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Top Ten Writing Tips–Tip #4: Read five published novels in your genre for every one craft book you read.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Last week, we covered Writing Tips 1 through 3:

1. Finish your first draft.
2. Put your manuscript aside for as long as you possibly can after you finish the first draft.
3. Start something new.

This week, we’ll cover #4 through #7.

Writing Tip #4. Read five published novels in your genre for every one craft book you read.

So many writers, especially new writers, get caught up in “learning the craft” and they lose sight of “writing a story.”

You can learn more from critically reading published novels than you’ll ever learn from reading how-to books.

What was one of the reasons you started writing? For me, it was the combination of an overactive imagination combined with a love for reading. I didn’t just read novels, I devoured them. And the more I read, the more my imagination expanded. In fact, my first true foray into writing was after I read what would become my favorite book of my teens, Victoria by Willo Davis Roberts. I loved that story, those characters so much that I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to them when the book ended. So I started writing my own sequel to it.

If it hadn’t been for reading, I never would have become a writer!

But more than that, as I grew up and read more and more books, it was a rare book that didn’t spark half a dozen or more story ideas of my own as I was reading it—whether the idea had anything to do with what I was reading or not. I shared this story back in 2007 in a post titled “Interrupted by Inspiration”:

A goal I’ve set for myself recently is to read through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy—whether by listening to them on audio (I have the entire unabridged set of CDs) or by actually reading the books. Well, I’ve had trouble convincing myself to put the CDs back in the car after I got to about disk six of the first book (and they’d barely made it to Bree!), so I picked up the actual book to read before bed last night.

Things were going along swimmingly…. Then, suddenly, I was no longer in Middle Earth, but standing on the deck of a ship, observing the silhouette of an officer looking out into the night.

Yes, that’s right, in the middle of reading Aragorn’s explanation of the Black Riders, I was suddenly visualizing a scene for the second book of my historical trilogy. Needless to say, I tossed the book aside and picked up the notepad and pencil I keep right beside the bed for just such an occasion.

I only got two pages written, not nearly all of what I was picturing, but it’s a great start on a scene (I think poor Julia may have broken a toe or two). And not only was it fun to be writing something for the second book (although I try not to write out of sequence), it gave me some insight into the tension between William and Julia at that point in the story (where exactly it fits, I’m not sure, but I think pretty early on), so that I’ll be able to incorporate the possibility for it as I work on revisions of the first book.

The scene that I started writing that night—and continued over the next couple of days to get the entire idea down before I forgot it—appears in Ransome’s Crossing almost verbatim from what I wrote three years before I ever started writing RC. Would I have had that idea anyway? I’m not sure. All I know is that the creativity that’s inspired by the process of reading inspired that scene.

Another reason to read novels is to learn new words and see how other authors use language. It’s hard to develop a unique voice and style if all you’re reading is cut-and-dry nonfiction. That’s not saying that nonfiction authors aren’t creative. They just don’t use language the same way novelists do. My tenth-grade AP English teacher gave us vocabulary lists each week that were words taken from the American literature we studied that year. Most of those words (such as superfluous, tenacity, ubiquitous, ambivalent, tintinnabulation, etc.) have stayed with me as part of my everyday vocabulary. I learned to love it when I run across a word or term in a novel that I’m unfamiliar with but learn what it means through the context of the story—and it’s more likely to stick with me that way.

What should you be looking for when reading novels published in your genre?

  • Point of view—what is the most common POV used by the professionals in your genre? First person, present tense? Third person, past tense? Omniscient? Limited? Deep-third?
  • How many viewpoint characters (on average) do the professionals in your genre tend to use?
  • What tone, style, voice, etc., do you find works best in the stories that are most similar to yours?
  • How complex are the language and sentence structure of the authors you love and those who are bestselling authors (if they aren’t one and the same)?
  • How do professional authors explain unfamiliar/colloquial/technical/fantastical/historical terminology and vocabulary without actually explaining them? Context? Proxy character for the reader to whom everything needs to be explained? Glossary in the front/back of the book?
  • What can you learn from these professional authors about balance between dialogue and narrative?
  • How do authors in your genre handle descriptions—settings, characters’ physical appearance, weather, world-building, history of the setting, etc.?
  • How are the physical aspects of your characters interactions with each other (i.e., anything leading up to, and including, sex)?
  • How have professional authors handled the types of scenarios, conflicts, plots, situations, etc., that you have in your story?
  • And so on.


Read Other Genres, Too
Though it’s important to read within the genre you’re writing, it’s a good idea to read across genres, too—otherwise, your own writing might become stale. Reading other genres expands your imagination as well as helps you develop your own personal writing voice and style instead of just falling into the patterns of the other authors in your genre. It sharpens your imagination (see the above example of being struck with an idea for Ransome’s Crossing while reading Fellowship of the Ring).

Be Sure to Read Recent, Traditionally Published Novels
In this day and age, sometimes it’s hard to tell traditionally published books apart from self-published. The easiest way to do that in this scenario is to make sure that you’re reading books that are put out by the publisher(s) you’re targeting, whether that’s Harlequin, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Mira, Tor/Macmillan, etc. This means you need to do your research on the publishing industry and, by doing so, familiarize yourself with which publishers actually acquire and publish the types of novels you write. Will this guarantee you that you’ll be picked up by a major publisher? No. But it means that the novels you’ll be studying for your “master class” in writing are those which have met the standards that publishers know readers are looking for. Don’t try to shoehorn your story into the mold of those published works—just try to learn everything can from them.

While it’s great to read books from throughout the ages, from classics to dime novels of the late 19th/early 20th century to mid-century pulp novels to 1990s experimental fiction, it’s very important to make sure you’re reading new releases in your genre and from the publishers you’re targeting—it’s called market research (thus, you can write those purchases off come tax time!) and it’s something every writer and published author needs to do. It keeps us abreast of current trends, current styles, and what non-writing readers are out there enjoying.

You should read for enjoyment, but you should read for education as well. I’ll encourage you to review the series on Critical Reading (click on Writing Series Index and scroll down to the Critical Reading topic).

For Discussion . . .
It’s goal time! What are the five novels you’re going to read and the one craft book?

  1. Judith Canterbury permalink
    Tuesday, September 9, 2014 2:10 pm

    Kaye, I am 63 and new to the writing scene. A lover of books and words all my life, I have been urged by friends for years to give writing a manuscript a try, but felt my calling was more of that of a devotional or short story writer. I wasn’t sure I had a story in me. A short while ago, I started to feel an urge to give the big deal a try.
    I needed your encouragement to keep writing and reading, and not to try so hard to reinvent my inner wheel with how to’s. At 63, getting ideas on paper quickly is of utmost importance, because sometimes the length of the trip to the computer or my notebook is long enough for a wonderful thought to be lost forever. I try to write a little each day, but also spend a good deal of time reading blogs, trying to improve my presentation, and trying to learn the process. Marketing…well, I’m surely glad the Lord has promised to never leave me or forsake me!
    I really enjoyed this blog, as this has been my thought also: Surely good reading will lead to good writing, if I am very aware of what appeals to me as I read.
    I love your blog, and I admire your testimony. Thanks for all your help!



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