, song, painting or game—it literally changed  me and my worldview. It was a huge step down the writer’s path.

Of course, a lot has happened since then. I’ve been to Russia to visit the old master’s grave at the Tikhvin Cemetery in St. Petersburg.

I’ve even become a writer myself. And my estimation of Fyodor has changed. Chekhov is my favorite Russian writer right now with Gogol a close second.

As an emerging writer, my reading habits have changed too. I tend to read things like author’s letters and biographies that I never used to read. Whenever I get discouraged I dip into one of them and I’m reminded that my plight is not unique. That writers through the ages have all suffered from the same maladies: getting  published, not having enough money, the constant distractions, the sudden dry spells. Even trolls are not exclusively an Internet-era phenomena. Ever since critics have been around some of them just can’t stop at criticizing the work, but can’t help but get in a few jabs at the person behind the work too. Sad to say, it’s always been part of the gig.

So, for those writers just starting out, here’s what I recommend reading to keep you motivated, focused and learning.

1. The Paris Review interviews with authors.

If you read nothing else on this list, read the Paris Review interviews. I found these by chance during a visit to a used bookstore (they can be found in book form as well). I thumbed through the first volume and ended up walking out with the rest at a reduced price.

They were so valuable to read because they showed me that while all writers are similar, they have quite different habits. What works for one writer won’t work for the next. For example, Hemingway wrote standing up. If I had to do that, my writing would be total crap. But, hey, it worked for Ernest.

The PR interviewers asked lots of great personal questions about the author’s schedule and work habits. This is great because it drives home the point that you just have to find what works for you and stick with it. Some writers had to write in the morning, some had to at night. Some had to write in quiet and solitude, some had to write at a café or bar. Some liked to write detailed outlines of the plot before starting, some liked to just get a basic scene (E.M. Forster) and then build a whole novel from it.

The bottom line: find what works for you and stick with it.

2. Your favorite author’s first work.

Sure, you’ve read Moby Dick, but have you read Typee?

Selection bias distorts lots of things. For a writer, one of the most pernicious is reading authors’ best works only or predominantly. You think Melville, and you think Moby Dick. You think Shakespeare, and there’s Hamlet. You think Cormac McCarthy, there’s Blood Meridian.

But what about Typee? Or The Two Gentlemen of Verona? Or, God forbid, The Orchard Keeper????

The point is: if you’re a starting writer it’s HIGHLY unlikely you’ll produce a Moby Dick, Hamlet or Blood Meridian on your first time out. Melville didn’t, McCarthy didn’t, Shakespeare didn’t. And they all had/have loads of talent. So don’t compare yourself to those works. Rather, start reading your favorite writers’ first works and you’ll start to see they were just humans and that their writing has flaws.

This is exactly what I did with my hero, Dostoyevsky. I read Poor Folk. And guess what? Even as a Dostoyevsky Diehard, I had to admit it was just “OK.” Reading that book got me to thinking seriously for the first time, “Hey, maybe somebody like me could write.”

3. Your favorite author’s letters.

In turns out in the olden days, some twenty years ago, there were no blogs. Heck, there was hardly an Internet. The next best thing, the blogs of their day, were personal letters. They were revelatory, personal and mercifully short. They’re still a great way to get insight into the inner thoughts of writers.

That’s why I’ve recently starting reading author’s letters. Again, pick your favorite writers and try to track down their collected letters. Two great collections from my favorites are selections from Chekhov’s letters and Steinbeck’s letters.

It’s very soothing to see these greats as they grapple with serious setbacks and revel in little victories. Take Steinbeck on self-doubt:

I have been filled with a curious cloying despair. I haven’t heard a word from any of my manuscripts for over three months. It is nerve-wracking. I would welcome rejections far more than this appalling silence.

My new novel slumbers. I doubt myself. This is a very critical time…

– To George Albee, spring 1931.

As a writer, you’re never alone. There is a great community past and present that faced the same problems you face every day. But somehow they persisted and overcame. The letters they left us are a great reminder of that.

Alright, that’s my reading advice. It should give you quite a bit of homework to do. Good luck and we’ll see you again soon. Until then…

Keep reading, keep writing,


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