Reading for Writers

Quite some time ago, I embarked on a reading challenge designed to improve my knowledge of my chosen genre (speculative fiction, or, more specifically, fantasy). I found a list of the top 100 best books in science fiction and fantasy, crossed off the books I’d already read (which was a rather dismal few), and started at the beginning.

Shortly after I decided to read through that list, I decided that I should probably be sure I was reading other fiction, too. I compiled a list of about 350 books from a variety of “top 100” reading lists I found online.

After I compiled that list, I started making note of other books I wanted to read. I realized I was woefully under-read in church history, theology, and apologetics, so I started a little list of those kinds of books. Then I started a list of histories and biographies that I want to read. Both of those lists keep growing. Another list that keeps growing is the “I want to read just because people have recommended this” list.

Right now, my whole “TBR” list stands at approximately 450 books.

There are two problems with being a writer who reads, as I alluded in my last post. (Side note: Dear God, I’m calling myself a writer again.) Problem number one is that reading bad-but-popular stuff (and yes, I’m sorry, I do believe there is a great deal of writing out there that is objectively bad and popular for no discernible reason) frustrates, irritates, and maddens the writer who is competent but unpublished (me now) or unpopular (me two years ago). Problem number two is that reading really good books–and not just interesting stories, but really, really good books that have the whole package–compelling characters, tight plots, brilliant prose, and captivating settings–frustrates, irritates, and maddens the writer who knows he/she will never be that good (me, always).

I know that Stephen King (or someone) has famously posited that “the first million words are crap,” but I’ve written the million words, and I’m pretty sure it’s still . . . well, if not crap, certainly not worth publishing. And the thing is, you kind of know when you hit that point of diminishing returns–where you just know on a gut level that you’ve reached your pinnacle, that you’re really about as good as you’re going to get. And yes, I do believe I hit that point, and my best is not good enough to compete (hence the concept of just giving it away and taking the pressure of competition off my shoulders).

But I do still think it’s important to read, and especially important to read really good books. And I think it’s important to read across genres, styles, and the like. I think everyone should read and read often, but it’s especially important for writers to read. We pick up so much from other works. We learn how to use language, what works, what doesn’t, how to build characters, how to structure books, and on and on. Reading non-fiction is important, too; I think that histories (especially war histories) and biographies should be a regular part of every fantasy and science fiction author’s rotation, because studying the past will help build better fictional worlds and conflicts.

When I unpublished everything and went dark, I decided that I would not return to writing and/or publishing unless certain conditions were met. One of those conditions was that I had to finish my massive TBR list (at the time, it was still in the 350-ish range) before I would consider returning to writing on any level. That condition has proven rather unrealistic, especially since I’ve added another 100 or so books to the list in the interim and have, simultaneously, dared to open and play around in my story worlds again. But still, there’s a sense in which I won’t feel like I can really compete legitimately in the world of literature unless I can say that I’ve finished this massive list. Only then will I feel like I can justify participating on any level–competitive or otherwise–in the world of literature.

But the problem is that the list keeps growing, and good books keep getting published, and I have a limited amount of time to read. I signed up to take the Goodreads challenge this year and committed to read 75 books in a year. So far, I’m basically on track (a smidge behind–I read long books). Let’s say I read 75 books this year and for every subsequent year until my current TBR list is finished. It would still take me six years to finish the whole list. Should I really put all of my writing on hold for six years because of this arbitrary condition I set for myself?

I can, certainly, wait six years to publish again. I am in no rush at all on that side of things. There are other conditions which must be met that aren’t negotiable; one of them is that I will never again publish part of a series without having the rest of the series waiting in the wings, ready to go. It will take time to write, edit, and polish the remainder of the two series I had started before I unpublished.

But I’m not sure I can wait six years to write again.

So I’m not sure what to do about this condition. There is still a huge, huge part of me that really feels like a pretender in the world of writing. Even if I don’t share my work with anyone else, I need to write satisfactorily for myself, and I’m not sure I can if I’m constantly comparing my work to the stuff I’m reading (my work does not come out smelling like a rose in such comparisons).

But on the other hand, the writing bug is there, and it’s getting more insistent. So . . .

I don’t know.

What do you think? Do you think there is some kind of threshold for writers–a level of reading/literary knowledge that he or she must attain before being “legitimate” in the world of literature? Or do we all just always feel like pretenders no matter how much or what we’ve read?


7 thoughts on “Reading for Writers

  1. Laurel C Kriegler

    Other people can probably say it better than I can, but I suspect that most writers – even writers of so-called ‘literary fiction’, or bestsellers (as distinct from) – feel like pretenders no matter how much they’ve either read or written.

