READ TO SUCCEED
In order to write good books, you have to read good books. I’m a firm believer in that. Oftentimes, I’m so caught up in my own projects, I don’t make time to improve my craft. Practicing my own prose is helpful, but I notice a stark difference in voice, creative ability, and insight when I’m just as serious about reading as I am writing.
If you’re an insurance agent, you’re bound to do timely research into the ever-changing, number-crunching world of modern policies. If you’re a naval officer, you’ll find yourself at daily (speaking from experience) briefs updating you all about the world stage, current strategic positioning, and the latest weaponry tactics.
In any modern career field, a worker is expected to be learning and developing—researching, innovating, and accumulating acumen in their area of expertise.
Why is writing any different?
If you are what you eat, you’ll write as well as you read.
These days, I diversify my TBR (“to be read” pile) depending on what I’m doing. I alternate between all types of books, and I’ve taken the time to break down the different categories based off what I deem helpful.
Now, I can’t make you read. I can’t force you, wheedle you, or shanghai you into a book club, nor is it within my authority to tell you how to succeed. However, I can tell you that my own writing has improved exponentially after making reading a purposeful discipline. Here’s why.
WHAT SHOULD YOU BE READING?
A CURSORY OVERVIEW
Books in your genre
Since I’m spreading my wings in middle grade horror, I asked my agent to email me a list of the big hitters in the genre. K.R. Alexander, R.L. Stine, Mary Downing Hahn, Betty Ren Wright—I bought them all and devoured them, averaging one a day, until I could make a coherent list of themes, plot points, and character arcs.
The truth of the matter is most books in a given genre will have similarities. (That’s what ropes them into a genre, mais non?) Middle grade horror usually stars a protagonist in junior high and is told through that character’s eyes, orbiting a threat more insidious than violent in nature that intensifies when the protagonist is spurned by adult or authority figures. These are often told in deep, third person POV.
Contrast that with young adult fantasy, a (usually) mature teenager working against an older, more powerful authority figure while discovering his/her magical abilities and how they empower him/her to cause greater social change.
Very different genres. Very different prose, very different voices. Reading in your genre familiarizes you with how successful books of the ilk are usually written.
There are always exceptions. Don’t take this to mean you have to plot out every single NYT Best-Seller and Frankenstein your novel based off prefabricated plot points. No one, especially the industry, has the right to tell you how your book should be written. Plenty of zany, genre-bending books have triumphed throughout the years, but it can do you a bit of good to do some research into what’s broadly accepted.
Middle grade horror doesn’t involve gratuitous amounts of violence, gore, cursing, or graphic images. If you wrote a scary story for children that described, in gruesome detail, Little Timmy getting his guts shoveled out with an ice cream spoon…
Well, parents (the ones who usually buy middle grade books for kids) might have a problem with that. Middle grade horror has different boundaries than adult horror. A savvy author will know that.
Reading in your genre also gives you a good idea of what’s been done before. No idea is ever completely original (There are plenty of books about elves, magical wizard boys, and/or predatory houseplants.), but doing your research can help guide your creative direction. When I dove into MG horror, I noticed there were already tons of stories about dolls, puppets, ghosts, and drowning victims. I’d planned for my next story to star a vengeful spirit, but I decided to make the antagonist human instead. It was an easy fix, and it was a little thing to make my idea stand out in a spook-saturated market.
Selling a book that “fits” into a publisher’s lineup is a fine balance of creating something original, but marketable at the same time. If it’s completely alien to the genre, you can potentially alienate your target audience. However, if you just copy/paste what everyone else has already done, your pitch may come across as trite and pedestrian.
My recommendation? Before you frolic into the fields of open creativity, get the lay of the land. Nothing feels worse than putting in hours of work only to find someone else has done something too similar. In hindsight, I wish I would have studied YA a lot more closely before I penned my latest draft of Sweetblood.
Books above your writing level
Want improve your writing? Perfect your prose? Sharpen your voice? Expand your vocabulary? Sharpen your dialogue?
Read authors who are better than you.
King and Gaiman are my go-tos, but I could name countless others. DiCamillo for depth, Jacques for lush description… Heck, J.D. Salinger can tell a compelling story using only characters and dialogue.
I read a lot more slowly than I used to, but that’s usually because I’m taking time to take notes. I’ve been buying my books used off Amazon ($3-$5, if I’m lucky) so I can mark, highlight, and annotate in them without incurring the wrath of vindictive librarians. Any book on my desk has likely been colored, marked, and starred—tattooed with notes and brimming with post-its.
When I’m writing, I keep a stack of “reference books” on my desk. Maybe that author coined a great turn of phrase, or maybe they described a salacious fight scene perfectly. By taking notes and mining into experienced, more skillful craftsmen’s material, I can guide my own development.
Books below your writing level
Q: If you read books above your writing letter to get better, reading books below your writing level will make you worse.
If you start reading a manuscript and begin noting edits (inconsistencies, POV breaks, telling and not showing, poor pacing, flat characters, etc.), that’s a telltale sign you’re beginning to understand those things yourself. I’ve been told the true mark of comprehension is being able to teach something. If you’re reading something that just doesn’t sound right, then you identify why, you’re probably not going to make that mistake in your own writing.
Beta reading and critiquing for writers at or below your level is just as useful as reading above your level. I’ve noticed that in pointing out my CPs’ bad habits, I’m much more persnickety when weeding out my own. There’s only so many times you can comment “redundantly redundant” before axing your own unneeded adverb.
So get involved. Find beta readers and critique partners. Reading for other writers is always homing your own skills.
I just finished The Psychopathy Test by Jon Ronson. The book (excellent, by the way) is a nonfiction account of a journalist’s misadventures through the realm of psychiatry and his conclusions regarding the misdiagnoses of mental illness.
My newest book isn’t about Scientologists, nor is it about high-security psychiatric hospitals, but The Psychopathy Test did give me excellent information about the history, behavior, and diagnostics of psychopathy. When your antagonist is a twelve-year-old serial killer, that can be handy information.
They say write what you know, and if you read out of your comfort zone, you’re bound to “know” things on a much broader scale. Do you want to write about a pirate? Moby Dick has a great descriptive breakdown of a ship. Maybe you’re writing an alternate-Victorian history about a mad, murderous queen. The Faithful Executioner is full of fascinating information about torture and execution.
Even if the subject doesn’t directly correlate to your writing, anything you read adds to your creative wellspring. As it turns out, my podcast on ancient Babylon ended up inspiring a major part of Skin and Bones—a modern, Alpine horror that takes place halfway across the world, 2500 years later.
Put those useless trivia facts to work. You never know when they might prove useful.
Read something. Read anything. Magazines, comic books, romantic tragedy, diaries, newspaper stories, manga—whatever. Everything is something, and something may very well blossom into anything.
Don’t read because you have to. Read because you love it. Read what inspires you, what tickles your fancy, what scares you, saddens you, or keeps you up at night. Read what you treasure. Read what matters.
If reading is important to you, you immediately put yourself into your client’s shoes. And if reading isn’t important to you, how can you ever place a value on your own writing?
My brain works like a vending machine. If I’m not feeding it anything, I honestly can’t expect any output. Movies, Netflix, and other non-literary storytelling mediums are valuable sources—as is any story—but I’d still argue any day that the best way to get better at writing books is by reading them.