Today is International Women's Day!
I'm proud to work with inspirational women every day in my work as a freelance editor. As writers, we draw inspiration from all different sources, but a large part of learning to write well involves being a keen reader and observing how other writers master their craft.
I always enjoy asking the authors I admire which books inspired them. So, in absolutely no particular order, I've pulled together 5 standout titles by women writers who taught me something about the craft of writing and language use that I might not have known otherwise.
Let me know if any of your favorites made the list!
THE GIRLS - Emma Cline
“I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls…”
Sometimes, I pick up a book and just have to…put it down for a few days before I can bring myself to read the rest through my green-eyed awe. From the very first page of THE GIRLS, the prose sings, and the story unfolds like a hazily-remembered fever dream. I couldn’t stop reading.
With a plot loosely inspired by the Manson killings, the novel is set in the Californian summer of ’69 and follows fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd, whose fascination for three long-haired, laughing girls draws her fast into a cult that evokes feelings sure to change her life more than she understands.
Although it’s been a couple of years since I first read this 2016 debut, it still resonates in my mind as one of the most potent examples of how an author can use lyrical language to beguile readers through a story.
ARIEL - Sylvia Plath
“Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.”
I needed to include Sylvia Plath on this list. Without a doubt, she’s had the most emotional impact on my own writing since my early teen years; the first poem I had published at university was a fragmented mess of my own work set against Plath’s lines…and that’s why I’m not a poet.
But I always hesitate to list THE BELL JAR as one of my ‘favorite’ novels. It’s an important piece of work, and one I’ve read cover-to-cover plenty of times, though, for me, Plath’s poetry has always been a greater well of inspiration.
ARIEL showcases some of Plath's better-known works, such as ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’, but it’s her quieter poems, ‘Words’, or ‘Edge’, that have been fused to my mind for years. Her voice rings clear through ARIEL, her poems inciting powerful imagery; the force of nature, of life blossoming outside the window, juxtaposed by an internal selfish obsession with death; intrusive thoughts; claustrophobic notions: “I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly / As the light on these white walls, this bed, these hands. / I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.”
DARE ME - Megan Abbott
“And here I am, my tight, perfect body, my pretty, perfect face, and nothing could ever be wrong with me, or my life, not even the sorrow that is plainly right there in the center of it. Oh, Colette, it’s right there in the center of you, and some kind of despair too. Colette—
—that silk sucking into my mouth, the weight of it now, and I can’t catch my breath, my breath, my breath.”
I’ve yet to read a Megan Abbott novel I don’t absolutely love, but DARE ME was the first of hers I ever picked up, and it gripped me totally from start to finish. I’m so eager to watch the upcoming TV adaptation of this book because it read like fire, the whole story told with a razor-sharp eye for the intimate details that flesh out a character in the reader’s mind, along with some seriously smart subtext you might miss on your first read-through in your haste to find out what happens next.
And what happens next in DARE ME is Colette French, the new cheer coach, whose arrival at school compels the girls on her cheer squad into deadly competition. There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls, she says; she knows…
HOW TO BUILD A GIRL - Caitlin Moran
“My name’s Johanna Morrigan. I’m fourteen, and I’ve just decided to kill myself. I don’t really want to die, of course! I just need to kill the old me, and build a new girl.”
Laugh-out-loud funny and so hashtag relatable, Caitlin Moran’s HOW TO BUILD A GIRL arrived at exactly the right time in my life and was true binge-read material.
There’s no filter in this book (as can be expected from Moran) but the story’s full of heart, it's authentic, and it paints an honest portrait of life growing up in nineties England as an overweight, working-class teenage girl with big journalism dreams. The whole book reads like conversation with your closest girlfriends—but, like, hilarious conversation, the sort you reserve for the friends you went through school with and who consequently know all your best-kept teenage secrets.
I can’t tell you how many times I paused to highlight one-liners or entire pages of this book. It’s riotous. It’s TMI. It's not one to share with your mom. And I bloody loved it.
YOU - Joanna Briscoe
"'You see,' she said, pressing her face against the window, but nothing was clear in the blackness. He cast a shadow over her that spilled into the corner of her vision. The scent of him came to her in twists twined with radiator dust. They stood there.
He said nothing. She listened to him breathe.
'I love you,' she said.
He was silent. There was a click in his throat.
She heard herself with a delay, echo of sound lapping echo.
He drew in his breath.
'You don't,' he said.
'You can't,' he said in the same tone.
'I know,' said Cecilia blankly."
I love beautiful prose. I love atmosphere, and vivid description, and books that lift you away with careful narration into a whole other life.
Joanna Briscoe achieves all of these things in YOU, weaving tension and fragile emotion together to paint the magnetic story of seventeen-year-old Cecilia, a girl obsessed with her married English teacher Mr. Dahl, and her mother’s fascination with Mr. Dahl’s wife—a story that brings turmoil to their disheveled family living in a crumbling house on Dartmoor in the seventies. It draws its conclusion twenty years later when Cecilia returns to her mother’s home to unearth the secrets of the past.
It’s rare to find a novel that draws me in as much as this one, and sometimes, when I need inspiration, I’ll go back and re-read bookmarked excerpts from YOU. It's a devastating treasure of a book, impossible to stop reading, and I might not have known about it at all if I hadn't found my copy by chance on a sale shelf in a lonely Oxford bookstore one afternoon while trying to escape the rain. By the next morning, I’d finished reading it cover-to-cover.
Some books stick with you for a long time, and this book is one of those for me.
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