To Read or Not to Read
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
There’s a hot take in the writing community that you either must read [a lot of] books, or that you don’t have to read at all to write a good book.
Personally, I don’t think this is a one-size-fits-all situation. Some will read less, some will read more, and that’s up to you for sure. But to not read other people’s books at all?
Writers should absolutely read, and gloating that you don’t is just going to reflect that before we even read your book. But that doesn’t mean you have to be constantly reading, or reading books that you just can’t stand. I don’t think you have to read the classics to become a good author, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t a classic out there for you. And maybe there isn't one, but that's okay too.
There are so many different authors to choose from, from fanfiction to traditionally published works. And hey, there are plenty of people who like to discredit fanfiction. Sure, there’s a LOT to sift through...but there are some real amazing gems too, and the same goes double for indie authors. Fanfiction can make an already great story become even better... So don’t be scared to read these stories!
I find that if an author has a healthy curiosity, they’ll find their way into reading a myriad of books and stories they never thought they’d enjoy. Read because it’s fun. And if reading isn’t ever fun for you, then your journey as an author is most likely going to be a very difficult road...
For instance, I love fantasy, but I’m down with reading sci-fi and suspense, and that doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy other genres! Just give me an interesting story with fun and relatable characters and I’m happy! I’ll admit, I don’t have a huge list of popular books under my reading belt, but that doesn’t mean the ton of indie author content on top of all the other media I consume doesn’t count. All of what I read can help me to be a better author. Even the most terrible book can be of some value to the reader/writer if they choose to find how to improve upon that story or writing method in a way that relates to them and to their own readers. But if a story is painful for you, please don’t force yourself to read it.
The purpose of reading in my opinion, besides having fun, is to help you use it as a wheelhouse. Find authors that impress you, and even try to emulate them if you want, until you find your voice in your narrative. Artists are continually growing, or at least that’s my desire, but if you’re only looking through one very narrow lens, it’s hard to figure out how you can improve, and the joy of writing may quickly lose its allure.
Here are some books I’ve enjoyed, and how they’ve helped me in my craft:
The Dune Series
I read the first five novels of Frank Herbert’s Dune, all the way up to Heretics of Dune. What a crazy series! There is so much worldbuilding, politics, and nuance to characters.
I haven’t read it in a long time, but I’m planning on rereading them soon. Mega sci-fi for those interested, it might come off as dry to some (it’s a space opera!), but if there’s a classic you’re wanting to read, I’d definitely recommend this one. I really loved Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, both insane and interesting novels, though I recommend reading them in order if you’re going to read them at all. I will say, though, that these books aren't for everyone. Don't be discouraged if they don't resonate with you.
I really feel like the way Herbert narrates rubbed off on me. I loved going between all of the characters and getting into their heads. Herbert’s worldbuilding is incredibly in-depth and provocative, from the Freman, to the sand worms, even the Bene Gesserit, and the spice rituals—what really piqued my interest are the gholas, mainly because I really enjoyed Duncan Idaho’s character. Anyway, I’m nowhere near as skilled as Herbert, but I like to think my writing has been at least influenced by his work.
Odd is a medieval fantasy by indie author A.N. Mouse and Ace Layton, and boy is this thing chock full of fantastic characters. I loathe the antagonist, and this is a good thing by the way, she’s just so fun to hate! She’s so bad. There is great use of necromancy and character building, there are even dragons! And yet these aren’t the dragons you’d be used to… An alchemist’s experiment goes wrong just before his school is overtaken by a skeleton army, and he winds up with a ragtag group of townsfolk as they plan a revolution. Overall, it’s just a book you really should pick up! I learned that you can have a large cast in your novel and not only can the cast be easily followed, but it can also enhance a story.
The Arc of Scythe
So this is a trilogy by Neal Shusterman, and happens to be a young adult series. I’ve been having trouble with liking some YA, but I quite liked these books, particularly the first one. Earth has reached utopia as man has found the secret to living forever, and keeping one’s youth too. But because one can no longer die, the population must be controlled. Teenagers are then trained to become scythes, artists of death itself as they ‘glean’ their marks, chosen indiscriminately, in any way they so choose. While I did like this trilogy, I found myself getting bored with some of the characters and situations they were involved in, despite enjoying the futuristic setting. To be honest, I don't know that I learned anything from this series that I didn't already know, but it definitely has an audience.
I won’t go into much detail on this book, but I read it at a pretty vulnerable time in my life when I was trying to absorb as much as I could to help me move forward in life. Maybe I won’t feel the same about it now if I were to reread it, but at the time, this book gave me a strange feeling of hope, and what I learned was that I want to try and invoke that feeling in my stories. I didn’t know it then, but I think it’s safe to say that I know it now. I don’t really care for the premises of some of Paulo Cohelo’s books that I’ve seen, but I’ll be honest, I haven’t read any others but this. It’s not 'the best book ever written', but it was at least able to evoke something positive from me, and I think that’s what counts.
All But Blood
Haha, okay, this is fanfiction by Krista Perry. I don’t usually like first-person POV, but this one did it well. It’s about Zack, a character from Final Fantasy VII, and Cloud, while they’re in Hojo’s lab in the game. I read it SO LONG AGO that all I really remember are vague feelings and scenes, but I still think about it to this day. It really helped me view the Final Fantasy VII game more fully, but it was also an amazing read for me back in the day when I originally read it. It’s deep, detailed in just the right ways, and full of enough angst around the characters to last a lifetime. I definitely remember trying to emulate the way the story made me feel in my own work at the time, which was all forum roleplaying, haha, but this is the kind of stuff I mean when I say that fanfiction is just as much a valid piece of fiction to help you with your own writing. If it inspires you, it’s worth it!
While I already knew these things before I ‘read’ this next book, I wanted to mention some things not to do…
I won’t utter the name of this particular book, but just know, as my readers, that pages and pages of exposition, or of many meaningless fight scenes, are probably bad ideas. Constantly repeating a character’s eye and hair color every time the character comes back into view is another example of what not to do, and if you’re going to use mental illness in the book, please, please research first hand experiences...or just don’t use mental illness at all. Having extremely overpowered characters with zero stakes makes everything that happens utterly meaningless, and putting something in your book simply for the rep or brownie points isn’t going to do you or your book any favors when the characters have no substance. Writing a book is not about checking off all the boxes on your list of all the things you can cram into it just to say there’s representation, it only ends with your characters as flat, forgettable shells of people. As a final note, please don’t use your book as a platform for hot takes… That’s what a blog is for. ;)
There are so many books out there! I know how overwhelming it can be to find a good book, and a ‘good book’ is absolutely subjective; you don’t have to choose the mainstream publishing houses to find something you like, though. Don’t be afraid to try out indie books, and in fact, I highly encourage it. You might be surprised by what you find! And it can be hard to decide what it is you’ve actually learned by reading something, if that is your goal… Sometimes, you won’t really know until years after you’ve read it. These things tend to seep in slowly, while at other times can jump right out at you. Don’t be discouraged!
So what are some of your favorite books of late? What piece of fiction would you recommend a budding author to read? What books taught you a valuable lesson in writing?