One thing it’s easy to forget to do when you’re all swept up in your novel is to actually read stuff at the same time. You are suckered into your world you’ve created, with total disregard for any other writing or technique or anything. Which is great, in terms of your first draft.
But personally, I find that if I just plough blithely on my hideously bad writing will catch up with me (eventually). It happened with NaNo and I’ve not returned to that novel since. It is just too much work for something I don’t feel invested it any more. So I try my best to read as I write, and here are a range of books I turn to when I am writing and feeling particularly blocked or unable to form a coherently passable sentence.
(NB: I read and write a LOT of YA Fantasy. This list might be slightly biased.)
1. I can’t get my plot to chug along in a cheerful manner.
Answer: The Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan.
Me and one of my close friends adore this series. It’s aimed at 9-12 and is a coming-of-age story about a young orphan called Will who learns to become a Ranger under the close watch of his mentor Halt.
It is particularly good at just evenly treading through the story. There are no epic highs and lows; it’s relatively predictable. But you enjoy the ride, which is something to remind yourself of when you’re getting bogged down in the tiny details and realise that it doesn’t matter about unknotting this tiny little non-important detail. Because you just need to stop getting held up and get on that horse and trot along to that next plot point on the horizon.
2. My magic system seems contrived or isn’t working or doesn’t feel believable in the world I have created.
Answer: Sabriel / Lirael / Abhorsen by Garth Nix.
Sabriel is particularly good at this. With the contrast between Ancelstierre and beyond the wall, you get two different perspectives on magic. It is also relatively minimal. There isn’t a great “LOOK AT THE MAGIC!” shouting from the story; it’s just there. And it’s ‘just there’ in a different way in Ancelstierre compared to how it’s ‘just there’ beyond the wall. Nix integrates it slowly into the story as we travel with Sabriel, with a couple of the Dead challenging Sabriel to move the plot forwards. It makes you think about the integration of magic in the original world, and trying to separate the two in your head by reading any of these books might help them fuse back together.
3. My character’s voice just doesn’t seem to be strong enough. (esp. first person POV).
Answer: Chaos Walking by Patrick Ness.
This a thousand thousand times yes. This series possibly has the most amazingly crafted voices I’ve ever read. There is no moving away from them, there is no moment where the voice seems to fade – it’s just an onslaught of character from beginning to end that take you on the most amazingly horrific journey through their broken world.
The first person viewpoint is the main reason I have chosen this: I find first person hard to write and so I’ve referred to this series on numerous occasions to remind me what good first person voice sounds like.
4. I’m on a quest. They’re STILL walking through the woods. Snooze.
Answer: The Books of Pellinor series by Alison Croggon.
One of the reasons I love Croggon’s writing so much is that it is very lyrical. This must surely stem from her being a poet for many years before turning her hand to novel-writing – but even so, the resulting style is impressive.
It is also a quest across four books, and there’s only so many ways someone can say “and then they carried on riding through the woods because nothing interesting happens until they reach their destination”.
What I learn from re-reading the Pellinor books is that you need to learn to punctuate your quest with tiny bits and pieces that might come in useful later. In The Gift, for example, there are two main stop-offs on Maerad’s quest that take up two whole sections of the book. At the time it seems like an odd place to go for no obvious reward, but it ties into the alter books beautifully. One does not simply go off on a quest.
5. I can’t write this fantasy story properly and all my world-building is falling apart and my characters aren’t doing what they’re told and AAAAARGH.
Answer: Read ANYTHING AT ALL. But preferably something that is the complete and utter opposite of what you’re writing.
This is something I don’t do enough of. When you are completely and utterly stuck and despairing, reading the genre you are writing can sometimes be totally counter-productive. After all, you are essentially reading what you wish you were writing like, are reading it to try and make your writing better, and then risk plunging into the spiral of despair which is your inability to instantly replicate bestseller writing.
Today, for example, I began reading Alexander McCall Smith’s retelling of Emma, the original of which I love (second only to Pride and Prejudice). Couldn’t be further from young teenage fantasy writing. Yesterday, I read the new Princess Diaries book. That is also SO far from what I write. But just reading how someone else has put different sorts of words on the page is so useful. I learnt from the first fifty pages of the Emma retelling how to use language to build of character in a not-too-exposition-y way. I learnt (or rather, was reminded) from the Princess Diaries that actually, characters do not speak like they sometimes turn out on my page. They are teenagers. Historical fantasy teenagers, but teenagers nonetheless.
(AKA books about writing for writing if you want to get all technical and stuff).
The Creative Writing Coursebook ed. Bell/Magrs. It would not be unrealistic to say this book is almost like a bible to me on writing. There are chapters and exercises for everything. A go-to source.
No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. Because when that first draft just won’t get done, some NaNoWriMo words of wisdom will sure come in handy. And if nothing else, you’ll have a good laugh as Baty has a good comic touch.
Happy reading (for your writing!)