When I was growing up in El Segundo, I spent a lot of time in the library. If you are a Post-Internet Writer, you will struggle to understand what I say next: sometimes I ran out of things to read. No stack of books waiting to be read. No iBooks with a million free samples waiting. No Barnes & Noble, only a drug store with a paperback rack and the man behind the counter who told me, “Oh, you don’t want that” when I tried to buy a Donald Hamilton thriller called Murderer’s Row. Okay, it had a tacky cover.
That Was Then, This is Now
Times have changed, oh, boy have they changed, not just in terms of what’s available to read, but in another very important way that I’ll get to in a minute.
The problem is a simple one: so many books so little time. So of course, you read the good ones, the ones you like, the ones that speak to you, the ones by writers you know. And there’s another rub: it is so easy to fill all your reading hours — and none of us have enough — with books by authors you know, books in genres you read, and books and blogs about the art and craft of our calling. Who wants to take a chance? Don’t worry — I’m here to help.
So, you want to read, and you want to write, the clock is ticking, and I appreciate the time you are taking to read this. Thank you. I have prepared a list of titles that you may not have thought of, and in some cases I have picked works where all you need to read is the Preface or Introduction – the start. I know, I know. Time is fleeting, and madness will take its toll unless you exercise some sort of restraint.
Thomas Harris Red Dragon.
Well, not exactly. Take a look at the iBook, and the new Introduction called, “Forward to a Fatal Interview,” where Harris talks about how he wrote the book and how he met Hannibal Lecter. Really, that Forward is what I’m putting on this list, but if you haven’t read the book, my guess is you’ll get sucked in.
Fair warning: this is a creepy one. You know The Scoville Scale for pepper hotness, with jalapeño at 1,000? Well, this one’s a Scotch Bonnet, eight to ten times hotter. I went back to the Forward preparing this essay, got pulled into the book, read it, had to read Silence of the Lambs, and now I’m halfway through Hannibal. The things I do for you people! Oh, wait, I loved them all. Never mind. The Introduction to the e-book is a brilliant treatise on the writer’s craft. And parts of it may keep you awake at night. Heh heh heh.
Janet Evanovich, One For The Money.
That first line! “There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” This is an older part of the series that you might have missed. The series is amazing, if for no other reason than she’s kept it fresh for so long. (I know, I know, I want Stephanie to make up her mind about the men in her life.) But it’s worth it to pay attention to how she gets into the story. Look at the first two paragraphs of Four to Score.
Stephen King Christine.
One of his older works. This is the book that gave me the idea for this essay. I’d read it before, but when I went back to it all at once I appreciated just what an accomplishment it is. If you want to see a virtuoso playing with POV, read this book. First, third, back to first, and he makes it work. No, that’s not quite right, it works as naturally as one of our storytelling ancestors sitting around the campfire, and saying, “I went over the mountain and this is what happened.” It just flows.
If you missed it, for an excellent discussion on POV, see Ann Griffin’s “Cleaning Up Those POV Breaks,” in this blog last week.
E. B. Griffin. The Corps, book 1 for historical detail.
One of the knocks on Griffin is that he gets lost in the detail, loves it, and slows down the story. W-e-l-l, yeah, maybe sometimes. However, he makes it work. Personal note: the book is about U. S. Marines in China in the late 30’s. My father was stationed there at that time and he said, “Griffin got it right. That’s how it was.”
And, if you are doing police procedurals look at Book 1 of the Badge of Honorseries. The man does his homework. The man loves his homework. However, IMHO the early books in both series are much better.
Barbara Tuchman The Guns of August.
This one is also for the Forward describing the creation of this masterpiece. Look for how she worked, the number of rejection slips on her first book, and how much time she invested in the first paragraph, then read that paragraph. Oh, don’t miss the mention of Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda.
One of the comments on Guns of August is she makes it a fascinating subject even when everybody knows how it ends. It’s true, and it’s because of a lot of hard work.
Winston Churchill The Gathering Storm.
The parts about the rising tide of anger, the waves coming in, receding, but not going back as far. I almost left this one off because his prose is so good that reading it makes me want to close Microsoft Word and devote myself to my new game — American Truck Simulator. Take heart — he’s no longer living.
Side note and a personal one: if you read the whole book, and if you have seen “The Darkest Hour” note how kind Churchill is to politicians who were knifing him.
For more on reading, see Orly König-Lopez’ Essay in this blog, “The Best Exercise for Writers is . . . Reading.”
As The Beach Boys say on their concert album. “All right, before we all get kicked out of here, we’re gonna do one more for you.”
Robert A. Heinlein Have Space Suit — Will Travel
All right, I know. You’ve never heard of it. It’s old, it’s not well-known, it’s a juvie. Hey, who’s writing this essay, anyway? Perhaps my single favorite book, HSSWT is one of Robert A. Heinlein’s later juvies (Today they would be called “young adult” novels.)
Listen to how it starts: “You see, I had this space suit. How it happened was like this.”
Bam! The storyteller is inviting you to sit down and listen; he’s got something to say.
This one is worth looking at for a couple of reasons. First, the opening. Okay, I gave some of it away. Second, the female lead is smarter, tougher, and just as brave as Kip, the hero. And this was written in 1958. I said one of the goals of this exercise was to stretch your reading, point you in new directions and this one is it. C’mon, take a look. It’s short, it’s readable.
To Return to Our First Observation
So, how else have times changed? Easy. Writers in the Storm exists. We have somebody to talk to. We’re all in this together, and now it’s your turn. Think about a title, or an essay, that’s important to you, that might help another writer, and that is not on standard “So you want to write” reading lists. Share it. One more time: we’re all in this together.
Writers in the Storm is about writing (and, hence, about nothing less than life itself but that’s a subject for another day), but it’s more than that. It’s more than that because it’s two-way. If I were a betting man, and I am, I’d wager that every reader of this essay thought, “Well, that doesn’t belong on the list, but this does.”
So cough up. Reading is important to us; stretching that reading is also important. So, what would you suggest? Something that is off the radar for most genre writers, a title that readers will look at and think, “Never heard of it. Maybe I’ll take a look.”
“You’ll still be studying the day you retire.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Space Cadet
“I’ll never stop.”
-- The Rolling Stones
James R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City
Mysteries. Last year he branched out and launched two novellas, Crashpad and Buzzkill. These short thrillers are set on a college campus in the turbulent sixties. He can be reached at www.jamesrpreston.com, on Facebook, Twitter, and at firstname.lastname@example.org. His next release will be Remains To Be Seen, the sixth Surf City Mystery.