February 8th, 2012


Recommended Reading

There seem to be certain people who show up at just about every booksigning or author event. One is the person who's not interested in your book but who just wants to talk to an author about how to get a book published (and presumably how to find fame and fortune as an author). When you ask this person what they write, they usually say they haven't written anything yet. What they decide to write will depend on what they can get published. Then if you ask them what they like to read, they look at you like you've grown a second head and say they don't read. They just want to write.

This is probably not a person who will be very successful as an author, unless maybe they get on a reality show, become famous and then have a ghostwriter write a book that will have their name on it. Being a good writer involves a lot of reading. In fact, I probably spend more time reading than I do writing, and that's not just a procrastination mechanism. I know of authors who don't like to read how-to books on writing because if they think about their process, it doesn't work. Where they learn the process is actually from reading. You learn to tell stories by reading stories and getting a good sense of how they work. You learn to use language by reading language. One of the best ways to prepare yourself to start writing novels is to read a lot of novels, not to copy them but to absorb the sense of them.

Here are some kinds of books any aspiring author needs to read, aside from books that relate specifically to a certain project:
- The classics in your genre -- as I said last time, this is a good way to learn the origins of the cliches so you can avoid them or give them a fresh spin
- Recently published books in your genre -- so you'll know what's happening now
- Award winners in your genre -- so you'll know what's considered good
- Bestsellers in your genre -- so you'll know what's currently popular
- Bestsellers from other genres, fiction and non-fiction -- so you'll get a sense of current cultural trends
- Award winners across the board
- Anything getting a lot of buzz or hype
- Books about the business of writing -- even if you don't read how-to books, you need to educate yourself on things like how to find an agent, how to write a query letter, how the industry works, what's in a contract, etc. Then you're less likely to make bad decisions or fall prey to scams. My library has a whole shelf of books like this.

Optional but recommended reading:
- Non-fiction books that help you understand people -- characters are the core of fiction, so the better you are at understanding human motivations and their consequences, the richer your writing will be. This can include psychology books as well as memoirs, biography and history.
- Books from other genres that may have relevance to your work -- if there are romantic elements in what you're writing, it's a good idea to read some romance novels, for example
- the literary canon -- what we call "the classics," stuff like Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, all those things that have become part of the culture. If you quote it or refer to it, you need to read it in context.
- Poetry -- a great way to look at the use of language and the art of choosing the perfect word

If you look at this list and shudder because it sounds like your idea of hell, then either you aren't really cut out to be a writer or you're trying to write the wrong things. Most writers start as readers, so before they even contemplate writing that first word, they've already read many of the genre classics and have been reading the new stuff all along. It's only when they have to dedicate some of their former reading time to writing that they may start being more deliberate about what they read.