Another new year approaches – write a good one! x
Another new year approaches – write a good one! x
2017 was a remarkable year for fiction and nonfiction. From fearless debut novelists to established literary veterans at the top of their games, authors provided the artistic tonic we needed to survive a turbulent time both politically and culturally.
Narrowing down a reading list of 116 titles to just 35 was torture. The final grouping you’re about to read (and judge) could have easily been expanded to include 50 to 60 books. Please feel free to debate these choices and add your own in the comments section.
As always, keep reading everyone!
Megan Cassidy Hall deserves a writing award for the faux-comments section alone. Her epistolary exploration of a sensational crime, and how society reacts to it, is both haunting and incredibly sad.
I still have this trippy, mind-bending novel in my head. You’ll question your own reality after reading this, but you won’t question N.J. Campbell’s talent.
In a year when we desperately needed as many genuine love stories as possible, Carolyn Porter delivered a great one. Her hunt for the truth behind a World War II survivor’s letters led to a splendid and deeply personal read (as well as a beautiful font!).
Jeffrey Kluger’s return to the Apollo missions provided 2017 with the same burst of hope that Apollo 8 gave 1968 (one of the most turbulent years in American history). A thrilling narrative featuring the crew of Apollo 8 that reminds you of what Americans are capable of when reaching for the same stars.
Vanessa Grigoriadis’ curious and wide-ranging reporting in Blurred Lines warmed my journalist soul even while making my skin crawl. Sexual assault on campus remains a complicated, serious issue, and, judging by Grigoriadis’ revelations, will continue to be one until colleges and universities make even more substantial changes to their policies and punishments.
There’s not a bad sentence in this book. Kat Howard should be a household name. She makes you care deeply for all of her characters – even the evil ones – as she’s putting them all through (magical) hell.
David Joy is the poet of broken characters. He gets better and better with every novel. The Weight of This World puts a hole through your heart with a shotgun and uses bourbon to salve the wound.
Ella May Wiggins lives in the past, but would be right at home fighting against our current political demagogues. She’s a reluctant rebel, one driven to protest in order to feed her starving family. A finely drawn supporting cast experiences the novel’s tragic events through myriad personalities, racial identities, and disparate classes. Urgent historical fiction of the highest order.
Still amazed at the answers Sebastian Barry gave during our podcast interview earlier this year. He combined his love of the American Civil War stories and his son to deliver a truly remarkable western.
A powerful read about the aftermath of a terrible tragedy perpetrated by a lost and confused teenager. No one comes off looking particularly well in this narrative, told in part through email chains and online chats, but it’s that broken humanness that makes The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves so devastating and gripping. Top-notch writing.
The first chapter alone should win some kind of literary prize. It sets the tone of the novel and feels so immediate considering the political climate in the United States and around the globe. And that ending…so good!
The Story of My Teeth further cements Valeria Luiselli as one of the most important voices in fiction and nonfiction. Read this and everything else she’s written.
American War is a cautionary tale that seems more and more realistic with each passing day. It’s a visceral, brutal thriller that peels apart the many layers of American dysfunction and partisanship.
Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses were two of my favourite main characters in 2017. Whitaker puts them through hell (some of it self-inflicted), but never leaves them completely hopeless. Author Julie Buntin called this novel “goddamned brilliant” in June’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” and she’s 100% goddamn right.
Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story collection is masterful. I had so much fun listening to Levar Burton read the title story on his podcast “Levar Burton Reads,” and then hearing Arimah talk about the collection on a later episode.
Bianca Marais’ storytelling is so mesmerizing that you’ll constantly mutter, “Just one more chapter…” while reading the novel. Robin and Beauty don’t have it easy for much of the narrative, but they’re equal parts fragile and flinty throughout the narrative. Marais’ sparkling debut explores everything from race relations to familial bonds.
How do you follow up The Cartel, one of the best novels written about the ongoing drug war in Mexico and the Southern United States? If you’re the master of crime fiction, you write The Force, a gripping thriller about a corrupt cop in New York City. A master class in dialogue and plot.
Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer (#2 on last year’s list), and followed it up with an equally compelling, earthy, and poignant short story collection. He’s rightly become an essential voice on the literary scene.
It’s been such a joy following Elliot Ackerman’s career as a journalist and novelist. His debut Green on Blue was one of our favourite novels in 2015, and his stellar sophomore effort, Dark at the Crossing, was nominated for this year’s National Book Award.
I Was Told To Come Alone is an extraordinary memoir about a life in journalism. Souad Mekhennet’s journey from inquisitive child to fearless reporter tasked with communicating with jihadists is impossible to forget. Her final chapter is a call to arms for journalists and global citizens alike.
This is the first book I read in 2017, and it really set the bar high. Bennett’s wisdom and verve are evident on every page. I found myself falling in love with the characters all over again revisiting the novel for this post.
Note: The Mothers was published late in 2016, but I read it in January 2017 so I’m counting it for this year’s list. It’s my post, I can do what I want!
I loved how Hala Alyan structured her debut novel. She wrote from multiple characters’ perspectives and jumped forward several years in the timeline throughout the book. This allowed her to explore themes like the aftermath of war and the development of familial relationships in a really heartfelt way. Her dialogue sang like poetry.
Joshua Mohr’s fiction is defined by brutal honesty. He upped the stakes by telling his own sordid (Mohr’s adjective of choice) tale. Make sure you listen to Mohr read from a section in Sirens (sure to elicit both laughter and tears) from our live event at Porter Square Books earlier this year. Very much looking forward to the follow up Model Citizen!
I finished Gabe Habash’s insanely well written debut in one sitting. Spending time in Stephen Florida’s head was like sitting on top of a runaway freight train.
The only thing I enjoyed more than this steamy satire was discussing it with Dave Pezza for #NovelClass. I loved the way Perrotta depicted his middle-aged female lead and how he crafted her eclectic supporting cast.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’m a sucker for coming-of-age stories. Julie Buntin’s Marlena is one of the best ever written, and one that makes me want to up my writing game. It’s been rightly feted all year, and I’d love to see this story on screen.
“Moving,” “romantic,” “tender,” and “violent” are all words I used to describe Exit West back in March. One of the central questions Hamid attempts to answer is, “Can new love blossom and survive in a war zone?” His answers are as poetic as they are heart breaking. And it all starts with this stellar opening line: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”
Celeste Ng has no rival when it comes to crafting characters. Those that populate Little Fires Everywhere are deliciously damaged. Tangled small town drama has never been this illuminating.
Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing has its own heartbeat that you feel through its spine. All the ghosts that her characters are living with feel like they’re right next to you as you read.
Soli, one of Lucky Boy’s main characters, is one of the most memorable, tough, and fierce mothers in fiction. You’ll find yourself rooting just as hard for her brilliant counterpart Kavya. Between them is a young boy unaware of the passionate struggle to claim him on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. I read this early in 2017 when the first of President Trump’s Muslim bans was enacted. It was a powerful read then, and remains one now in the face of continued xenophobia and discrimination.
Deep space, an astronaut tortured by the romance he left behind, and a spider that may or may not be imaginary. What’s not to love? Plus, my favourite cover of the year (not biased at all by the giant coffee cup)!
I’m still amazed that Rachel Khong packed so much heart, humour, and human themes into such a short novel. Khong is one of my favorite risk-taking debut novelists.
Speaking of risk-takers, Zinzi Clemmons wrote an innovative, emotionally devastating novel that I continually re-read to get inspired. She’s a must-follow on Twitter as well.
I, perhaps unfairly, have compared every book I’ve read in 2017 to Jami Attenberg’s flawless All Grown Up. Attenberg told me in a podcast interview earlier this year that she wanted to “write something funny and contemporary, and loose and bittersweet.” She succeeded on all levels. This novel will be on my annual re-read list for years to come.
