Writers must read? More often than not, the first piece of advice given to an aspiring author is they need to be good readers. On the surface, it seems like good advice, but the reasons why it is so important don’t always follow-up the advice.
There are many facets to the sage wisdom, so let’s take a deeper dive into a few.
Writers must read in their genre
The reasons for this are pretty obvious. You need to know what’s popular. What has come before you. Where the market is saturated, and where there are opportunities to carve a niche. What’s hot (imagine anything fantasy school-related after Harry Potter, or vampires and werewolves after Twilight)? What’s overdone (those things a few years later)? If your goal is just to write a specific story, without any kind of publishing-related goals other than to just ‘put it out there’, then write the story your heart wants to write. If you aim to be a financially successful author, then you need read your genre’s tea leaves, and if not be an expert, be at least aware.
Writers must read outside their genre
Maybe a little less obvious here. Most fiction stories contain elements from multiple genres. Your historical romance might have a bit of mystery to it. Your swashbuckling space opera has a heist subplot. Your epic fantasy turns into a costumed police procedural. You need to appreciate the elements (tropes, structure, character types, etc.) that make stories in those genres successful, if you are to be successful in applying horror to your bake-sale comedy.
Writers must read recent releases
This is good advice, but especially applies to anyone hoping to be traditionally published. You need to know what agents (and publishing houses) are looking for, what’s selling, and where the market is headed. In addition to reading recent books, you have to follow up by absorbing any metadata you can find about them via sites like Publisher’s Marketplace.
Writers must read debut authors
Right next to #3 is this, and also important to those who want to find a literary agent. You need to understand (and incorporate) trends from modern publishing. Read a dozen debut novels and identify trends – how do the opening pages look? Lots of dialogue? Lots of action? How much backstory? How purple is the prose? Is the story told chronologically or out of order? If your 150k-word moose-on-skis spy thriller doesn’t conform to what publishers want right this moment from a debut author, you’re guaranteed to not get an agent’s attention.
Writers must-read classics
This one, to me, is probably the least important, because we only have so much time in our day to dedicate to reading. I think an aspiring writer will get more mileage out of reading modern works simply because today’s publishers aren’t looking for Tolkien, they’re looking for VE Schwab. Read classics if it’s important to you. Do it so you’re versed in your genre’s history, but do it with the understanding that all the classics have serious flaws when looked at with a modern publisher’s lens.
Writers must read for ideas
This one is my favorite, and a great example of it struck me this week (and what kicked me in the butt to get back onto my blog). I am at present listening to the audiobook of a fantasy titled Unraveller. About a quarter of the way in, the protagonists are deep in a murky forest when one protagonist remarks (I’m paraphrasing) that she is natively able to discern the noises and nuances of the marsh far better than her companion and his ‘highland ears.’ Immediately when I heard that, I thought, “Wow, that is a great piece of worldbuilding.” In a single sentence, we’re educated on the protagonists’ regions of upbringing, differences in their observational abilities, and the makeup of their environment. Now, I am not advocating that you go out and copy another author’s hard work. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying your grizzled space pirate can isolate the mating calls of the Nimbus VII glow-monkeys ten clicks sooner than his alien co-pilot can.
So there you go, writers. Some great reasons to be a great reader. If anyone in your writing sphere (writing group, classes, critique partners, etc.) says they don’t think reading is important for writers, you have my emphatic endorsement to completely ignore anything they have to say.
Matthew Rollins, DFWWW Member since 2022.
This post originally appeared on Matt's blog, Building Worlds. We greatly appreciate Matt allowing us to republish it here.
At the DFW Writers' Workshop, we are writers helping writers. Since 1977, our workshop has helped writers of all genres and experience levels to produce and promote professionally published work with weekly read-and-critique, educational activities, ongoing author support, and networking opportunities. Our welcoming and inclusive atmosphere has helped hundreds of authors develop their craft creating a culture that pays it's experience forward.
For the next series of blog posts, DFW Writers' Workshop will continue to 'pay-it-forward' by featuring our own authors discussing and dissecting the skills they've honed over time.
Over the years I have had the privilege of learning from some of the coolest, most talented indie and traditionally published authors. Recently, I was re-blown away by the skillful imagination of workshop member and horror author, Russell C. Connor. His mastery of voice and his precision of point of view makes for an immersive story - and need to read with the lights on.
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