    1. jmpadoc Post author

      Probably. I think even Stephen King, who is typically rather self-deprecating, feels that way. But some writers come off as incredibly self-assured and confident in their works, so either they really feel like they’re good and worth reading, or they play a really good game.

  2. jccassels

    It’s a really good game.

    Simple definition of a writer is “One who writes.” I’ve taken breaks, some longer than others, for varying reasons but I always come back to it. This used to bug me until I had an epiphany one night that I am a writer.

    Writing is not simply what I do, it’s who I am. My brain is wired differently from other people. I don’t write because I can’t do anything else, or because I’m particularly brilliant at it. I write because I can’t NOT write. It is a compulsion, an obsession that if suppressed over time spills out and consumes whatever I do. My emails are masterful epistles that get forwarded to everyone. I lie awake at night running stories through my head. I terrorize a group of Boy Scouts around a campfire with a horror story that leaves them weeping and begging their parents not to leave them at the campground overnight.

    You know you are a writer when not writing is more painful than a bad review. I’d rather write pulp that others deem crap than not write at all. I am a writer because being anything else is unthinkable.

    If EL James can write and publish fifty shades of guano and have it become a best seller without apologizing for herself, I can, without remorse, refuse to apologize for my own meager offerings. Even compost can fertilize a garden.

    1. jmpadoc Post author

      Love the comment that even compost can fertilize a garden. Brilliant. 🙂

      I wish I had the same kind of confidence that you have. But I fear I can’t even get my words to a place where I’m satisfied with them, let alone satisfied enough to share them again. I thought I was there once, but time, lack of interest from others, and a little perspective proved me wrong. I agree with you regarding E. L. James, but I fear that her success is only discouraging to me.

      I’m starting to think that perhaps I’m just better as a critic than a writer–the film critic vs. the filmmaker. And perhaps that’s okay. I can relate to your “wiring,” and I certainly do have the stories running around and around the train track in my head, but . . . *sigh* They just don’t seem really special enough to share, I guess.

      It’s entirely possible (probable?) that I’m just trying to reason my way out of sharing again–trying to justify staying out of the world of writing and publishing to make myself feel better about denying this part of me. My marketing background kicks in . . . I can spin anything if I try hard enough.

      Thank you for your comment!

      1. jccassels

        Go back to my first sentence. It’s a really good game.

        It’s not confidence. It’s experience. What you write today, no matter how proud of it you may be, you will read at some point in the future and realize it is crap.


        Because writing is a craft and the good ones spend a lifetime perfecting it. If you are not constantly growing, learning, and improving, you are not doing it right.

        Of course other writers are better at it than you. Of course hacks will become best selling multi millionaires. It doesn’t mean that you have nothing valid to contribute, nor does it mean that you should allow your own unique voice to be silenced.

        What it does mean is that you need to study your craft. Find a good crit partner or group. Attend seminars and workshops. Learn and improve. Above all write and keep writing.

        Respect the gift God gave you. He wouldn’t give you the desire, the passion for writing without giving you the ability. It’s up to you to practice with it until it shines.

        Even the greatest singers work with voice coaches and rehearse. Writing is no different.

  3. jmpadoc Post author

    J C,

    Thanks for the encouragement. I think, though, that there’s even a level of confidence that you express that I just don’t have anymore–that is, the level of confidence to write no matter what because you want to share your unique stories, perspectives, and voice whether other people praise or pan it. I did have that confidence once. Now, even the concept of sharing with beta readers I used to share with–readers I trust completely, readers who were constructively critical and kind in the extreme–causes me actual physical anxiety.

    I have said everything you are saying and more. I have told people exactly the same things you just told me. Sadly, I’m just not sure they apply to me and/or that I believe them anymore.

    But it could just be that I’m still recovering from what was, ultimately, a really crappy experience with writing and publishing.

    And regarding God . . . He and I are still in negotiations, LOL. What I mean is . . . I can’t be certain that He 1) actually did give me a gift, talent, or desire (I might just be some kind of weird aberration formed out of disobedience, or 2) wants me to pursue some kind of relatively traditional route with it even if He did give it to me (i.e., wants me to actually continue to produce the work and share it with others). If I were certain of anything where God was concerned, I would be compelled to obey. But in the absence of clear direction (which, at least for me, is a very rare thing), I am left to attempt to make wise choices based on the information I have. Right now, there’s not a lot to go on, so I’m just . . . waiting.

    Thank you for the conversation. 🙂

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