We’re getting ready to head for Portland, Oregon for Wordstock literary festival. We’ll be talking with people about writing all weekend. That’s great, but I hope the people we’re talking to are taking advantage of the festival to line up some good reading, because as Stephen King once advised,” If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” So here are some suggestions for you as you plan your reading.
Read Comparables – Check out books like yours. How are other authors telling stories in your genre? What works and what doesn’t in books similar to your own? One thing that every author needs to realize is that if his book is too different, it may be difficult to market. When authors tell me that they are working on a genre-bending book that’s so groundbreaking that there’s nothing like it out there, I am concerned. Books that are already selling demonstrate that there are readers for other books like it. By writing a book that’s similar to those books you can capitalize on the existing market. Taking the time to read successful books will equip you with the knowledge to emulate their success.
Read Books in Genres Close to Yours – If you are writing a memoir take a look at successful biographies or social histories. There’s a lot to learn about narrative in nonfiction in the works of people like Pulitzer Prize winning biographers like Stacy Schiff or David McCullough. If you’re writing about your family’s experiences during the Great Depression you could learn a lot from the interviews in Studs Turkel’s Hard Times.
Read Books About Writing – You can learn a lot from people like Stephen King in On Writing or Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing as they reflect on the lessons learned during their own careers. If you want a how to book on how to turn out a best seller, try Donald Maas’ Writing the Breakout Novel. If you like a more scholarly and philosophical approach, take a look at Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Anne Lammot’s Bird By Bird and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones will provide a more personal and introspective examination of the emotional side of writing. Whatever you choose, the more you know about the craft of writing, the more tools you will have in your own tool box.
Read Some Classics - There's a reason that books become classics. One is that they have some lessons to teach other writers about writing. Don't miss them. And contrary to many people's beliefs the stories are pretty good too.
Read Anything That Catches Your Fancy – Let’s face it, reading is fun. The more you read, the more you can learn if you pay attention to what the author is doing. So read whatever you like, but think like a writer while you read. Think about the elements of the author’s style and the techniques the author applies. It’s amazing the unexpected places where insights may come from.
It's very rare for a good writer not to be a reader. So don't neglect this aspect of your growth as a writer.