Epic in scope and passionately written, Pachinko has been my number one since the day I started reading it. Min Jin Lee is a treasure. “History has failed us, but no matter,” my favourite opening line of 2017, still gets me.
So there you have it. These were the 35 best books of 2017 chosen by the Writer’s Bone crew – but what do you think? Do you agree? Are there books you would add to that list? Feel free to pop them in the comments below so we can check them out for ourselves.
Here’s to a biblio-fantastic 2018!
So, two weeks ago, I set the challenge of writing a Christmas Acrostic poem, and I may have mentioned that I first did this when I was in school. I didn’t want to influence yours in any way so I didn’t tell you anymore than that, but now that you’ve had two weeks to think about it, and seeing as it’s that festive sharing time of year, here, for anyone who’s interested, is my attempt at a Christmas acrostic poem (aged 10). Enjoy!
Cradle rocking in a stable
Happy Christmas to all that bring
Robin redbreast watching Mary
Ice covers the earth below
Stable getting colder and colder
Tiny Jesus born today
Music comes to the little prince
Angels praise him up above
Santa reminds us with his gifts, every Christmas time that comes
Merry Christmas everyone xx
Merry Christmas Writers & Bibliophiles! ☃🎄📚🎅
T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
Not a kindle was stirring, nor even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the fire with care
In hopes that books would soon appear there.
The bibliophiles nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of fairy-tales danced in their heads.
Stories of heroes and villains and such,
And rescuing fair maidens from a dragon’s clutch.
Or vampires and fairies; witches and wizards;
The Fellowship of the Ring fighting through a blizzard.
Romantic tales of getting the girl;
Or thrillers, and bloodshed for diamonds and pearls.
All types of stories and genres of book,
Read for the love of an exciting hook.
Oh Santa, please, be a dear thing,
A new novel or two or three with you bring.
And in the morning what will you find?
A new box of stationary or machine to bind;
A retro typewriter or flashy new Mac;
Some brand new notebooks and pens in a pack.
Some writer-themed clothing, a bookmark or two,
Any and all could be useful to you.
But the real present we all hope to see
Is something book-shaped under the tree.
Merry Christmas Bibliophiles xx
Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books they’ve read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Here are their recommendations for December 2017:
SMOTHERED BY M.C. HALL
THE DEMON CROWN BY JAMES ROLLINS
THERE ARE MORE BEAUTIFUL THINGS THAN BEYONCÉ BY MORGAN PARKER
THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES BY JAMES HAN MATTSON
KING OF SPIES BY BLAINE HARDEN
WHAT WE BUILD UPON THE RUINS BY GIANO CROMLEY
THE FROZEN HOURS BY JEFF SHAARA
DOUBLE FEATURE BY OWEN KING
COLORADO BOULEVARD BY PHOEF SUTTON
A NEGRO AND AN OFAY BY DANNY GARDNER
THE LAST PLACE YOU LOOK BY KRISTEN LEPIONKA
THE PLOT IS MURDER BY VM BURNS
ARE YOU SLEEPING BY KATHLEEN BARBER
Click on the links above for a detailed synopsis of each book, or follow the following link to see what the Writer’s Bone crew had to say: http://www.writersbone.com/book-recommendations/2017/12/7/17-books-that-should-be-on-your-radar-december-2017
We’re an odd lot, novelists. Obsessive. Why else does someone launch a project that consumes so much time and holds out such a wavering promise of reward? I wrote my first three novels in deep night—the only time I had—and I used to put things away (in a dish bucket, set against the kitchen wall) in a tired heave of sadness, as if I might never pick them up again, as if my fledgling world might never be real. And of course it never was, because that’s a large part of the siren call of the novel: Come hither and create your own world. Put what you know and believe and want into story. Defy the randomness of real life; make meaning. This is a long-haul project and it is so much a part of who you are, you can’t imagine not doing it, not even if it takes years.
Maybe you, like me, write in your hidey-hole and people who know you have no idea how much you’ve taken on. Maybe you’ve found a workshop or a graduate program to help you in your endeavor. Either way, you must know by now that you have a world of figuring out to do.
