Becoming a better writer involves many things, including one of my favourite pastimes: reading.
While I have always read, I have noticed that since I have been writing more fiction, I have become more demanding about what I read. By that I mean, if a book isn’t doing it for me, I’m likely to give up on it a lot earlier than I would have done before.
I’ve also become more demanding about the writer’s mastery of language. Perhaps, this is because I have noticed myself editing more as I read. I’ve caught myself thinking about how I might have re-written a sentence that doesn’t quite fit. (I guess you can take the English Language teacher out of the classroom but you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher!)
At the other end of the scale, I have found myself paying more attention to beautifully crafted sentences and good sentence rhythm. I’ve discovered that it’s much harder to write good fiction than it is to write good non-fiction.
I’m reading more short stories and I’ve noticed how much I enjoy them now. Last year I was inspired by the excellent writing of Catherine McNamara in The Cartography of Others. I’m currently inspired by Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love by Huma Qureshi which I bought at the Bath Literature Festival. Both writers have very different styles which means I’m absorbing and learning different techniques whilst reading.
So, which books do I want to read this year? There are many of course, but here are five that I’ve chosen as must-reads that I think will, in some way, influence my journey to becoming a better writer.
1) Normal Women: 900 Years of Making History by Philippa Gregory
This non-fiction book written by Philippa Gregory and stemming from the research she has done for her fiction writing, is a fascinating insight into the lives of women in England over the last 900 years. Gregory examines the ‘hidden’ women (aka those who have not been recorded in history books), who helped to shape the country. Questioning how they got left out of the narrative, she describes women who fought as soldiers, ran businesses, owned property and led social campaigns. Despite having had no legal rights for around 900 years, they still found time to protest against unfair taxes, go to work and manage homes. Sound familiar?
2) The Famished Road by Ben Okri
Ben Okri, a Nigerian writer who emigrated to London as a child won the 1991 Booker Prize for this novel. Since I bought the book, Okri has been knighted for his services to literature. I’ve not yet read anything by Okri, so I think I’m in for a treat.
3) Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
Winner of the Noble Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai shares her story growing up in 1940s in a village in Kenya. She went on to become the first Kenyan woman to earn a PhD and run a university department. In 1977, she established a movement to regenerate land by planting trees in Kenyan forests. The movement, which spread across Africa, employed rural women to plant the trees.
4) White Teeth by Zadie Smith
This one has been on my radar for a while, and, I can’t actually believe I still haven’t read it. Set in Britain in the last part of the 20th century, Smith’s debut novel describes life in multicultural London.
5) A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
This is my book to read in Spanish this year. I have to confess that I love reading Isabel Allende’s books in Spanish. Along with listening to the radio, reading novels is one of my favourite ways of sharpening my language skills. Reading in another language offers a different insight into words and rhythm as well as an opportunity to boost vocabulary. However, it usually requires more effort than reading in your first language. The wonderful thing about Allende is that her writing is so good that it makes it easy to read. I find that I am not only immersed in the language but also fully engaged in the story.
How about you? What books will you read to help you become a better writer or to improve your skills in another language?
I’d love to hear in the comments below which books you plan to read this year and why.
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