I am a member of the Harlem Writers Guild. I used to be an avid reader. I readily admit that my relationship with books changed the moment I decided to become a writer. Before I read books the way I watched television, purely for enjoyment. Now, I read to study style, voice, and syntax.
In my hands, even a Zane book will become unsexy. Once I’m done with it, I would have marked up the entire copy, in red no doubt. Notes would fill the margins with all my suggestions for improvement. This passage would’ve been more effective had it been placed on such and such page. That outcome is forced and inorganic. The copy editor missed this glaring error. That whole section is didactic and completely out of voice. Literary, grammatically correct erotica. How unsexy is that?
Because I’m a writer, everything I read I study. What I look for is substance, and my attention span is short. My first love is my own writing and trust me when I say it competes for my attention. With that being the case, to all the writers whose books I have read completely from beginning to end, I say, “Kudos!” Few authors engage me and far less engage me more than once. But I must admit: I’ll remain loyal, so long as I’m not experiencing “more of the same thing.”
Here are my suggestions for writers to read and for readers who hope to someday write. I’ll share them with Harlem World from time to time. The following books have substance. I refer to them again and again, in hopes to improve my own writing. Reader-writers get ready to take notes.
1. Graceland by Chris Abani. Since the invention of ink, we writers have been advised, “Show don’t tell.” The “how” is never fully explained until a book like Graceland comes along. The cast of characters and depiction of Lagos is craft and technique at its best. The prose is exquisite, gritty and sometimes very disturbing.
2. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. Get it. Read it. This is what characterization should feel like. Anything less is ineffective. The voice of Lucy is bold, defiant and will reel you in.
3. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. Yes, this is a Lifetime movie, but if you haven’t seen the movie, don’t watch it until you have read the book. I was pulled out of the writing and immersed in this tragedy. It reads like memoir. Allison did such a brilliant job crafting this that I forgot it was fiction. I fell in love with the main character, Bone, and her clan of misfit rebels.
By Eartha Watts-Hicks, Harlem Writers Guild member