Note: As I was writing this, I realized that I had gone into full nerd mode, which is something that most people don’t need, most of the time. So I’m going give what I think most people are going to want first, and then leave the full-nerd-mode blog post after a break, in case you are not most people, most of the time.
Here’s a situation that happens more often than I like:
I don’t spend a lot of time reading, said the writer.
Okay. I get that life happens. But whaaaa??!?!!???!! NO CAN BRAIN. IS NOT THE LOGIC. Often the writer later begins to speak of all the television they’ve watched lately, and I tune out. Blahdiblah. Blah.*
I get that it’s overwhelming to try to select a book to read next when you’re not reading on impulse; I too suffer from decision fatigue. Anyway, as best I can tell, your best no-brainer plan is to find a top 100 list for books in your genre and start picking your way through them. At least put one book on your phone and read it while you’re standing in line. Go in alphabetical order, date order, list order–just pick an order, so you don’t have to think too hard about which book to read next. It’s fiiiine.
Here are some decent top-100 genre lists, broken down by “I am so not going to think too hard about this” genres:
- Romance: NPR’s Happy Ever After: 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books likes it. So should you.
- Crime (mystery, suspense, thriller, etc.): Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time (there’s a Brit version and a U.S. one if you scroll down).
- Science fiction/fantasy: Amazon’s 100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime.
- Western: Goodreads’s list of Best Westerns. (Note: This isn’t a curated list, but there isn’t a top-100 western list that I can find. How terrible! I would suggest earmarking one title per author so you can cover more ground.)
- Horror: Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books.
- Historical fiction: Goodreads’s list of Best Historical Fiction. (Note: see Westerns! If you have a particular era in mind, it’s much easier to find a curated list. Still not easy. But easier.)
- General fiction: Time’s ALL-TIME 100 Novels. This one’s iffy; it only covers the years that Time Magazine was in existence, and starts in 1923. But my other major contender, Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, I personally find kind of stilted. YMMV. I’d read the Time list for fiction, and Modern Library for classics. Yeah, let’s say that.
- Middle grade: Top 100 Children’s Novels, from a poll by a NYPL librarian.
- Young adult: NPR’s Your Favorites: 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels.
If you don’t find what you’re looking for here, you could, you know, use the Google to find something more to your tastes. Or read the full-nerd article below if you’re like WHAAAAA YOU PICKED THE WRONG LIST or THAT LIST I DISAGREES WIF IT. Up to you, but you’ve already been warned about that.
If anyone has a curated, solid top-100 list for Westerns or overall Historical, or pulp, OMG I have been wanting a good pulp list forever, let me know.
Note: Here beginnith the full nerd. You have been warned.
Writers read books. It’s like an internal compass; if you drop a writer in the wilderness then they automatically turn to face the nearest library or bookstore. And yet it’s possible for a writer to have reading-related issues.
These issues usually don’t look like reading-related issues. They look like, oh, marketing-related issues, or creativity issues, or grammar issues. But the root cause often points to not knowing what other books are out there.
So I’m gonna talk about how to get a broader knowledge of what books are out there, why you should bother, and how to drill down on specific problem areas. Your mileage may vary; if you’re satisfied with what and how often you’re reading, cool. This is just how I do it.
First and foremost: are you reading enough?
My baseline assumption is that if you’re not reading a book a week as an author, you’re probably not reading enough (say a half hour to an hour a day). Some books take longer, some less time; if you’re a reader of epic fantasies than perhaps you may spend an hour a day and not get through a book for a month. If you have a reading disability, you might cover less. You might have personal obligations. So be it. But I’m assuming four books per month: not for all readers, mind you. For writers.
I also recommend finding a way to track your books, so you know what you’ve read over time and can spot the holes in your reading habits. I like Goodreads and try to write just enough of a review that I can remember what the hell I read and why I liked it or didn’t. I don’t review–and don’t count–books that I don’t finish.
I personally find myself struggling to keep up with TV shows/movies that are relevant to my niches; I should probably work out a way to burn through more video in general (especially because I work in the horror genre–a lot of seminal work started not in fiction but on the screen). But that’s another blog post.
