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? 

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What novelists can learn from Serial Podcast

Anyone else get into the Serial podcast these past few months?

True crime, compelling storytelling, angle by angle each week–I was hooked!

Serial is the most popular podcast in the history of the format, 5 million downloads and streams. So what makes it so powerful? Let’s unpack it.

So what can novelists learn from the power of podcasts, and Serial?

1. Power of narrative. Everyone knows what great storytelling can do: make you cry watching a commercial, make a book unforgettable. Even the simplest stories, if done well, can bring you to the brink of tears. (Opening of Up anyone?)

2. Serialization format. Like Wattpad, Serial worked because we learn a little at a time which ends up contributing to the greater picture and brings anticipation with each instalment. Wattpad has had many success stories that lead to traditional publishing deals and is a great way for writers to see if they have what it takes to tell a story chapter by chapter.

3. Learning character motivation. One of the most interesting things about Serial was trying to figure out who had the motivation to commit Hae’s murder. People are complex (and your characters should be too) and there often isn’t a reason for everything. So how do you make characters 3D? Give them real life situations and life-or-death motivations. Everything they do should feel bigger than what’s on the page.

4. Universal themes. The reason Serial was such a big hit was that it touched on emotions and triggers that are universal in nature: love, loss, jealousy, revenge, friendship, secrecy, trust. Don’t try to make human nature more complex than it is. We’re simple in that we’ve had the same concerns since Shakespeare, and even earlier than that really.

5. (Un)reliable narrators. Who do you trust? Who is telling the truth? A classic dilemma in literature and in life. Do we really know anyone? How can you bring this dilemma to your writing and to your narrators?

6. Multiple angles. Serial had experts, friends and family weighing in. Seeing the act of murder from many people’s eyes makes you wonder which perspective is the most accurate one. Can anyone have an opinion worth hearing if they weren’t there? Think about how multiple POV can bring more to your book than a single POV.

7. Memory. Memory is a very strange thing. What do we really know? And if we don’t remember something does that mean it didn’t happen the way people tell us it did? Memory has had a long history in literature, but it’s always an interesting writing trope. Human’s don’t have perfect memory and it shouldn’t be surprising when your characters don’t either.

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Q: That’s what I took from Serial. What was your favorite part of Serial from a writer’s perspective?

High Concept: What is it? Do you need it? And how do you know if you have it?

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, a high concept example.

High concept is something I repeated say I, and other people in the industry, am looking for. But what is it?

My succinct definition is highly unique concept with mass-market appeal. This also relates back to my post last week on agents and editors not knowing what they want until they see it. I, as an agent, do not do the creative portion of the job. The high concept book is one that revels in creativity and that ‘specialness’ that will bring the mass-market together in a way that we as readers didn’t know before. I don’t know I want it because you, the writer, haven’t written it yet. [If you have, send it over ; )]

What are the high concept key ingredients? 

  • The premise is often bigger than the characters.
  • You can easily explain it in an exciting two line pitch.
  • The short pitch will raise eyebrows and immediately attract attention.
  • High concept isn’t just a ‘big book’, it’s a big book that is based on premise.
  • It can be controversial.
  • It can have a big twist.
  • It is something that seems so obvious and straightforward, but no one has thought of it before.
  • High concept is usually commercial-literary, while ‘big books’ are commercial.
  • The idea and themes are universal.

The trajectory of a high concept book looks like this: an agent sees it and must have it, knowing it is something special; the agent is easily able to write a great pitch letter to editors based on a short, succinct and very intriguing hook; once the book has an editor the editor is able to garner in-house attention through early excitement; sales staff are then able to impress booksellers with a book that will stand out and sell copies; the book is then stocked with front of store placement; and finally customers do the rest! The marketing and publicity opportunities for high concept are plentiful. And, simple and very intriguing hooks are what attract Hollywood attention. Continue reading High Concept: What is it? Do you need it? And how do you know if you have it?