How Reading a Variety of Books Can Improve Your Writing

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When I first began my writing journey nearly about five years ago, I was inspired by Stephen King’s book On Writing, in which he encouraged writers to read often and read a variety of book titles. Around that same time, I had started volunteering for a non-profit group that provided books to incarcerated women, and I became familiar with the books they often requested from our library (most of which were donations). So I was reading everything from true crime, prison life and re-entry to African-American and Hispanic fiction.  

Adding fuel to the fire was a blog post I came across about a reading challenge—reading books under certain categories, themes, genres or book titles—no matter how crazy those titles might be. The list included everything from reading a non-fiction book, a book about motherhood, a book turned into a movie or TV series, or a book with a color/number/person’s name in the title. You get the idea. The challenge wasn’t about how many books you could read, but the variety. It simply added another layer of fun to the activity of reading.

Put altogether, reading a variety of books became ingrained in me. So what that I rarely read the current bestseller? I learned as much by reading a classic John Steinbeck novel as anything else on the current bestseller list. I learned that every book you read can teach you something about writing.

More important, reading a variety exposed me to authors I probably would never have read (Toni Morrison, for example) and about different cultures and perspectives (Indian culture through the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, for example). It showed different uses of language and unique and interesting characters and settings (fantasy, for example).

Reading a variety has also shown me the things that don’t always work in storytelling and what does and does not appeal to readers. That knowledge is helping me craft better stories, stronger plots and more interesting characters. (At least I hope it does.}

Reading a variety can nudge you out of your comfort zone and challenge your brain to see things differently. If all you ever read is the same genre, boredom can settle in and you’ll likely see the same plot lines and the same types of characters over and over again. When that happens, it may be time to mix things up a bit. After reading a couple of historical fiction novels, switch it up by reading a memoir or a classic. You can always return to your favorite genre.

Here’s what you can learn about writing by reading outside your favorite genre:

  • Sci Fi/Fantasy – Learn about world building with its own unique population and language. This challenges you to think outside the box.
  • Mystery/thriller – Learn techniques for pacing and creating suspense.
  • Literary – Learn about character-driven plots, character motivation and story arcs.
  • Memoir – Learn about a person’s history, emotions and experiences. What makes them tick? How did they become the person they are now?
  • Non-fiction – Learn to explain technical or complex subjects. Get background information about a subject.
  • Commercial fiction or current bestseller – ask yourself why they are so popular with readers. What is their appeal? Why are people buying this book?
  • The classics – Learn about the use of language from years ago. Important if you’re writing historical fiction.
  • Plays/drama – Pay attention to dialogue. How do the characters speak and relate to one another?
  • Read Latino, African-American, Native-American, Middle Eastern, Asian-American authors – Notice how their culture influences their story telling.

The way I see it, reading is the flip side of writing. Without reading, we would never experience the fine art of storytelling. So read a lot, and read a variety. Your creative writing self will thank you for it.

My Pet Peeves about Books

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For all the joy I get out of reading, I also have a few pet peeves. I’m not alone. Recently, a contributor at Book Riot published a list of annoyances about books and the book world, gleaned from their readers’ comments. Complaints ranged from poorly designed book covers to the competitiveness of reading challenges and the lack of a synopsis on the back cover. Most of these comments are related to book marketing, not the books themselves.

Inspired by Book Riot’s list, I’ve compiled my own list of petty annoyances. But while the Book Riot list focuses on the marketing of books, my list relates more to the story telling.  

Do you agree or disagree with this list? Or do you have other pet peeves about books and/or the book publishing process?

  • Unnecessary prologues – More often than not, prologues aren’t necessary because, in my opinion, they offer few insights into the backstory. The only exceptions might be a mystery or thriller that sets up the murder or science fiction/fantasy to establish world-building that requires some explanation. If the prologue could be read as a first chapter or if the information could be weaved into the main story, you probably don’t need the prologue. I rarely, if ever, have read a prologue that added anything to the story.

  • No summary on the back cover. I’m inclined to agree with the Book Riot reader who suggested the back cover was often wasted on meaningless quotes from celebrities. That’s prime real estate for book summaries. It makes the summary more accessible and easier to read, and much easier to grab a reader’s attention.  

  • Books that don’t live up to its premise. There’s nothing more frustrating that finding a book with an interesting hook that I can’t wait to read, only to find by the end of the story, that it didn’t live up to its hook. Perhaps the story meandered, ran off in tangents. Or the ending didn’t quite make sense. When a book doesn’t live up to its promise, I feel cheated. And when I feel cheated, I’m less likely to pick up another book by that author.

