9 Unlikely Reads that Will Make Your Writing Better

There are thousands of “best books for writers” lists out there. (I’ve written one!) But what about the inspiration that comes from all around us? Not just Bird By Bird (even though everyone should have read this one by now…) but poetry, graphic novels, non fiction etc. Writers always have their eyes and ears open about ideas and jumping off points. Where do your ideas come from?

Here are 9 Unlikely Reads that Will Make Your Writing Better:

1. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

One of the most important skills a writer can have is to deeply understand the human condition. Everyone we meet in life is going through a personal struggle and so should every character. Tiny Beautiful Things is Cheryl Strayed’s book of advice from her former Dear Sugar column in The Rumpus. This book is profound in its way to relate to people and thinking about the meaning of our troubled lives.

2. Neruda

I’m a strong believer in the power of poetry. Everyone has their own go-to poet, but mine has long been Neruda. I’m a sucker for love stories and sometimes it feels like every story that can ever be told has already been written. Neruda (and many poets) have a way of distilling love and life into such simple and clear notes that it rejuvenates your inspiration and teaches us that simple stories are the most powerful.

3. This One Summer written by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki 

Emotions are conveyed not only in words, but often in images. This One Summer took the world by storm with its beautiful coming-of-age story set to illustrations. It won awards for its portrayal of adolescence featuring secrets, melancholy and wistfulness. When you write, images are often filling your mind and as a writer you try to get them down on paper. One of the hardest things to do is communicate what’s in your head and get it down on the page. This graphic novel is a reminder of the power of imagery.

4. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This is an award-winning portrayal of a child looking for her place in the world. We’ve all felt like outsiders, but diversity and diverse representation in literature is something all writers should be working towards in their fiction. Please pick this up.

5. This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

Comedy is not easy to write. In fact, humor might just be the hardest thing to write. Time after time, I see writers who are writing what their idea of funny is, when in fact, we all have a different sense of humor. This Is Where I Leave You is darkly funny and never lets the reader forget that sometimes humor comes from unexpected places.

6. Shakespeare 

Everyone has a favorite play. Mine is Macbeth. It’s one of his easier reads, but I am always very moved by the motivation of the characters. Greed, love, passion, and legacy are universal emotions that never get old and never date themselves. I think Shakespeare is a great way to reconnect with the themes of life that run deep in our DNA.

7. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Writing for teens is not easy. Ask any YA author. What makes this book soar is its ability to remind us what our teen years were like in a honest way that few books can. We can all remember what our high school days felt like, but that’s through the lens of years of healing. Few writers can tap into the true life and death emotions that teens feel about love, life and their futures. This book is a great teacher in knowing your audience.

8. August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

Family drama is my favorite kind of drama. Secrets buried by family members for the sake of their own sanity–this is a hook I can always get behind. I was blown away by this screenplay, which was originally written for the stage. Southern charm, family issues that span generations and learning what stigmas/secrets/ways of living are genetic and what you can leave behind is a lesson that takes decades to learn. This is a beautiful script based on a moving play that you can find in the link above under “2013 Screenplays.”

9. Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

Writing a novel, is very obviously different than writing a screenplay–that’s easy to see. “Saving the cat” is a metaphor for more than just writing for the screen. Saving the cat is about letting your story and characters reach an all time low, and then bringing them out from the darkness when it seems too bleak. Don’t be afraid to challenge your characters and risk losing the cat–you’ll always find a way to save her.

Q: What unconventional books, plays or stories inspire you? 

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

13 thoughts on “9 Unlikely Reads that Will Make Your Writing Better

  1. Lovely post!

    Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives provides a story through the point of view of over 20 characters. For writers it provides a chance to analyze multiple POVs and the details that differentiate each one of them. It helped me a lot with my current novel.

    There’s a version of José Saramago’s Blindness (don’t know if it’s available in English) that has absolutely no periods or commas. For me it gave me a new perspective on fluidity and rhythm.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Geteiltes Blut and commented:
    Super Post von Literaturagentin Carly Watters über Bücher, die unser Schreiben besser machen – und die keine Schreibratgeber sind!

    “This Is Where I Leave You” habe ich in unserer Lehr-Buch Kategorie auch empfohlen; außerdem sehr empfehlenswert zum Genießen und Lernen, wie ich finde, sind:

    “This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage” von Ann Patchett
    “Night Film” von Marisha Pessl
    “Gone Girl” von Gillian Flynn
    “How to Fly a Horse” von Kevin Ashton
    “We Were Liars” von E. Lockhart

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo. This is an excellent book all on its own, but particularly useful for writers wanting to master “internal” story arcs. Since the protagonist cannot move or speak (a bold move for any writer) the primary storyline is about what happens to him on the inside. So well done.

    Excellent list, by the way. Some of these I’ve never heard of. I’ll have to check them out. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Donna, I think another great short story that has that internal monologue is by Jean Stafford called “The Interior Castle.” It is well written and very insightful about the psyche of one who is undergoing a surgery. Also Tillie Olsen’s, “I Stand Here Ironing” gets into memory and the internal monologue.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oooh nice! Thanks for the recommendations. I haven’t heard of “The Interior Castle,” but I’ve read Tillie Olsen’s. I actually had the privilege of speaking with her at a conference I attended in college. It was amazing. :)


  4. Great list. I’ll have to check some of these out! A few of my favorite inspire-me-to-write reads:

    Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan
    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
    I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

    I find that books with very strong, unique voices are the ones that get me itching to be typing away at my keyboard, finding my own.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I saved all the books in my Amazon shopping cart for later purchase (I just bought eight other books yesterday). Unusual choices yes, but having read a few pages from each one of them, they all seem interesting. Thank you so much for putting the list together!

    My addition to the list would be a biography of Audrey Hepburn, Audrey: Her Real Story, by Alexander Walker. A truly inspiring person who could serve as inspiration for many fiction heroines.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I will add these titles to my Google Play Books. When I review the samples, I just might buy them.

    Some pieces that have inspired me through the years:

    -Susannah Spurgeon’s “A Carillon of Bells.” Her writing is amazing. Although some may think her antiquated, she has a keen eye for imagery and sensibility for sound and landscape. She is a natural observer of her surroundings and applies what she feels to where she is.

    – Cortazar. I am reading his short stories after not being so impressed in my college days. I can see them now with a new persepective. I especially like El rio. This one is helping me hone in on a structure and narrative voice I am looking to use.

    -Laurie Colwin. “Mr Parker.” I enjoy its simplicity, its pace. I like how we learn a lot from the protagonist’s mother with the few lines she says. Very loaded and dives into a layer of her character, as minor as it may seem, and how it influences the story.


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