write to win

Seven books to read before you start writing your own

A first-time author shares her reading list as she was preparing to write her novel.

“I never read a novel till I was 18,” Sunjeev Sahota, author of The Year of The Runaways was quoted as saying. (His book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015 and the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2016). The fact that he grew up in a non-literary household and never read novels in school may resonate with many of us.

After all, not everybody has heard of The Brothers Karamazov; few of us have ever written anything beyond a leave application or a company memo. And yet, the urge to write a book is strong in many of us, for we all have stories to tell.

In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King recommends a “strenuous reading and writing programme of about four to six hours a day” for all aspiring writers. Fair enough – but with a full-time job and family commitments, one might end up feeling overwrought, unless one cuts down on sleep and a social life. Writing (or reading), in that case, will become a painful process and not the creative medium of expression it is meant to be.

But the importance of reading books cannot be overstated. To quote King once again: “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.” So, if you are a late bloomer and think you want to read works to inspire you and to educate you before you start writing your own here is a suggestive list of seven books to help you get started:

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Jane Eyre is a coming-of-age story that depicts the frailties of human beings as seen through the eyes of an orphaned English girl. While all the novels written by the Bronte sisters (Emily, Anne and Charlotte) are legendary, this one in particular has grown in its appeal in recent years.

That’s thanks to the prose, which is evocative and subversive, and the way it addresses themes like love, relationships, gender stereotypes, religion and social classes with deep compassion and tenderness. The novel shows us an old-fashioned away of telling a story, and that’s often the best starting point: you have to know the rules before you can break them.

For a first-time author who wants to master the art of storytelling and create unforgettable characters, this novel is a must read.

The Great Indian Novel, Shashi Tharoor
Published in 1989, this audacious work of fiction recreates the political events of India in the past two hundred years using characters from the Mahabharata, from where it also derives its name. It’s an outrageous work of imagination coupled with control, for Tharoor finds parallels in both events and people without significantly distorting either the myth or history.

The writer’s piquant wit shines through in his crackling narration; his witty innuendos, rumbustious parody, and crafty one-liners leave the readers in splits. There may be other Indian novels of greater literary merit, but a first-time writer can understand here the power of creative imagination and use of literary tropes.

The Colour Purple, Alice Walker
This is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the life of an African American girl who lives in Southern USA. Ever since its publication in 1982, it has been on the list of much-debated novels for its depiction of racism, poverty and class struggle. Walker suggests that these elements often manifest themselves as domestic violence, incest, rape and depravation. The story follows the epistolary style, with the protagonist writing letters to god.

The first line of the novel is one of its most memorable: “You better not never tell nobody but god.” What Walker teaches is the need to let go of purple prose or, indeed, any conscious display of virtuosity when writing. King’s adage – “Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation” – is evident here in unpretentious prose and a sincere voice. Well worth emulating for the first-time writer.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
Presenting an alternate version of British history, this novel is based on the premise that there was once a time when magic was practised in England, though it disappeared afterwards. The story tracks two “practical” magicians, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, who bring magic back to nineteenth century England.

Clarke’s writing is original and refreshing; her sweeping prose transports readers to a land of fables. To ensure that readers have no questions unanswered, Clarke has explained every single detail of the characters and their backstories in her footnotes, a good two hundred of them! That in itself is a lesson for first-time authors who are always in a hurry to submit their half-baked first draft to the publishers, seldom considering the reader and how they would like it.

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
Why this holy grail of books that keep on keeping on? As everyone – even those who don’t read – knows, the novel follows a young boy who travels away from home in pursuit of a hidden treasure that he has seen only in a recurring dream. Despite a narrative that is straightforward and language that is far from literary, the book has won huge global appeal, selling more than 65 million copies in eighty languages worldwide.

What it teaches first-time authors is that a story need not have a complicated plot, multiple characters, rich prose and diverse settings; all it needs is a great idea and someone to convey it as honestly as possible.

The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
A gripping novel about how Harvard don Robert Langdon, an expert on symbols, solves complex puzzles, riddles and anagrams to crack the murder mystery of Jacques Sauniere, head of the Priory of Sion. Despite the pedestrian prose, the book is hugely popular at least in part because it challenges the orthodox narrative of Christianity. And therein lies a lesson for first-timers: attack entrenched beliefs to draw attention.

On Writing: A memoir of the craft, Stephen King
This isn’t fiction – and it had better not be! First-time writers can read this book as an excellent resource, with practical tips and advice. This book is divided into two parts. The first describes King’s personal journey as an author of several bestselling novels. And the second talks about everything that is “writing” – including ideas, plot, characters, grammar, style and narration.

If you’re still left wondering how bestsellers are created, this is what King has to say: “There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up.”

Vani has just completed the sequel to her rom com novel, The Recession Groom.

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