A few years ago, I finished reading A Single Shard. I loved it so much, I immediately headed over to the author Linda Sue Park’s website and read everything she had to say about writing. This was when my son was still a baby and taking up an inordinate amount of my time. I wanted a quick-and-easy out to spending lots of time writing every day, something I could easily do in between naps and feedings, playtime and errands.
Well, there isn’t an easy out, but there was something I could do. Park mentions she “heard an editor say, ‘Read a thousand books of the genre you're interested in. THEN write yours.’ "
And she went on to do just that. She read, wrote a book, and sold it on its first submission. She later won the Newbery Medal Award for A Single Shard.
Reading widely improves your writing.
And the converse is also true: NOT reading will NOT improve your writing. It may even hurt your chances at selling your work.
What do you learn when reading someone else’s book? Glad you asked.
Reading in your genre
When you read books in the genre you plan to write (fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, horror, picture books, middle grade, young adult…), you learn
What you like, and therefore, what you want to write. After reading many of Ellen Hopkins’ books, I’ve learned I don’t like books that bleak. I want my books to end in hope. Do you like books with a lot of action? Romance? Shopping? Reading widely will help you hone in on your own interests.
What’s become cliché. Diana Wynne Jones wrote The Tough Guide to Fantasyland exposing many of the clichés in fantasy novels (my favorite: “horses can be used just like bicycles”), but as no one (I know of) has done the same for every genre available, you’ll just have to read to ensure your plot, characters, and conflict contain some spark of originality that will appeal to tired readers.
How to handle description. Some genres (fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction come to mind) love sweeping passages of description. Others, especially YA, don’t. As you read in your genre, you internalize how much is too much and when and where to place setting details.
How point of view (POV), word choice, verb tense, and other language decisions affect the tone of your story. First person present tense can create a close—sometimes claustrophobic—tone, but it’s also common for young adult novels.
You also internalize certain…not rules, but guidelines, for your genre. By reading widely within your genre of choice, you learn whether sex, drugs, cursing are "allowable." You internalize plot pacing commonalities—how much tension do you need to create? How often do you need to break the tension with some sort of relief? How long can the story continue after the ultimate denouement?
Reading outside your genre
Don’t limit yourself. Read widely. If you plan to write YA, make sure you read nonfiction, mysteries, fantasy, picture books. Everything. By reading outside your genre, you learn
Storytelling techniques that you can apply to your novel to give it a new spin that may sift it to the stop of an editor’s slush pile.
How to combine nonfiction elements into your fiction work and how to write your nonfiction work using fiction techniques to make your writing lift off the page and capture a reader’s interest.
New vocabulary used in perhaps new ways. (I love reading Barbara Hambly and Neal Stephenson just for that reason. She taught me chiaroscuro; he taught me gallimaufry. I’m hoping to use those words someday in a work of my own…)
Learning from books
I have a hard time writing actual book reviews. I know how hard it is to write a novel, start to finish, to revise it over and over and over again, to tentatively show it to someone, hoping for good feedback but likely getting notes for yet more revisions. If a book has been published, SOMEONE saw enough value in it to purchase it, put it through even more editing revisions, publicize it, and sell it.
So, I won’t be writing any book reviews here. Instead, I’ll share what I’m reading and what I’ve learned from it.
Read 1000 books. Then write one.
This post first appeared on my previous blog in August 2010.
I'm Val Serdy, and I'm an editor. I love writing, and I love writing about writing.