Monday, October 8, 2012

Reading What You Write

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

MorgueFile: xenia
I received an email a week ago from one of my blog readers. 

She said that she repeatedly heard the advice that writers needed to read.  But, she asked, what should writers read?  What’s most helpful to a writer when they’re trying to start out?  She said she’d been overwhelmed by the sheer number of books and felt she needed some direction—that sometimes she felt like the books she was picking didn’t really help her learn more of the craft.

It is overwhelming to find a book these days.  The number of books in any genre is skyrocketing as writers write faster and publish books themselves.

And there are only so many hours in the day.  It’s a good idea for most of us to have a targeted approach if we’re reading to learn more about our genre.

The first thing I’d do is narrow down what you’re most interested in writing.  Most genres have subgenres.  So, if you’re a fantasy or science fiction writer, are you interested in writing dystopian novels?  Steampunk? Space Operas? Urban fantasy?

You could spend a lot of time reading the classics in your genre—but I wouldn’t spend all my time reading my genre’s classics.  If you’re writing for a modern market, you’re going to want to see what’s selling now.  It’s important to also see how the genre got from its past to its present, but I wouldn’t spend all my time doing that.

So….subgenres, modern books.  The next thing I’d do is find the top writers of that genre…writers who have received critical acclaim.  The quickest way to do that is to find the awards given for that genre and see who the most recent recipients are.   For science fiction, you’re going to be looking at the Arthur C. Clarke award, the Hugo Award, among others.

For romance, you’ll focus primarily on the RITA awards.   There’s also the RT Book Reviews awards and reader awards on sites like All About Romance

For mystery, AgathaAnthony, Edgar, and Left Coast are probably the biggest.

I could go on and on—but this post would too, so I’m stopping here.  :)  But there are tons of these awards….Google your genre+awards and see what comes up first (and, obviously, who’s sponsoring it and how prestigious it seems to be.)

Book bloggers are another great way of finding great books (especially the most recently published books that wouldn’t have gotten any awards yet.)  This directory of book bloggers (Book Blogger Directory) is a good way to get started.

I request books I’m interested in from my library’s website, reserving them with my library card number.  When I really like a book, I’ll frequently buy it and re-read it for years.
Now…that’s a great way to find books that work.  You can read those books and note things like: Pace—How quickly is the story moving?  What does the writer do to pick up or slow down the pace?

Nuts and Bolts/Structure—How does the book hook you at the start?  Where is the inciting incident? Length of the chapters?  POV? How are the transitions handled? How was the mood developed?  Is there a theme to the book?  (In mysteries---when is the body discovered? How many suspects are there?  Each genre will have its own specific patterns to look for.)

Characters—How are they described? Developed? What motivates them?  How are they used to create conflict? What makes the protagonist compelling? What’s the character arc?

Language—What literary elements are used and how effective are they?

You can learn a lot from a good book, but you can also learn a lot from a bad one—by noticing where it fails.  You can see how it didn’t hit the mark with the elements I listed above.  It also makes you feel a little more confident as a writer to read a really, really awful book.

How do you find good books in your genre?  How do you make time to read them? What kinds of things are you looking at when you read a book critically?