Writing classes are great if you’ve got the time, money, and access, but lord knows plenty of us don’t. Thankfully, not only do great books make for great stories, but they can also double as great examples of craft. Whether you’re trying to understand the concept of voice, play with a new perspective, delve into a new genre, or just punch up what you’ve already got, here are some examples of master crafting that can beautifully double as a writing class in a pinch. Here’s what to read if you’re looking for examples on how to craft:
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Majestic sensory imagery: The Wrath & the Dawn, by Renée Ahdieh
Pages may be one-dimensional, but that doesn’t mean your writing has to be. If you’ve read Ahdieh’s YA debut, your mouth is probably watering at the mere mention of it, because man, can she describe food in a way that’ll have you dreaming of it for weeks. Ahdieh’s writing is lush and beautiful and descriptive, perfectly showcasing how you can put a taste on a reader’s tongue or drape fabric over their skin with nothing but 26 letters. (Pro tip: For a master class in olfactory sensation, make sure Stacey Lee’s The Secret of a Heart Note is at the top of your to-read list come December!)
A Love Triangle that Doesn’t Suck: The Conspiracy of Us by Maggie Hall
Spend enough time in YA reading/writing circles and you’ll hear a whole lot about the dreaded love triangle, the seemingly most hated and yet most omnipresent romantic trope in the category. It’s tough to pin down exactly why people hate them so much, whether it’s because you know one of the legs isn’t really a contender, or the whole idea of it is just stressful, but I can tell you why the love triangle in Maggie Hall’s series works better than it does in 99% of YA: because it revolves entirely around the main character’s arc. Hall doesn’t rely on something like a secret in one of the boys’ pasts or a new girl entering the equation to push one of the guys out of the running. Instead, it’s Avery herself who’s changed by external events, who isn’t necessarily in the market for the same characteristics in a partner in Map of Fates as she was in the first book…or is she?
A Dual-POV Narrative (Same Gender): How to Save a Life, by Sara Zarr
I can personally vouch for this one as a class, since I personally read it twice for exactly this purpose. Jill and Mandy are two different girls from two different backgrounds, and Zarr plays that up in so many ways, from attitudes to speech patterns to goals to the way they relate to others to their views of the world, so that I found it impossible to ever forget which character I was reading. If this sounds easy to you, I can only assume you’ve never tried it yourself!
Magical Realism: The Weight of Feathers, by Anna-Marie McLemore
I hesitate here because I don’t actually think McLemore’s beautiful style can be taught (and a large part of that is explained perfectly by her in this post on magical realism’s roots in oppression), but this is probably the genre I see the most questions about. A lot of books get called magical realism when in fact they contain a single speculative element or sci-fi aspect, but take note of how McLemore’s books (including her upcoming When the Moon Was Ours) are fully infused with it: characters, setting, lyricism of language—the magic is everywhere, beautifying realistic stories of human ugliness.
Second Person: Stolen, by Lucy Christopher
Ah, second person, the ugly stepchild of all other persons. Seriously, how do you make an entire novel work with “you” narration? Not many have pulled it off well, but this Printz Honor book is one of the rare exceptions. The story of a 16-year-old girl named Gemma who’s kidnapped in an airport and taken to remote rural Australia is formulated as a letter from the victim to her captor. The mastery here is in how as we see the events unfold through Gemma’s gaze, we also see the shift in her relationship to her kidnapper, the slow development of Stockholm Syndrome, and that’s what takes this book to the next level.
Nonlinear Timeline: Far From You by Tess Sharpe
Sharpe’s debut is known for nailing depictions of both chronic pain and bisexuality, but it’s also one of the recent books most commonly used as a reference for how to nail two different timelines. There’s the present, in which main character Sophie returns from rehab and tries to solve the mystery of her best friend’s murder, and the past, in which we see how Mina in fact came to be far more than Sophie’s best friend. The utterly heartbreaking earlier scenes of their relationship continually raise the stakes of present as the reader becomes more desperate for Sophie to find some closure, some happiness, some anything to alleviate the pain of what has been taken from her, especially as it unfolds just how much that was.
High-Stakes Contemporary: Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed
As a primarily contemporary reader, I can admit that a whole lot of it reads really similarly. That’s not necessarily a complaint; it’s my go-to genre for a reason! But amid stories of American girls who are new to school, have friend issues, romantic stuff happening, and endure complicated relationships with their parents, it can be hard to write a story that works within the realm of realism but has the page-turning intensity and compelling plot points of genre fiction. For this, one of my absolute favorites is Aisha Saeed’s debut, which combines the two elements I think makes this work really well: a rare-for-YA setting (in this case Pakistan) and loads of external conflict, as opposed to the internal that’s often the main driving force in contemporary YA. The former allows for readers to easily grasp “the rules” of a setting without necessarily having known them in advance, while the latter ups the action and tension to a nonstop series of breaking points, helped by the fact that Saeed does not make easy choices. For another major favorite that showcases those two elements in a very different way, check out Rites of Passage, by Joy N. Hensley. Related: if you’re a genre fic reader looking to add some contemporary to your repertoire? This is exactly where I’d recommend starting.