How do you know if you have a reading-related issue? It’s a possibility if…
- You have no idea what genre or subgenre your book is in.
- You have no idea what subgenres are in your genre.
- You can only discuss your genre as it existed fifty years ago, and you often run out of new books to read in that genre.
- You can only discuss the current books in your subgenre, all of which you have read, and you often run out of new books to read in that genre.
- Your favorite book in the genre is pretty much the only book in that genre you have read.
- You are consistently screwing up one element across stories.
- You have no idea why you’re getting rejected.
- You have no idea what the expectations are in your genre.
- You have no idea what books are like your book, so that you can compare them to your book for marketing purposes (query letters, book covers, etc.).
- Early comments on your work include statements like, “reinventing the wheel,” “not fresh,” “it’s just like book X,” “it’s an X knockoff” (“it reminds me of book X” is not a bad thing, though).
- You are unable to tell a skillful writer from one you like.
- You can sneer at any category of book (particularly bestsellers).
- You can’t understand why some books are selling more than yours.
- You have no idea why bestsellers are doing so well, or blame their success primarily on luck or readers’ stupidity/foolishness.
- You have no idea who publishes work in your genre.
- You have no idea what flavor of your genre different publishers publish.
- You write cross-genre books that aren’t working.
- You never or rarely read books written by authors who aren’t like you (don’t consult your ego on this–consult your shelves).
- You assume your book will be enjoyed “by all audiences.”
- You can say, “I read what I like” or “I don’t care about what kind of person wrote the book, I just read what I like” with a straight face.
- You know the basics of writing but your stories still feel thin and fake.
- You don’t recognize your readers’ other favorite authors in your genre.
- You have no idea which of your books to recommend to readers based on what they read.
- Your ability to recommend books based on a reader’s preferences stops at “buy my book.”
- You have no idea why some people don’t like your books or might review them negatively.
- You don’t know where to steal cool new techniques from to make your own.
- You have gotten wrapped up in reading like a professional writer and have forgotten how to just have fun with it.
A couple of notes:
I read a lot, and I still do more than a few of these things: I’m always trying to improve my reading selection.
Also, readers who aren’t writers get to do whatever the hell they want. Doing the book thing isn’t their job.
Just as writers should know the rules of grammar, they should also know what’s been done with stories and books, both in what’s been written and how they’ve been organized (in genres, usually), and for pretty much the same reason: know the rules so you can break them.
This means a lot of reading.
If you’re not doing a lot of reading, that’s another blog post for another day, something titled, “Ten tricks to read more” or something. I’m personally not interested in writing it. Let me know if you know of a good one and I’ll link to it.
If you’re already doing a lot of reading, great. What you need then is to investigate what areas your current reading tendencies are missing and find which books you need to fix that.
It used to be that there was a “Western Canon,” that is, a list of books (and other media) that you could point toward and say, “This is what formed Western civilization and is therefore where you should start as the basis of a good Western education.”
However, as of late a lot of people have been saying things like, “wait a minute, that so-called canon of yours doesn’t actually have anything to do with my actual, lived life, or how I see the world now.” Then other people began saying things like, “but the canon has always been the canon your books aren’t any good compared to the ones in the canon.” And that’s when the fight between the prescrivists and descriptivists started.
We’re going to skip that part.
The best books for you to read are the ones that accomplish what you want accomplished. Sometimes the process of figuring that out is mysterious, indirect, and strange–you may have to read some books that strike you as purely repugnant or illogical in order to define what is it that you want to accomplish (“not that“).
I tend to focus on reading lists, so my suggestions are based on finding a reading list rather than other possible techniques, but you don’t have to stick with a pre-made list. You could also try:
- Bestseller categories.
- Award winners (I generally don’t follow these; awards can be selected based on some truly mind-boggling rules).
- Asking people who are long-term readers of a type of book that you’re interested in (ah! recommendations!).
- Bestseller lists, like the New York Times, USA Today, or from a genre publication (e.g., Locus Magazine for SF/F).
- Books mentioned by your favorite writers (for example, Stephen King).
- Best-of Anthologies (make sure to read the introductions and honorable mentions).
- Books that you assume you won’t like for some reason.
