The Townhouse of Ideas

Writers Read… But WHAT Should They Read?

Few things annoy me more than when a novice writer asks for writerly advice, only to have a writer smile a “I’m so clever” smile and say: “Read!” It’s a condescending, patronizing thing to say, since most novice writers are reading.

Yes, reading is important. Reading is a continuing education class for writers.

Yet when a novice writer says “What should I read?” the writer gives them that same smile and says, “Everything.”

Yes, there is a grain of truth in that. Every bit of writing out there can teach a writer something, but it doesn’t really answer the question.

So, I’ll give you some advice concerning what to read:

1/ If you’re researching a topic for a book, read about that topic. For instance, with our book Song to the Siren, I had to do a lot of research not just about Irish mythology, but also about mental illness in teenage boys.

Do deep research, not just a quick glance at Wiki. Even if you’re just writing a “freak of the week” monster story, look into the cultural background of that monster. Look for the mythological tales about that monster.

Wiki is a starting point for research, not the end point.

2/ If you’re a genre writer, start with reading what contemporary writers are writing in your genre– but please don’t stop there. If you do, you’ll just copy the competition. Instead, find out who influenced those writers, and read those writers’ influences. Then read the writers who influenced the writers your contemporaries like. Go as far back as you feel comfortable going. There’ll be a point where the prose/prose style is too dated for you to get into. For instance, I write about the supernatural, so my roots go way, way back– but they stop with Ann Radcliffe, as her plots and prose style are simply too old-school for my liking. That’s okay– there’ll be a certain point where you just can’t relate any longer.

3/ Once you’ve read what’s in canon in your genre, start looking outside of canon for lesser-known writers. For instance, I love old ghost stories– but having read M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Elizabeth Gaskell, and so on, I still hungered for ghost stories. Eventually, I found lesser-known writers like Mary Elizabeth Counselman, Rosemary Timperley, and Richmal Crompton (better known for the “Just William” stories than for her ghost stories).

So, why go for the more obscure writers, you might ask? Well, writers who only read what’s in canon are influenced by what’s in canon. If you read the more obscure writers, your ideas may seem fresher than writers who only read their contemporaries or what’s in canon.

4/ Read to your weaknesses instead of your strengths. That sounds a little wonky, but let me explain: all writers are good at some aspects of storytelling, and less good at others. You, as a novice writer, might be good at coming up with ideas, but not so good at writing dialog. So, if you want to get better at writing dialog, read authors who write good dialog. I’ll give you a personal for-instance: my writing weakness is description, so I started reading works that had a handle on how to describe characters. As I read, I thought, “Okay, that’s how you do it.” Believe me, it helped.

5/ Once you’ve read what’s in canon in your genre, get adventurous, and read outside your given genre. When people only read inside their genre, they start sounding like the other voices in their genre. There starts to be a tunnel-vision effect concerning ideas and inspiration. However, if you read outside your genre, you’ll encounter ideas that are new to you. When you incorporate ideas that are new to your genre, you’re more likely to become more innovative. If your ideas are different, it’ll be because your influences are different.

NEXT TIME:  HOW to read like a Writer