Reading works by other authors is an excellent way to build a foundation for your own writing – it’s the fastest way to learn what works and what doesn’t for your audience. Trust me: after you’ve forced your way through eight pages of poorly-executed description, you learn to do everybody a favor and get to the damn point.
When reading stories that have been submitted to Third Reader, I can usually tell within two paragraphs which of our authors don’t read for fun. If you are not a regular reader of other authors, I can almost promise you that your writing will be horrid. Two books a year is not adequate, and neither is having read your local library’s Great Books list and nothing else for the past five years.
Please note: the authors have to have been published, preferably by an actual established publishing house.* This is very important; the company newsletter and your best friend’s 2-page rant about how women who have affairs with other women’s husbands should all DIE don’t count. Neither does this blog.
If you don’t read for fun, think of it as research. You wouldn’t write a 10,000 word story about a trip to Tasmania unless you had actually been there or at least cracked open a copy of Fodor’s: Tasmania. Okay, some of you would; but you shouldn’t.
Just as you oughtn’t spend hours of your life neglecting your children to churn out The Great Tasmanian Novel based on your love of Looney Tunes, you shouldn’t try to write, for example, a comic novel just because you appreciate a good blonde joke. Is it your ambition to write a comedy? Read A Confederacy of Dunces or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or The Devil’s Storybook. I’m begging you. Please don’t make me have to tell you that your writing is bad just because you didn’t do your homework. If you want to write fantasy, read some Charles de Lint, Jack Vance, or Jane Yolen; if you want to write about how horrible everyday people can be to one another, pick up a book by Joyce Carol Oates, Martin Amis, or Doris Lessing. And so on.
Those who don’t have a reading habit (no nun puns, please) may have to treat it like homework, which it will be for a while. That’s just too damn bad. As an author, you’re asking someone to take time out of their day to read your work; it’s only courteous to do the same for someone else.
Assign yourself one book a week. Make it a short one, and get a friend to recommend something that’s either kind of funny or full of whatever action you like best – explosions, serial killings, strange alien love, whatever – so it’ll be sure to hold your attention.
There are lots of shortcuts available: you can pick up something like The Best American Non-Required Reading. I’ve been a fan of The Best American Whatever series for years, and they’re usually right. Cheat sheet: you can get a used copy of the 2007 edition for under $7 (shipping included) here.
You can go too far with the reading, of course. In the past I’ve neglected family, friends, lovers and work in favor of a good book, and I am sure I will do it again. Anyway: since I quit my day job, my reading has been in danger of taking over my waking hours; lately it has been so bad that I am forced to take the extreme measure of developing a bit of self-discipline – I am limiting myself to six books a week.
-But Dora: you’ve quit your day job. You’re broke. Where do you get all of this reading material?
I’m glad you asked. The Internet Generation may not be fully aware of this, but libraries ROCK. Friends who trust me not to wreck their cherished books rock even harder.
Thanks to DPL and my awesome friends, I always have a stack of books that I’m currently reading or are in line to be read. Here’s what’s on deck through July 4th:
Stuff I’ve already read but want to read again
Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Nielen
Okay, here’s the thing: I read a lot – very, very many novels and short stories a year. When you read as much as I do, you’re not easily surprised or even truly entertained by many books – especially comic novels. This tragicomedy actually had me laughing out loud. It was so funny, I was afraid to read it in public. Honestly. I just read it a few weeks ago and I enjoyed it so much I’m going back again.
Read this book.
Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Not your father’s techno-fantasy, this is the tale of how the pride and private ambitions of a scientist, an artist, a political leader, a rapist and a gangster work to destroy each of them – and nearly an entire city. It’s set in a Dickensian cyberpunk future, and served up with a double helping of cyborgs (sort of) and monsters. Highly recommended.
Things I’m looking forward to reading
Syrup by Maxx Barry (the second edition is by Max Barry because he realized the extra x makes his name indescribably more pretentious) (really)
If this book is anything like Jennifer Government or Company (his other two published novels), I’ll be walking around for days afterward yammering about how great it is. With Company, this behavior got so extreme that my friends and family came together for an intervention. In the words of my Close Personal Friend ML, “Shut up or get slapped.”
I’m truly hoping to make even more of an ass of myself over this book than I did over his others.
Hiroshima by Kenzaburo Oe
I’ve owned this book for a couple of years but never got around to reading it. His A Personal Matter was masterfully executed and quite touching. I trust this will be the same.
Shroud Magazine Issue #1
I just got my copy in the mail. I’m so excited – indie press magazines are great! I admire what the editors of Shroud are trying to do. Even better, it looks like they’re doing it right: with some funding, some graphic design skills, and a whole bucket of editorial talent. Check out their website.
I know this is only four books and a magazine; I planned it that way. See, now I can have one impulse read this week and I still keep to my six-books-only limit (I hope). Check back for updates.
Survey time: What are the three books that you most enjoyed reading in the past year, and why? Extra points are awarded for those books that can be found at DPL.
*Don’t get touchy, self publishers; I’ve read quite a few self published works that are quite well-executed. However, many of these books have not been through the same sort of extended editorial process that the major publishing houses undertake. They therefore exhibit a number of grammatical errors, plot holes, and other mistakes. It is easier to learn to avoid these mistakes if you read books that have been published under an established imprint. I’m just saying.