I tend to use the following guidelines when looking for lists, although of course there’s never a perfect list–just the best list for whatever your purpose is.
- Consider the source. A list that somehow factors in a wide variety of opinions without giving undue weight to any set of opinions. A list argued over by multiple people familiar with the topic is far preferable to some random list on Amazon. A list by a famous writer who writes the same kind of thing you do is better than a Goodreads list. A Goodreads list is better than a list made by someone with a soapbox, etc.
- A larger list is better than a shorter one for genres; a shorter list is better than a larger one for subgenres or other specialty topics. I like 100-book lists for entire genres or “best books evah.” I like 10-25 for subgenres. Trying to do a top 100 of Steampunk means a lot of “yeah whatever, points for participation” books sneak in. And a top-10 genre list is too short to give a sense of the possibilities of an entire genre.
- Diversity of the list is important. If I start skimming through a list and there are 10% or fewer women, I’m out. If I can’t find at least one person of color on the list, I’m out. Those lists reflect such an extreme amount of bias that they’re not worth my time. It’s funny how often that is actually a factor. If I ever find a list for a genre that reflects the type of people who actually live in United States (let alone the world), I may shit a brick. And before you comment about “but what about all the collections/lists that only feature women writers/writers of color/insert whine here?” please take a look at the books you read in the last year and tell me whether it reflects the actual demographics of the country you live in. I know of some people who are exceptions, but I’m not one of them. Half of what I read for pleasure isn’t women authors. I can’t even bias my own reading habits toward people who share my gender and who happen to be the majority of human beings and writers in the United States, even when I’m making a point to read more women authors. That’s saying something. If you have the attitude that you only need to read the books you like and don’t consider race/gender/sexual orientation/disability/etc. when selecting books, then what the hell are you reading the full-nerd section of this post for anyway? Full nerd. You aren’t one.
- How many books I’ve read that are on the list is important to me, too: If I’ve read over half, it’s questionable how much I’m gonna get out of it. But if (and I’m fairly widely read, so YMMV) I haven’t read at least 10% of the books on the list, I won’t bother with it, either; I have no way to assess whether it reflects the genre or not. With a genre where I’m running completely blind (as I was a few years ago before I started reading romances), I’ll go for a top-10 list for a genre just to dip a toe in, or focus on a subgenre that I know that I’ll like. Nerdy girls who get the handsome guy and get to wear the pretty dress? I’m in. (Regencies.)
Lists take a long time to read through. I know this. And you have to track down books that might not be at your library. But consider the expense and time involved in a grad school program. Consider how long and how much effort it takes to become a doctor. You’re a professional. There are no certifications in “being a writer” land. There are just all the books you read. That’s your certification.
“I keep up with my genre.” A statement that reflects a world of work. Be proud of it.
I’m going to go back through the list of issues above, put them into general categories, and address what to look for when you’re reading.
- You have issues inside your “home” genre. You don’t know what genre or subgenre your book is in. You don’t know what’s currently being done or what has been done in your genre. You don’t know what the expectations are in your genre. Your book “reinvents the wheel,” etc. You don’t know what books are similar to your book. You don’t know your genre’s publishers or why they’re different. You’re not familiar with other writers in your genre.
- You have issues with not reading widely enough across genres. You’re consistently screwing up one element across stories. You can sneer at a given category of book (and don’t understand why anyone would read it). You write cross-genre books that aren’t working. You don’t know where to steal new techniques from, or where other writers have stolen their techniques from.
- You have issues with not reading from a wider audience’s perspective (people who are not like you). You have no idea why you’re getting rejected. You are unable to tell a skillful writer from one you like. You can’t understand why some books are selling more than yours. You have no idea why bestsellers are doing so well. You never or rarely read books written by authors who aren’t like you. You assume your books will be enjoyed by all audiences. You “read what you like.” You can’t recommend books tailored to a reader’s tastes unless they are the same as your own. You don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t like your books.
- You have issues with not reading enough nonfiction. You have a grasp of basic writing techniques, but your stories feel thin and fake.
- You’re overthinking this. You have gotten wrapped up in reading like a professional writer and have forgotten how to just have fun with it.
