Back in 1909, a guy named Charles Eliot (who happened to be the president of Harvard University at the time) suggested that by reading a collection of books that would fit on a 5 foot shelf, you could get yourself a proper liberal education. The collection comes in 51 volumes, and you might have heard of it: the Harvard Classics. They are, admittedly, some of the most important works ever written, and I can’t in good conscience suggest you don’t read them.

But in between your 15-minute stints of reading the Classics, have a look at these books from the last century. They’re not necessarily my favorites (my “favorites” list actually contains a lot of fluff), but they’re the ones I think are most important for a writer to read:

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
Why it’s important: This book marched into four different genres, took a look around, and then proceeded to fuck their shit up.
What you’ll learn from it: The importance of style as it impacts moods and themes, and how to weave mind-breaking subtext through a narrative.

Harry Potter, by JK Rowling
Why it’s important: Harry Potter wasn’t just a series of books, it was a full-blown cultural movement that got kids reading for fun again.
What you’ll learn from it: This series is a master class in world building.

Henry & June, by Anais Nin
Why it’s important: Anais Nin paved the way for female erotica writers.
What you’ll learn from it: The nuances of sensuality, and how sexual attraction can be emotional instead of physical

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
Why it’s important: We should all know exactly where our food comes from.
What you’ll learn from it: I promise it will make you rethink what you have for dinner.

On Writing, by Stephen King
Why it’s important: This is, to date, the closest thing we have to an autobiography from Stephen King, and if you don’t get why that’s important then I’m sorry, but I cannot help you.
What you’ll learn: That it’s okay to not follow contemporary advice about writing.

  • Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. That method is guaranteed to leave you with a half-finished manuscript full of brilliant but unconnected one-liners.
  • Don’t self-edit too much during the writing process. That way lies madness, tears, and alcoholism.
  • Don’t go overboard with details. Your readers aren’t stupid; they can (and will) fill in the blanks on their own.
  • Introduce your back story gradually, not all at once. Reading ten dialog-less pages about the political structure of The Great And Awesome Nation Of Fairy Ninjas is about as interesting as reading a Political Science textbook (unless you’re Frank Herbert, which you’re not, so stop it).
  • Sometimes you will write crap. This is not a surefire indication that you are a talentless hack doomed to a lifetime of ridicule and artistic suffering. All it means is that you’ve written crap. Get over it, and yourself.
  • Make language your bitch. Bend it, twist it, and recreate it. Break rules. Write in incomplete sentences. Make up new words. Do things that would make your fourth grade teacher cry red ink. It won’t always work, but you’ll be surprised at how awesome the results can be.
  • You will consistently break at least one of these rules. If you’re me, you will consistently break all of these rules. And that’s okay. I promise.

(Reposted from my Tumblr blog because I need to remind myself of these things once in awhile.)