The Key to Writing Great Books

The best way to learn how to write great books is to read great books.

This statement is deceptively simple, but there are at least three questions which arise from it:

  1. Why should I read great books in order to write great books?
  2. What makes a book 'great'?
  3. Which books specifically should I be reading to hone my craft?
Let's take these questions one at a time, and try to answer them.

First up:

Why should I read great books in order to write great books?

Do you want people to read your book and like it? Do you want them to think that it's great?

My guess is that your answer to both those questions is a big, resounding YES.

So now you need to know what the characteristics of a great book are. The only way to find that out is to experience them as a reader.

But couldn't you just read about what makes a book great? Why do you actually have to read the books themselves?

Think about it this way. You could read a book about the beach, describing what it sounds, smells, and looks like. You could imagine it in your mind. You could listen to people telling you about the beach. But until you experience for yourself the crash of the waves, the scent of sandy salt and the giant swathes of gold and blue, you will never know what the beach is truly like. And one beach is not enough; to get a true understanding of what a beach is like, you have to visit rocky beaches, sandy beaches, shale beaches, sunny beaches, rainy beaches, etc.

The same is true of great literature. To really find out what makes it great, you have to experience it for yourself. There is no other way. And one book is not enough; to get a good idea of what makes a book great, you should read as many as possible. 

Next question:

What makes a book 'great'?

This is a subject of some debate. Is a great book a classic? A bestseller? A really, really long book?

In this instance, a 'great book' as a book which has great literary value. It must be well-written, have believable characters, and a cracking plot (it might also happen to be a classic, a bestseller, or a really, really long book, but that's not the point). There are many books which have only one or two of these three things, and these are certainly worth reading. However a book which has all three is the one which you should aim to be reading, and, of course, the one which you should aim to be writing.

To sum it all up, here's a great quote from a man named Stephen King:

“There are books full of great writing that don't have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story... don't be like the book-snobs who won't do that. Read sometimes for the words--the language. Don't be like the play-it-safers who won't do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.”

 Which books specifically should I be reading to hone my craft?

They must be great books, that is certain. But, in order to hone your craft, what will help you most is reading great books in the genre that you write in. This isn't to say that you should only read one genre -- there are many aspects of great writing that appear in all genres -- but the great books in the specific genre that you write in will help you the most.

As an example, let us say that I am a fantasy author. I would certainly benefit from reading a Jane Austen novel, like Pride and Prejudice, but it would be even better if I read the Lord of the Rings. This is because Pride and Prejudice has all the hallmarks of great literature, but the Lord of the Rings has all the hallmarks of great fantasy (of course, the best thing would be to read both!).

So, to sum up: if you want to write great books, you must read great literature. While all great literature will help you in some way, great literature in your specific genre will help you the most. Remember, though: reading the books is only half the equation. To write great literature, you must try to put into practice what you have learned from the books you read.

One last note: DON'T plagiarise the books you read. Come up with original ideas, and express them in your own beautiful literary way.

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