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Reading to be a Better Writer

How voracious reading will teach you how to write--and help you get published

· Writers Life,Writing Tips

Part III of my summer series on Starting a Writing Practice. Find Part I here and Part II here.

"Indeed, learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading." -Eudora Welty

Watching a child learn to read is a fascinating thing. Before I had a kiddo of my own, I had no idea that writing often comes before anything we adults would call "reading." At first, it's all letters and sounds. It's no wonder kids love playing with alphabet building blocks, acting out the concept that a tiny thing can be a part of something much bigger. Then, just like those blocks, the child starts putting the small pieces together into words on paper. Few things are so adorable as a child's first, creatively-spelled letter to Santa or the barely-legible captions he starts to add to his drawings. It's writing that lets early readers be creative, in that blissful but short period before spelling rules and punctuation intrude.

As we grow up, it's easy to forget how much reading and writing are linked. They seem like two completely separate pursuits (and neither one viewed as all that essential, sadly). You can love to read without ever being tempted to record your own stories for posterity.

But if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader.

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." - Stephen King

In fact, you have to read more than you've ever read before. You have to read books you might not actually want to read. When you're a writer, reading suddenly becomes work. The best kind of (and lowest paying) work, yes, but still something you have to take seriously. So, what should you be reading? And just what are you going to get out of it?

Pick a Genre, Any Genre

Some people always know they want to write a novel. For the rest of us, though, the realization can come as a surprise. Perhaps you read a novel you love so much you think, Yes! This is what I'm supposed to do! And never look back.

Or you might be like me--and some fellow writers I know--and be inspired to write by a book that you absolutely hated. This was a bestseller? Bah! I can do better than this! New York Times, here I come! (Isn't it cute to be naive and innocent?)

But no matter where or when you start, as a beginner novelist you have some decisions to make. You need to pick a genre. If you were inspired to write by a book you loved (or hated), then that might be an easy question. I knew I wanted to write YA sci-fi and fantasy, so I started reading all the YA SF/F I could get my hands on. But that doesn't mean I actually understood what the "YA genre" was all about. That took lots and lots more reading, and not just the sci-fi stuff; I read YA contemporary and romance, too, and have since fallen in love with many writers I wouldn't have discovered otherwise. Reading is the only way to know the conventions and cliches of your genre. You'll understand not only what your audience expects, but what will surprise and delight them! As you get to know your genre, you'll also start to internalize writing craft. What makes for an authentic character? How many details are necessary to build a fantasy world? What chapter openers/endings keep the pace flying--and which types fail to keep your attention?

Some writers don't want to pick just one genre. They resist labels; they're trying to cross boundaries. I get that. But even a genre-crossing epic will have a primary identity. You at least need to know where the bookstores will shelve it. Or better yet, which category it'll fall under when it hits the bestseller lists.

How do you figure out your genre, if you don't already know? By reading. Lots and lots of reading. Your genre-crossing, impossible-to-classify novel might just fit into an existing subgenre, like literary thriller, romantic suspense, inspirational fantasy...I could go on, but I won't. You get the idea. Pick a genre you think is close, start reading, and keep going until you figure out where your book fits.

(And if you can't afford to buy so many books? There's always the library; even if there's no branch close to you, most libraries allow for online e-book checkouts. If you love the book, then buy it to support the author.)

Does that mean you should only read within your genre? Certainly not.

“Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.” -William Faulkner

Time is limited, especially the time of writers with day jobs (i.e. the vast majority of us). So when it comes to reading outside your genre, I'd say stick with books that genuinely interest you. You don't need to be an expert on the bad, good, and ugly of every genre. Instead, use outside-genre books as an opportunity to learn as much as you can about universally good writing. What is it that makes some books not just enjoyable, but magical? Read classics; read bestsellers. Read your favorite authors again and again. Find a writer whose style really speaks to you, and shamelessly study how he or she does it so you can imitate. (The techniques, not the content. Obviously.)

But be careful. We often hear about "disobedient masters" who can flaunt the gospel rules of writing. Unlike us mere mortals, these writers can start a book with pages of info-filled exposition instead of beginning with an exciting scene; or sling around adverbs like they're getting paid by the word; or write a single novel that's pushing 1,000 pages and expect a traditional publisher to accept it. And somehow--whether it's because of the rule-breaking or in spite of it--it's all genius. Truly, awe-inspiring genius. But just because J.K Rowling or Donna Tartt or Dan Simmons gets away with something doesn't mean you can--unless you're really that good. Maybe you are. I'm just saying, proceed with caution.

The Business Side

As you become an expert on your genre (in addition to being well versed in great writing outside it) you'll start to develop a mental picture of the market. A couple of extra tools will come in handy here: the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, and a subscription to the Publisher's Marketplace daily deal reports. You'll find out what's selling (to both editors and the public), what's passé, and what's getting overdone.

You'll also start to recognize the names of agents and editors who specialize in books just like yours.

When you finish reading a book (whether you enjoyed it or not), don't forget to peruse the acknowledgements. You'll get insights into that writer's practice and the book's journey to publication; plus, you'll learn more names of agents and editors to add to your virtual roadmap of the publishing industry.

By the time you've polished up your manuscript, you'll be ready to query that targeted list of agents you've spent all this time developing. You'll know your comps: industry speak for titles similar to yours that you can reference to catch an agent's attention. And you'll (hopefully) dive into the business side of writing knowing where your book stands in the market.

And while you wait for all those agent responses, you can pick up the next book on your to-read stack, immerse yourself in another author's imagination, and find inspiration for your next project.

Happy reading!

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