The Dirty Little Secret

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.


  1. Joe Pineda says:

    I’m not sure I can say I agree completely. For the longest time I cherry-picked the best books I could find, and certainly I learned from them, but the minute I started reading the horrible Hannibal Rising, I knew I could also learn a lot from reading bad fiction. The book is a mess of stereotypes and cliches that somehow gets more and more self-indulgent the more you progress.

    I think you can learn from bad books all the same, but first you have to develop taste and enough critical thinking to know they are crap.

    1. Good point. I agree, though, you better be able to tell what is crap before you start reading it.

  2. rich says:

    totally agree. most books are crap. they bore me to hell and back, but i have to try them.

    1. RIch, what frustrates me is that i LOVE good books, and have very limited time to read. So, when I start a poorly written one, it’s like getting in a bad relationship: it just makes me reluctant to start a new one.

      1. rich says:

        usually i “read” on CD while driving. i don’t really have much time to sit and read a physical book, and doing that often puts me to sleep, so CD’s work great. unfortunately, i’m limited to what my library has on CD.

      2. Spot on! I’ve felt this same way…

  3. I think you absorb style, to a certain extent. So if you read Jane Austen a lot you start to sound like her, which you may or may not want to do, and ditto Joan Rivers. I don’t think a person can be taught to write really well – but maybe that’s just elitist – or read a book about writing, to any good effect (other than to avoid the most obvious mistakes).

    1. I agree with you, and probably should have made that more clear. I don’t really believe you can be taught creative arts. (I have ADD, and can’t be taught much of anything.) I think you are born pre-disposed to being creative, and most of the learn is your responsibility. What I was implying is that it isn’t always enough to read, for example, The Great Gatsby, in high school. Sometimes, you need to supplement it with books that explain the technical aspects of writing.

      However, it comes down to what Stephen King wrote in On Writing: you can learn how to go from being a bad or mediocre writer to a good one (I think I have). However, you can’t be taught how to go from being a good one to a great one – that’s just innate.

      1. But don’t you think “great” is subjective? I do agree that true creativity cannot be necessarily taught.

  4. I love this post. I’ve often felt this way while schlepping through mediocre-to-omg-seriously?-this-was published?? books. And I’m with you about not reading books in my own genre; I don’t want to be subconsciously influenced in that way.

    1. I like being unique. I don’t know how you maintain uniqueness while reading tons of formulaic books. I’d rather not take the risk. On your other question, I do find “great” to be subjective. I just doubt that an “ordinary Joe” writer, like me, for instance, could ever suddenly become a Shakespeare or a Faulkner. A Stephen King, perhaps. 🙂 Where I think I probably differ from King is in how few writers I’d put in this bucket. I think we’re talking about those generational writers … the Hemingways and the like. But who knows? Maybe they sucked at one point too.

      1. Hey, don’t put yourself down. We now know that Shakespeare wasn’t even Shakespeare…

Comments are closed.