Just know this: You are uniquely you, and the novel you write is one nobody else can.
I’ve written seven novels. That doesn’t count the first one; I spent years, only to discover when it was done that I was sick of it. (I had learned a lot, though.) It doesn’t count the one I lost. (I thought I stored it in the linen closet, but it wasn’t there when I searched for it.) It doesn’t count drafts, that’s for sure. It doesn’t count false starts (a box of them), or the ones I’ve been writing in my head for a decade while I tell myself I’m done with novels.
I’ve read shelves and shelves of novels. Hundreds of reviews. (I’ve written them, too.) Stacks of criticism. Biographies and memoirs of writers. But what matters to the present subject is this: I have immersed myself in the struggles of at least 200 aspiring novelists, many in one-week workshops in summer writing festivals over 20-plus years, and others in semester-long or year-long mentorships. I immerse myself in outlines and drafts. These writers have put themselves out there in a scary, exciting way. It has been my privilege to help them find new insights and fresh resolve. There is among aspiring writers an incredible range of interests, backgrounds, sense of story, and confidence, but there are many things they have in common. They are readers. They are intrigued by human nature. They are dogged.
One day it dawned on me that every summer, every semester, I have reinvented the wheel. Now, going through my teaching materials, I see that, however I may have recast notes, talks, exercises, and guidelines, there are consistent themes. I want to share what I have learned in my writing and teaching life, with special gratitude for the generosity of so many writers over so many years.
You can find many books to help you produce the first draft of a novel, especially if you subscribe to a popular theory of story much loved by screenwriters. Their strategy of structuring with acts, journeys, plot points, and arcs seems to be ratified by the success of many commercial movies, but is less helpful in developing deep story. If you want to review the basics of screenplay structure, you should read Syd Field, who popularized the model 30 years ago.
My advice is short and simple.
You should feel driven by a story you want to tell, even if you don’t know every nuance of it.
You must be able to live with the ambiguity of the enterprise.
You must have a commitment to a schedule of writing.
No one can teach you how to write a perfect ﬁrst draft.
If you can say, Yes, I’m up to that, and you are just beginning, you may do best by ignoring instruction, at least until your dream is on the page. Free from rules, you may discover you have something in you nobody else has thought of. What rules did Markus Zusak ignore, writing The Book Thief, with Death as the narrator? Or Kate Atkinson, with the dazzle of her innovative Life After Life, in which her characters live more than one life? Amor Towles painted 30 years of Russian history in the confines of a single setting, a hotel, in A Gentleman in Moscow.
However much you think you know your story, however much you love it, allow yourself the freedom of discovery. Think of yourself as solving a mystery. What if? Why? Be wary of judging your work too soon. Sticking with a novel means going forward, not round and round. I say that even though I myself am a slow, deliberate writer at the sentence level. I don’t pour out pages; I feel as if every line tells me something about what the next line has to be. But I also don’t worry over the pages I’ve already written until I have a substantial draft. I learned early on that I could end up trying to perfect passages that don’t belong in the novel at all. Or I could lose my urgency to discover what next. I learned to jump ahead when I felt stymied. I started two of my novels in the middle.
Keep in mind that a first draft may be a kind of fishing expedition, a mess of a manuscript. You may not be ready to leap to revising. “First draft” should be thought of as a canopy off writing, holding however many drafts it takes to get you to the place where you feel you have grasped the story and put it on the page. You have to know how it ends. You have to know what it means.
The “first draft” of my first published novel was 1,084 pages long. It took about 14 months to write. (Remember, those were typewriter days.) I wrote ferociously and joyously. Then I had to figure out how to define reasonable parameters for the novel, and when I cut it, I discovered a huge imbalance between what I had said the most about and what I’d skimmed over. I made a painstaking outline by hand, on lined paper. There were no word processors. I had to start over with fresh paper in a typewriter. That was what it meant to revise. (I kept the boxes that held that draft in the disused cabinets over the refrigerator for many years, until they were archived. And I looked at them from time to time, a reminder of what I did, what I can do.)
