Books to learn from, books not to learn from

I could have saved myself a lot of trouble as a writer if only I had realized there are certain books you shouldn’t try to learn from.

The problem is, most of these books are the great books.

Of course people should read the great writers, but not to learn how to write from them. I now think it’s better to learn to write from very good commercially successful writers. (Better that is if you’re trying to write the kind of book that will get picked up and published.) So, instead of trying to write like Malcolm Lowry or Chekhov, for instance, I wish I had spent more time trying to write like a good mystery writer. From a sheer “how do they do that?” perspective, you’d do better to read the first Jack Reacher book, THE KILLING FLOOR by Lee Child – because that will teach you everything about creating suspense, planting questions in the reader’s mind, describing vivid characters and scenery quickly and economically. When you are done learning everything you can from THE KILLING FLOOR you will be in good shape.

Great writers are able to do the same of course, but most of the time what they are doing is breaking the rules. They give a master class in rules and rule breaking all at the same time and do it so fluidly that to an aspiring writer it’s often hard to see where the switch occurs. And then there are things of amazing depth happening beneath the surface, all of which get tangled up with the simple bits of craft and make it impossible to see how they did any one thing.

I’ve just finished A BEND IN THE RIVER by V.S. Naipaul, which is an amazing book. And yet it would be a poor instruction manual for anyone trying to learn how to write a novel. Instead, a book like this serves a more inspirational purpose. It is out there, far ahead of what I can achieve. But there’s no map to it that its craft or technique would suggest. I guess what I mean by this is that the great books are not easily copyable. You can only get close to them as a writer by making great leaps yourself, and accepting that most of the time these leaps will fall flat.


The book opening that has me tingling with anticipation

What is it about the first lines of certain books? Can you just tell that something is going to be amazing from the way it begins?

Wanting something of a palate cleanser after the Jack Reacher novel I just devoured, this morning I randomly started “A Bend in the River” by V.S. Naipaul. Here is how it begins:

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

Nazruddin, who had sold me the shop cheap, didn’t think I would have it easy when I took over. The country, like others in Africa, had had its troubles after independence. The town in the interior, at the bend in the great river, had almost ceased to exist; and Nazruddin said I would have to start from the beginning.

“At the bend in the great river” gives me chills. It’s like a fairy tale opening. But the specificity of “Nazruddin” (the mysterious Nazruddin) and the situation (which we grasp at once despite very few facts) make this utterly real. Also, there is a true confidence to the writing. It raises all kinds of interesting questions and sets the scene dead on. But it does everything without fanfare and histrionics.


Front Cover