If you have issues within your “home” genre, there are several things to look for:
- Have you read about 80% of what a variety of people consider the “classics” of the genre? Do a search for “best [insert genre here] books of all time” or look at the lists at the head of this article and skim through the titles on various links.
- Are you familiar with your genre’s subgenres? Do a search for “list of [insert genre here] subgenres.” Note the subgenres. Then do a search for “best [insert subgenre here] of all time.” If you think it might be your subgenre, then prioritize those books. If you’re interested in the theory behind what makes a particular subgenre what it is, then search for “What is [insert name of subgenre].” There will be arguments.
- Are you familiar with the current state of your genre/subgenre? Do you not particularly want to read every possible book in the genre but feel kind of unsure about the various awards and their biases? Search for “best [insert genre/subgenre here] books of the 21st Century” or since 2010, or of 2015, etc. “Best new [insert genre/subgenre here] books” also works well. Look for commonalities between lists. Finding good sources for recent books in a subgenre is sometimes difficult (“Buy my book!” tends to drown out curated lists), so when you do, bookmark them–they may continue to update their information with new books.
- Pay attention to the publishers of books that you read and like, and investigate their backlists. Smaller presses, especially, have a distinct vision of what books need to be in the world.
If you have issues with not reading widely enough across genres:
- Read the top 100 list from another genre. Which genre? I recommend romance for relationships (including romantic ones) and how to write a happy goddamn ending or a satisfying ending, period; crime for any kind of “what is going on here?” story, and also for setting/description issues; science fiction and fantasy (not all SF/F, but the best of it) if you have issues with, hmmm, how do I say this? Not being able to pull off anything original; Westerns for setting and satisfying endings and character; horror for a wide variety of pacing techniques and in accepting how personal a reader’s tastes can be; historical fiction for setting, character, and handling Too Much Information; general fiction for the BIG GUNS of story and a wide range of what it’s possible to do in fiction (hint: a lot); middle grade for making your writing clean and clear without writing down to your audience; YA for character voice.
If you have issues with seeing your stories from a wider’s audience’s perspective:
- Read for a wide variety of authors. In the United States, approximately 50% of people are men; 66% of people are non-Hispanic Caucasian; 90-95% of people are cis and straight; 90% of people are abled. So, roughly, if more than a third of any given list is straight white guys, you already know that 1) it’s been strongly affected by bias, and 2) you are not reading the best possible books. Some of those books never got written or published, because bias sucks, but you can still find a lot of them if you try. Search for “women writers of [insert genre here]” or “people of color writers of [insert genre here].” Or possibly “best international writers of [insert genre here].” Or best Native American writers…best LBGTQ or queer writers…best writers with autism…best Chinese writers in translation…the list is endless. If you don’t question the diversity of your reading, then you’re not reading the best of what is possible, or even the best of what is out there, and your mind’s gonna get blown. To learn how to bust up the assumptions of a genre while still writing solidly within it, read diverse authors. You won’t even know the assumptions that you’re making until you start doing this. (For example: Japanese vs. U.S. horror. Graphic novels vs. manga. Historical romances that aren’t set in the Regency, Victorian, Highlander, or Western eras. African-American sci fi. Non-Tolkein fantasy…)
- Read slush. That’s right, volunteer to read the raw fiction coming in to an online short-story publication in your genre. Most of them are looking for volunteers. That which does not kill you will make you stronger.
- Read the USA Today bestseller list. It’s a firehose–you can never keep up. But find the first author you haven’t read before and pick up one of their books from the last ten years. (The latest book is often checked out from the liberry.) The New York Times filters, nudges, and winks at the data…USA Today is more of a spigot directly to what most of the people read, most of the time: not book lovers, not regular readers, but people. These are the books that out-entertain Netflix and Angry Birds. Respect.
- Yes, there should be more male writers of romance. But that’s what happens when you make an entire genre the “girl germs” of books: not enough male writers. I say go for it; I’d like to see more of it.
If you’re not getting enough nonfiction under your belt:
- I skimp on this all the time because nonfiction is more demanding and slower to read than fiction. Also, the skill set necessary to select nonfiction books is enough different than fiction books that I have a hard time with it.
