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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!


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