  • Novels that are too long. I think the sweet spot for most novels is 300-350 pages. That’s long enough to develop a strong plot, characters, and suspense to keep readers interested. There are exceptions, of course, such as Harry Potter series and science fiction/fantasy sagas. Others, especially in women’s fiction, have gone for nearly 500 pages—too long by my standard. By page 350 I tend to lose interest. You don’t want to do that to your readers. This leads to my next annoyance….

  • Slow, meandering middles. Ugh! The book might have gotten off to a roaring good start, but by the middle, the story drags or heads off in a different direction. You can tell when an author has struggled to write the middle of the book. Either there’s too much backstory or not enough of a surprise plot twist to push the story forward.

  • Unsatisfactory endings. There’s nothing more frustrating than reading a 400-page novel only to reach an ending that doesn’t make sense or make you feel good. As a reader, when you finish the final chapter, ask yourself, “How did this conclusion make me feel?” Two books that DID resolve the story satisfactorily and made me feel good: The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah and The Messy Lives of Book People by Phaedra Patrick.

  • No surprising plot twists. Some of the best novels I’ve read had a major plot twist that was unexpected and surprising. Without that surprise element, there’s no momentum forward, and there’s nothing to keep the reader interested in the story until the very end. If you want to see successful surprising plot twists, check out Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult or In Five Years by Rebecca Serle (and the aforementioned The Nightingale.)

Even with these petty annoyances, books are still the most wonderful creations on earth. I’m willing to put up with a few clunkers in my reading list to find the best gems.

2019 Reading Challenge: How Many Books Can You Read in One Year?


Great American Read

Looking for a way to challenge yourself in 2019? Do you love to read and would like to expand your knowledge of genres and writing styles, beyond John Grisham legal thrillers and self-help books that leave you feeling more confused than before? Then follow along with me on a journey through books.

Announcing the 2019 Reading Challenge. Here’s how you can participate.

Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to read one book from 26 of the 40 categories listed below. That equates to one book every two weeks.

For an added challenge, see if you can read one book from all 40 categories. If you complete all 40 categories and there’s still time in the year, reward yourself. Either take a break from reading or read anything you want. You’ve earned it!

I won’t be handing out prizes for this challenge. The only prize is the pride of personal achievement, unless you want to reward yourself with a well-earned gift, like a massage or a copy of the latest New York Times bestseller.

I have participated in reading challenges the past two years. The experience has been rewarding. Not only have I expanded my book knowledge, I’ve discovered new authors and genres I didn’t think I would like (paranormal romance, anyone?). And I had so much fun and a sense of pride each time I crossed a category off my list. As 2018 winds to a close, I’m on Book #42.

That’s why I’m sharing this reading challenge with you. If you love books as much as I do, you won’t turn down this challenge.

So for your reading pleasure, here are the categories. Remember, the first-level challenge is one book from 40 categories, one for every two weeks of the year for 26 total books. You can read them in any order you choose.

1. Autobiography or memoir
2. Historical fiction
3. A classic
4. Young adult novel
5. Mystery/thriller
6. Science fiction/fantasy
7. Romance/romantic suspense
8. A non-fiction book
9. True crime
10. A self-help book
11. An award-winning book (Pulitzer, Edgar Award for mystery, etc.)
12. A book you read in your childhood
13. A book you read in school
14. A book/novel published within the past year
15. A book/novel published more than 100 years ago
16. A book/novel published the year you were born (this will require some research; check Google)
17. A first-time author/debut novel
18. A book by an established author you have always wanted to read but haven’t until now (Example: I’ve never read Stephen King fiction, so he is on my list)
19. African-American fiction
20. Latin fiction
21. Native American fiction
22. A book made into a movie or TV show
23. A book recommended to you by someone
24. A book set in your hometown
25. A book set in a foreign place
26. A book written by someone younger than you
27. A book with a place/location in the title
28. A book with a number in the title
29. A book with a person’s name in the title
30. A book with a color in the title
31. A book with a one-word title
32. A collection of short stories
33. A collection of essays
34. A play
35. A book about sports or an athlete
36. A book that features an animal (Example: Seabiscuit)
37. A holiday-themed book (Christmas, Fourth of July, Valentine’s Day, etc.)
38. A book that can help your health (nutrition, fitness, etc., but no recipe books)
39. A book that can help your career/business
40. A book with more than 500 pages

The challenge begins January 1. Of course, if you want to get a head start, you can start today.

Have fun! Let the reading begin!