Caveat: I am not an expert. There is no such thing as expertise.
I have spent much of the last two years reading different writing “rules” from authors, editors, agents, teachers, and readers alike. Sometimes they take the form of complete master works on the writing craft. Other times, they have been interviews, tweets, or even quotes. While the advice varies, there is one thing on which they all agree.
If you wish to write well, you must read – voluminously, every chance you get.
What most of them do not say is why you must read. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s because most of them have no bloody clue why you must read. There are undercurrents that get unflagging head nods. The chief one is that you must read so as to get a good idea of what commercial fiction is. Another is so that you (magically) learn what is good fiction.
But see, there’s a dirty little secret that no one ever talks about. Most books are crap.
There. I said it. You don’t believe me, do you? Well, here’s something to think about: among large publishers and small publishers alike, 9 out of every 10 books published lose money. Know why? Nobody buys them. Guess why. Writing is easy. Writing well takes effort.
There are books you should read. Absolutely. However, let’s be specific regarding what you should read, and why.
1. Know Your Genre
- Other published books are not just your friends. (Sure, you can love them. It’s allowed.) However, books are a product, and other books are your competition. That is, if you intend on selling yours. You need to read what is selling commercially to understand trends in the market. You also need to understand how well written the average book is, so you have a reasonable benchmark against which to measure your work. The dirty little secret: just because you start a book doesn’t mean you have to finish. I finish 10% of books I start. Guess why.
- You can’t write a master work in your genre if you don’t know what goes into one. Find a consensus of what are the best (master works), and understand what went in to writing them. If you want to write fantasy fiction, and strive to be the next JRR Tolkien or JK Rowlings, then you best know what went into their success. Tolkien’s appendices are longer than most wannabe’s books! Rowlings did world building and planning for 5 years before she started writing. You can read till you’re blue in the face. If you don’t know what success takes, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Don’t like world building? No problem. Pick a different genre. But know what you’re getting into.
2. Know Writing Techniques and How They Used – I mean used by the masters. Should you try close 3rd person? A 1st-person Point of View? How much description is enough? How much is too much? What helps and hinders dialogue? Why do people love Jane Austen? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, reading will help. But here’s the dirty little secret. It will only help if you know what to read. Jane Austen, for example was a master of the close 3rd person, using language the characters used. It is a technique I am working on, and works especially well with unusual characters. However, I could read until I’m blue in the face and never find a book that teaches me how to do it well. Unless, that is, I know where to look.
So, here’s my blasphemy suggestion. Read books because you like to read. However, don’t listen to people who say you “must read.” They are only getting half the sentence. The correct answer is “You must read the right things.” I would suggest you start with a good book on how to write. Then follow it up with books or articles that list the master works in your chosen genre, and in other genres you’d find fun.
Personally, I don’t read books in fantasy, the genre I write in most often. Know why? I don’t want to write books that are like books that are already books. Sounds redundant, doesn’t it? However, I have read enough to know what’s good when I read it.
Bottom line: Don’t read crap. It will only help you write more of it. I cannot tell you how often I hear other writers complain about books they couldn’t get through. Don’t read a lot; read good books a lot. Read crap for the same reason you watch reality TV: you have too many extra brain cells you want to kill.