Great Books and What I Learned From Them

Sure, I read for pleasure. But as a professional writer, I find myself gleaning lessons from great books. If you write, I’m sure you do the same. Just for fun, I thought I’d share with you thirteen of my favorite books (mostly in science/fiction and fantasy) and what I learned from them.


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

(Susanna Clarke) Here is a book that totally blew away all the usual writing advice and did something completely–well, strange. Incoherent plot, dense, slow scenes, hard-to-discern story problem. What I learned? That if you do one thing supremely well, you can break all the rules. I think what kept my rapt attention here was her unfailing knack for intriguing situations.

A Game of Thrones

(George R. R. Martin) How fantasy can be merely lit by magic at the edges and still feel like the full monty. Martin does so many things well in this series that it’s hard to pick out just one. His characters come to life (how does he Do it?) and his milieu seems palpably real. The kind of book you’re dying to get back to.

Fortress in the Eye of Time

(C.J. Cherryh) The enduring trope of rags-to-riches and how even a slow-paced story can keep us hoping for the underdog’s success.

The Fox Woman

(Kij Johnson) How to write a sex scene. And how to write a literary fantasy novel. This book just knocked me out.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter

(Michael Swanwick) How to make world-building wonderful, startling and true. One of my favorite books in the world.

The Horsemistress Saga

(Toby Bishop) How to write a marvelous YA novel with a cross-over adult market.

Thomas the Rhymer

(Ellen Kushner) How to bring the weird into fantasy. Doing the traditional with a unique brush stroke.

The Blade Itself

(Joe Abercrombie) How a bad plot doesn’t matter if you have a characters like he does. How an uninteresting protagonist doesn’t matter if you have Other characters who are beyond wonderful. Like the amazing Glokta.

Science Fiction


(Ian McDonald) Very dense and intellectual, yet this book sizzles because of, in part, his absolutely brilliant dialogue.

Pushing Ice

(Alastair Reynolds) How it’s possible to pull off in a wildly successful manner, a hard science story with deep characterization.



(James Clavell) The glorious depths of multi-viewpoint storytelling and why it can be just fine to switch POV within a scene.

The Far Pavilions

(M.M. Kaye) How to write an emotional, epic tale. (Major influence for The Entire and the Rose.)

I’ll stop at thirteen. If you like, I can try this again in a future post. I don’t know about you, but I’m Always looking for “favorite novels.” I don’t have time for weak ones!

4 Responses

  1. Charlie Dawn says:

    Great list. I write and am a public library director, so am always perusing the shelves and reviews. Favorite books are a hard topic, but your list made sense. I often tell my writers groups (2 for myself and teenage groups I lead) that I have favorite scenes, endings, characters or dialogue–sometimes it’s the luscious language.

  2. Kay says:

    Sometimes it’s really hard to say what moves us about a book. I always try to analyze it, but sometimes it’s the gestalt. I will say, though, that for me, language can only add to a book’s appeal, it’s never the main thing. But usually if a writer has those luscious style riffs, she also is delivering insight, or character or fascinating plot.

  3. Zeke says:

    I’ve read through a quarter of “Bright of the Sky” and my initial review (posted at Goodreads) wondered whether Shogun was an influence. This post may have answered my question. There are many parallels between the books, at least at my current reading.

    I like the book so far (the first of yours I’ve read, thanks to the free Kindle version) Though the similarities are interesting, they don’t detract from your novel.

  4. Kay says:

    Yes, I love Shogun. I especially was influenced by the sweep of the novel and the many points of view. I note that some readers have complained that I switch POV rather liberally in my quartet. Clavell did that in Shogun; but it appears that American readers are often thrown by the practice. Anyway, now that you mention it, there are quite a few more similarities, but while I was writing I didn’t consciously mirror Clavell’s plot or characters.

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