I always see people talking about that thing that ‘All Writers Must Do.’ I almost universally detest them, as there is almost nothing that’s set in stone that you must do to be a writer. But there’s one thing that I think comes close. It came to mind a few times in the last week or two when people have reached out to me to ask what science fiction book might be a match for a certain person or situation. And that’s the thing. I think if you’re a writer, there’s a good chance you should be reading more.
This isn’t revolutionary. I’m certainly not the first to say it. I do want to add some specifics
What are you reading? We’ve all got our favorite authors. For me, there was no way I was missing NK Jemisin’s new release this summer, and I cleared everything off my calendar to read it. But if you find yourself only reading the same authors–the big names–then you’re probably doing yourself a disservice. For a long time I stuck to those. I read the stuff I knew that I liked. It’s only in the last five years or so that I’ve branched out looking for new voices. It’s made a ton of difference in how I understand the genre, and has absolutely had an effect on my writing. Who in your genre is writing the best stuff right now? Do you know? Who debuted this year that is making waves?
How old is what you’re reading? Some great books were written a long time ago, and by all means, you want to know how your genre developed. But some large percentage of your reading should be stuff from the last couple years. It’s more relevant, and it will show you what’s working today. And that’s important as a writer. You don’t have to read everything that comes out in your genre…hell, in larger genres that would be impossible. When they announced the Hugo nominations (for SF/F) in 2017, I’d already read three of the books (out of six.) When they announce this year’s nominations in a few months, I’ll probably have read three or four of them (I’ve probably already read them, as I think this year’s field is a bit more predictable.) It’s great if you love the classics like Heinlen and Cherryh and Asimov. But you also need to know what books are being written today that people will call classic in thirty years. And hey, the more new books people buy in your genre, the more books they’ll publish, which might just open a slot for you!
Why are you reading? Well first, obviously you read because you love it. They’re books, after all. But there are other reasons. Are you a new author thinking about asking an established author for a blurb on your new release? You know what makes a great ice breaker? Having read some of their stuff. I got the privilege to spend an hour or so with John Hemry (who writes as Jack Campbell) at Dragon Con this year thanks to my agent arranging it. So there I am, meeting a NYT bestselling author. You know what made it not awkward? Talking about his books. I was able to tell him what I loved about them, and he in turn told me how they developed, how an initial book turned into a series, and any other number of things that were really valuable to me as someone trying to get to where he is in the business. You know what makes a great intro to an agent when you’re querying? Telling her about a client’s book that you read and why you loved it. Because you know what? That agent loved it, too.
Try something outside your genre. You know what book inspired me to write PLANETSIDE the way I did? GONE GIRL. They are nothing alike. But something about the voice in that book just screamed at me to write my book the way I did. The main character I read this year who is most like Carl Butler, my main character? Roxane Weary, from Kristen Lepionka’s THE LAST PLACE YOU LOOK, which is a mystery. You never know where you’re going to find inspiration.
Read more short fiction. Want to try a bunch of new authors in a hurry? Read more short stories. Admittedly, I didn’t do as much of this as I meant to this past year. I’m resolving to do it again this year, hopefully with somewhat better results. I’ll let you know.
But Mike, I don’t have time/I don’t want to read that stuff/You’re not the boss of me. Then don’t. I’m sure there are writers who are successful who don’t read. I haven’t met any of them, but I’m sure they’re out there, in their cave of darkness, hating everything that is good in the world. They probably also hate puppies. Do you hate puppies? Monster. Wait…I got off track.
So there you go. You needed some resolutions you could keep this year. You’ll have stopped going to the gym by March, and you’ll have blown your diet by February 4th. But unlike diets and exercise, books are fun. Here’s to happy reading in 2018.