I’m not given to jumping into challenges on Facebook. But when my friend Jane Stewart asked me to do the “7 days of book covers with no comments or explanation” challenge, I couldn’t resist. Because… books. I’m a writer. If I don’t want to promote books and reading, I am in the wrong business.
But now that the challenge is over, I can’t resist commenting or explaining why I chose these particular books. I chose them because, at the time I read each of them, they all had a big impact on how I view writing fiction.
Long Bright River, by Liz Moore, is a recent crime novel that shows just how complex, just how intricate, a crime novel can be. Amazing depth to characters, a loop-de-loop plot that doesn’t always feel like a mystery, red herrings that had me guessing until the very end, and all tied up in a story about sisters and family relationships. Fascinating.
Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin, has long been a favorite of mine, perhaps my favorite of all time. It’s the language in this book, the absolute aerial use of words, that grabbed me by the heart. I spent a good portion of my time reading this book armed with my parents’ 1910 two-volume dictionary, which included words no longer in contemporary usage. I thought the word choices gave the book an ageless quality, the feel of a good fairy tale, which I’m sure was a part of the goal. I savored this book like no other.
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, is also a long-time favorite. The structure is key here, a series of short stories that, taken together, create a novel. Yes, I was required to study it for a lit class many years ago, but I was mesmerized by the imagery and taken by the idea of intertwining stories coming out of one town and creating a novel in that way.
Stay Here With Me, by Robert Olmstead, is a biography that reads like a novel. It is a study of characters, of feelings, of cause and effect. Oh, the heartbreak in this one! I studied very briefly with the author before he published this book. I wish now that I could go back and ask him more specific questions about how he put the book together, but I think he covered much of his method in the week-long workshop I attended. I guess I always want to get inside a writer’s head even more.
Earthburst, by Dennis Royer, is a great dystopian take on what happens when America loses electricity. While the premise sounds almost preposterous – or at least it did when I first read the book – it is so clear-eyed and character-driven that it becomes believable. Even more so when you read the background on why Dennis wrote the book!
Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech, is a novel written in poetry about a little boy, his dog, his dislike of poetry, and Walter Dean Myers. Not only did it drive into my heart with the force of a sledgehammer, but it also made me cry at the end. And makes me cry every time I read it.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, has long fascinated me by being a murder mystery with deep psychological underpinnings set in a world of extreme privilege. All mysteries have a certain amount of psychology in their makeup, but this one draws it out and carefully defines the motives behind the murder, adding the impact on the perpetrators. A murder and how it all falls apart that is well worth studying.
I added a bonus book to the challenge. Three-Fifths, by John Vercher. To say this was a wallop to the head and heart is putting it mildly. This is a compact novel of 212 pages that shows you that a novel doesn’t have to be long to be good and that it can still be packed with deep characters and riveting action.
Writing fiction is telling a story. The way in which those stories are told vary tremendously and is what keeps those new fiction books coming. These books show a tiny fraction of the ways those stories can be told.
Look at the next novel you read. How does it tell its story? What structure does it use? What kind of language unwraps the characters and settings? Are the characters well-developed? Did the emotion touch your heart? How did it do that?
Studying writing, whether or not you do any writing yourself, is a lifelong project that will give you hours and hours of pleasure. It certainly does that for me.
One more note: I used the Pennwriters mug for the seven days of the challenge. The bonus book is accompanied by my carved logo Starbucks mug. Both of these are favorites of mine and pair well with the books. Each day I chose a different coffee, however. If you want more details, check out my Instagram feed as novelgal.