When I wrote what I thought was the finished manuscript of More Than Allies, my perspicacious agent told me she liked a minor character in the story the best of all—and that character became one of the two main characters in a total rewrite. I learned to stay fluid, patient, open, and determined. Every stage has its hurdles—and its rewards.
Have fun ﬁnding your way.
You might want to toss a chapter and start over. Fine. You might want to try out a different point of view. You could discover your heavy drama is a comedy after all. You might realize you need a lot more background (setting, history) built into the story (a common concern); or you might realize that your research is clogging the manuscript’s arteries. Insight comes when you are immersed in the story, and you then have to decide whether to go back or keep going. I’m inclined to say keep going but make lots of notes about your prospective changes. You have to tell yourself that the most important thing is to get enough story down that you have something to work with; you will know more with every page you write; you can change things in the next draft.
Once you have that first full draft, you are on a different plane of writing. You’ve done a lot of stumbling and fretting, but you’ve figured out a story and you have this product, written out from beginning to end. Congratulations. Now you are ready for the next step. Unless you can do it in one go. There are writers who don’t revise full drafts, but I think that for them revising is a stream of higher consciousness.
It is instructive and fascinating to read about Gustave Flaubert’s writing; he was a man in agony, start to finish. He wrote letters to his friends saying that he hated what he was writing, that he had spent days on a paragraph, and so on. It seems clear to me that he had a very strong sense of his story from the beginning (I’m thinking of Madame Bovary), but achieving what he had in mind was incredibly demanding because his standards were so high. He spent five years writing the novel, his first. He wrote expansively, then cut, as he progressed.
When he got to the end of his “first draft,” which was the complete novel, he had performed surgery, acrobatics, diplomacy, psychology, and artistry on every page. And he had written the first modern novel.
John Steinbeck wrote a journal about how he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. It’s called Working Days and you can see why: He wrote five days a week, all day, from June to October 1938, about 2,000 words a day. He griped and grumbled, full of self-doubt and self-pity, but he had his head down and his pencil on the paper (his wife was his typist). I think he, like Flaubert, could do a one-draft wonder because every sentence was produced from deep thought. He was driven by an urgency about his subject, and he had done a lot of research. He didn’t start writing from scratch by any means.
Bernard Malamud, on the other hand, said when asked how many drafts he typically wrote, “Many more than I call three.”
Fast is fast, but is it good?
So many will say, Just get it down—work intuitively and quickly. I can’t write fast, so I can’t evaluate this approach. Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life), famous for encouraging unselfconscious, uncritical first drafts, has made it clear that she also does a lot of restructuring and revising later on. You have to find your own way. If you have had the story in your mind for a long time, your first draft might feel like you are pouring it onto the page. If the story feels like a mystery you want to solve, it will probably go more slowly. The writer Ann Patchett (Bel Canto), whose novels are marvelously varied, has said that she likes to think things through pretty thoroughly before she starts writing, whereas her friend, the novelist Elizabeth McCracken (TheGiant’s House: A Romance), doesn’t think a thing of changing names, histories, and plotlines as she writes. Think of the first draft as close to the chest: It’s yours alone.
What I do know is that, whether you crawl through your draft or you write it out as fast as you can type, you have to have the story on the page, start to finish, before you can evaluate it. It’s important to stay open to surprises and unbothered by dead ends. This isn’t the time to make contracts with yourself, like so many pages a day or the first draft by Christmas. Dedicated time is the one thing you do have to promise yourself. A lot will change in the writing. Later, you will come back to the same questions, the same advice, the same exercises, and find you have gone somewhere altogether different from where you were headed. That’s just fine. That’s writing. The real book might appear in the margins of your draft. You can’t revise what you haven’t written down.
From The Last Draft, by Sandra Scofield, courtesy Penguin Press. Copyright 2017, Sandra Scofield. Via: http://lithub.com/how-important-is-the-first-draft-to-your-novel/