- If you’re not reading a nonfiction book per month, you’re probably not getting enough organized, curated, researched, and considered information to be able to make your stories feel solid. Granted, you’re probably going to read a lot more if you’re writing historical fiction, historical [insert genre here], westerns, or science fiction, but pretty much any writer needs to be aware of what’s going on in the real world. The news is one thing–but it hasn’t been put in perspective by a professional in a relevant field. A book about neuroscience is going to be more considered than an online article summarizing a scholarly paper that nobody can read because it’s behind a paywall. A book on history written by a historian is going to give you more than a Wikipedia article. And so on. Even if you later dig down to primary sources, I think that having a professional–better yet, several professionals–walk you through their opinion on the matter is going to be of great benefit to your writing.
- How to find the books you want? Even though they aren’t curated, I’ve had the best luck with Goodreads lists. Many Goodreads fiction lists make me raise an eyebrow; a lot of authors hustle to get on the lists, then hustle to get more votes. But I’ve had a lot of luck with the nonfiction lists, and you can get as specific as you like and probably still find resources. Search for “goodreads nonfiction [insert subject here].” Another good technique is to find one book you like on the subject and raid the bibliography.
And last but not least, if you’re overthinking this and not reading what you love:
- At least one book a month (still going off the one-book-a-week minimum) should be a book that you’ve been looking forward to reading, or a book that you randomly grab off a shelf, or a book that you’ve been meaning to reread, or…
- Whatever books you do read, don’t analyze them until after you’ve read them. You can yell at the book, you can throw it across the room, you can put it down, you can cry, you can laugh…but you can’t pick it apart until you have declared yourself done with the book. (I also have a terrible time with this one.)
So now you’ve read the full-nerd version, and you’re like, “Oh, De. You’ve given me too many things to read now, so many that I can’t even pick the list that I want to work on first, let alone the book.”
I warned you, right?
But I do have suggestions for that.
If you go by a four-books-a-month goal, then consider this as a plan and see whether it’s doable:
- One book a month to tackle a genre reading list.
- One book a month of nonfiction.
- One book a month that’s a bestseller or something deliberately diverse.
- One book a month for pure pleasure.
I read more than that, so I pretty much do this:
- Book from horror reading list.
- Book from crime reading list.
- Book from underrepresented group–I tend to skip straight white women as a target group at this point.
- Between each of those books, I generally read or reread a book for pleasure (lots of graphic novels in here).
- I finish about three books per week and often go out of order, but try to keep an eye on it.
- I’ll ditch the “for pleasure” books at the drop of a hat, but it takes a lot to make me put down a list book before the end. Especially with the horror list, I’m getting a lot of “books that were not written for me, a woman, in any way shape or form,” and I end up going “well, that thing that drives me up the wall, don’t do that” a lot. But I already know the genre better as a whole than a lot of other horror writers do.
I’m starting to approach the end of the horror list; I’ll probably switch to all things gothic after that. A lot of the women horror writers that I discover aren’t from the list I’m reading at all–they’re shoved off under other umbrellas, one of which is “gothic.” This annoys me to no end. Half of a genre I love is hidden under a code word; no wonder horror books aren’t selling that great, outside King and Koontz. The full range of possibilities aren’t being included–and the genre is starving to death as its target audience gets smaller.
And before you start arguing with me on this one… You know what’s not on that horror list?
- Edgar Allan Poe
- The Bronte sisters
- The Picture of Dorian Gray
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- Angela Carter
- Patrick Suskind
- John Ajvide Lindqvist
- M.R. James
- Daphne Du Maurier
- Toni Morrison
- Mervyn Peake
- Anne Rivers Siddons
- Robert Chambers
- A ton of modern people I’ve never heard of.
So that’s something to keep in mind: not all these people are women. In fact most of them aren’t. Of course a list of 100 books can’t include everyone…and some lines have to be drawn…
But Edgar Allan Poe isn’t on the list. There are no collections of early ghost stories. Stephen King has seven books on the list, one of which is the eminently forgettable Bag of Bones.
Every list has issues. Every genre has issues; that’s one of the things you’ll discover the better you know a genre. Keep a sharp eye out for bias, watch for patterns in what you read versus what your ego says you read, and send me list suggestions.
Full nerd 4ever