I don’t know about you, but I feel like the adage, “Writers are Readers,” has been drilled deep into the recesses of my mind with one of these guys. →
But with so many options and only so many reading hours in the day, how do we as authors narrow to the most practical reading list?
There’s this great Writers Digest book by Gabriela Pereira: DIY MFA. It’s all about how authors can fashion their very own self-guided Masters of Fine Arts degree without stepping foot in a university. It’s what inspired this post.
The logical side of my brain needed a way to sort the options, and the result is my list of the eight categories of books (and articles) we should be thinking about when determining our reading list, which you’ll find below. Should you read more widely than this? You’re the boss. You decide what material will enhance your skills.
Before we get to the categories, remember three things:
- Try not to feel overwhelmed. A Masters of Fine Arts takes two to three years, so don’t feel like every free second needs to be spent reading. Pace yourself.
- Read like a writer. Gone are the days of reading strictly for pleasure. You should be dissecting books. Read for plot structure, syntax tricks, voice, tone, etc. Read to increase your vocabulary, to see how an author creates humor, and more.
- Learn how to put non-helpful books down. This tip is straight out of Gabriela’s DIY MFA book, which you can purchase here. She calls it DNF: Did Not Finish, and it’s about knowing when to put a book down and move on to another. If a book isn’t working for you, release the guilt of not finishing it and label it DNF. Your time is valuable.
Raimey’s 8 categories of books (and articles) all authors should be reading from:
- Your genre: Aim for more recently published novels, because they’ll be more representative of what readers and agents are looking for now. Don’t forget to read like a writer.
- Classics from your genre: Brontë, Woolf, Molière, we call them greats for a reason. How many times have the works of Jane Austen been re-imagined? Bridget Jones’s Diary is Pride and Prejudice, the movie Clueless is a modern retelling of Emma, and the list goes on. And when I say classics, I don’t necessarily mean centuries-old ones. I honestly don’t see how anyone could write a middle grade or YA fantasy without first indulging in Harry Potter, or a historical romance set during the American Civil War without getting to know Scarlett O’Hara. In my own case, I plotted a whodunit recently, and who better an instructor than Agatha Christie?
- Literary agent favs: This is all about strategy. Agents often share their client lists and favourite books on their websites. When you begin narrowing who you plan on querying, see if there is anything on their list that could be a comp for your own work either in voice or story. If there is—fantastic! Read it, then mention it briefly in your query letter, show them you’ve done your homework.
- Craft books and articles: Thirty-one. That’s how many craft books I have sitting on my shelves. No, I have not read them all. Yes, I often pick them up and read chapters from each, whatever is relevant to what my needs are at the time. I know what you’re thinking. That’s a small fortune’s worth. The truth is that although I did purchase about half of these books new, I am a big proponent of used bookstores. When purchasing used, do a quick search online to make sure you have the latest edition in your hands, and if it isn’t, evaluate whether you would be better served reading the latest version of a particular book, or if an old edition will due. If you’re currently reading this post in a used bookstore, and you’ve uncovered an old gem entitled, oh I don’t know, How to Rock a Plot Like Growing Pains, put it back and step away from the shelf. This is not the book for you.
- Articles on the fringes of your genre/topics: If you’re writing science fiction, let new research in science inspire you. If you’re writing contemporary YA, stay current in trends in youth culture (so the kids don’t throw hella shade on your book and call it cray.)
- Books to develop the same expertise as your characters: But instead of reaching for a textbook, see if anyone has written about the topic you need, but for a writer’s perspective. I’ve been really lucky in this regard. I write crime/psychological thrillers and have been able to find several useful books on the different forensic fields written for authors, and trust me, the pages turn faster than any textbook I’ve ever been assigned. I read these types of books for comprehension and terminology, but am cognizant, and you should be too, that the tip of the iceberg is often all that needs to be imparted in fiction. If we don’t understand anything of the mass that lies below the surface of the water, well, you know what happens.
- Articles and reference books for descriptions (character and setting): My sister’s the interior designer, the landscaper, the visual thinker in the family. I really have to work at it. If you’re like me and have gone three decades without being able to recall the word for that decorative thingy often found at the top of poles and buildings (a finial), then strive to learn it, or keep resources handy. Google is often enough, but I bet your local library has a few architectural and interior design dictionaries that aren’t terrible to browse through. Mine did. I’ve also created a Pinterest board containing pictorial object maps and word lists (anatomy of a flower, types of male pattern baldness, that kind of thing.) And for science fiction and fantasy writers (and dystopian, etc.), there are some great books on worldbuilding, of which I have read none.
- Articles and books on seeking representation, marketing and publishing for authors: With social media and technological advancements, the marketing and publishing fields are continually evolving. This is mind, be wary of reading dated material, whether it be in a book or on a blog. On the marketing side of things, ‘building your author platform,’ is huge, so start by keying that into a search engine and get reading.
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Do you feel overwhelmed by the amount of reading you want to do to become a better author? Do you have advice to add to the above? Shout at me in the comments.