Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing

A while ago, there was a discussion on Janet Reid’s blog around how much you should read in your chosen genre before you write that genre.* The received wisdom is 100 books. Yes, 100 books in your genre of choice, before you commit to writing that novel. Some of you can easily burn through a 300-page novel in an afternoon, so 100 books is a summer vacation assignment. For others who, due to time constraints, or other reasons, are not fast readers, that sounds like a six-month commitment. Maybe longer. I’m doing really well if I can get through 50 books in a year at the moment. What does that mean for the person chomping at the bit, eager to write their big crime novel, who has only read a handful of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie stories, and maybe one or two Michael Connelly and Lee Child books? Must they wait?

Here’s my take on this dilemma, for what it’s worth. I’m an as-yet unpublished writer, so I offer these thoughts for consideration, not as proven method. Indeed, I invite discussion in the comments.

What’s the Point of the Rule?

Whenever anyone spouts a so-called “rule” of writing, I’m immediately skeptical. For every rule, there’s a successful (and talented) author who has broken it. But these “rules” end up in how-to books and Writer’s Digest articles, so there must be a reason for them.

Before embracing or endorsing the rule, I ask a simple question: “What’s the point of the rule?” Because behind every writing rule, there are scores of literary agents and editors throwing paper, pencils, and laptops around in frustration at yet another dim-witted wannabe writer who doesn’t know his apostrophes from his asterisks, writing boring, been-there-done-that, prose, thinking they’re the next Hemingway.

Behind this particular rule is the idea that in order to write something original, you need to have a good feel for what’s been done. Also, if you want to get a good idea of how your novel fits into the general canon of the genre, you need to have a familiarity with that canon. All this helps the agent and publisher sell your book. If you’re writing another re-hash of a P.D. James plot, then no-one’s going to be interested.

That’s all well and good. BUT

You and I know there are plenty of books out there with settings and plots that all ring familiar. And yet millions buy them and enjoy them. Why? I think because each writer brings something unique to the telling of the story. Whether it’s their style, their “voice,” or their characters, or their peculiar perspective on the familiar, or something else, there’s a reason we keep turning the pages. It’s like a Columbo mystery, where we know who did it and how it’s going to end up within the first ten minutes of the show. And yet we keep watching because we love Columbo, and we love watching how he solves the murder.

If you ask me, I think writers should definitely be readers, and read as much and as often as possible. Writers should also write, and write as much as they can as often as they can. As a writer you should feel free to imitate styles, try out different genres, and find your voice and perspective. Then write whatever the heckovellia you want to write. Even if you’ve only read a couple of books in that genre. The worst that can happen is no-one will read it. But have fun. Enjoy what you write. If you’ve got any talent, you’ll know if what you’ve written is worthless dung,** or if you’re onto something. After that, all the usual “rules” about getting beta readers and so on apply.

What do you think? Disagree if you want. After all, what do I know? ๐Ÿ™‚

*ย I’ve realized that I’ve probably written more in the comments on Janet’s blog articles than I’ve written articles on my own blog! Okay, perhaps an exaggeration, but that’s an imbalance I ought to redress.

** As opposed to priceless dung? I’m sure flies and beetles can tell the difference.

9 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing

  1. Heidi Kneale (Her Grace)

    I say go ahead and write what you want before you’ve read your hundred. However, be prepared to accept if you discover that you’ve written dull and uninspired and same-old after you’ve educated yourself on how that particular genre works. (I say generic “you”, not ‘you, Colin’, because chances are, you Colin’s voice will be fine.) Also, I presume you’ve read more than a hundred novels in your lifetime, and thus know the basics of storytelling.

    The values of reading widely in your preferred genre is that you know how the conventions work, but also know better on how to break them. If you write in your preferred genre, only to discover later that what you did wasn’t the basic convention, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you’ve executed it well, brilliant!

    The problem arises when you don’t read enough, and unwillingly fail to break convention, or fail to bring anything new and fresh.

    1. cds Post author

      Personally, I’ve read multiple hundreds of books in my lifetime, I’m sure. I’m thinking of those who haven’t read a lot of books in their favorite genre for reasons other than laziness. Maybe they’re slow readers, or struggle to make time for reading, and have to snatch five or ten minutes in a line or on the toilet. I don’t think this disqualifies you from writing that genre. You may not end up writing something that’s never been done, but that doesn’t mean what you write isn’t good–especially if you have a good voice, or an interesting angle.

    1. cds Post author

      Good advice. Beta readers, agents, and editors are usually willing to supplement the spell-checker. But if a manuscript is too typo-ridden, it’s likely to be rejected. So say the professionals, anyway. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. AJ Blythe

    I guess it depends what it is you want to write. If you want to write picture books it’s going to be a breeze to get through the requisite 100 =) I don’t think ‘100’ is the be all and end all. I’ve always interpreted the so called rule to mean ‘read widely in the genre’. More important to read current releases than trying to get through 100 but read older publications.

    1. cds Post author

      True about picture books, AJ. I agree that the 100 number shouldn’t be taken literally. My concern is that people think they’re not ready to write unless they reach that goal. The truth is, some people can and will read 100 books very quickly and still not be able to write well in their genre. Some will only read a handful of books and come out with game-changing work. As a general principle, yes, it’s good to read widely in your chosen genre. But I’d hate to be adamant to the point of stifling creativity and stymying productivity.

  3. John Davis Frain

    I vote for reading widely in your genre, and I say that from personal experience. Moreover, I’ll add one additional qualifier to it. As long as you’re reading in your genre, make sure most of what you read is recent. Sure, you can read the classics, but that’s not what is getting published today. If you want to publish tomorrow, you need to understand what the publishers are buying.

    Don’t mistake that with regurgitating what’s already out there. Not what I’m saying. Stylistically, you need to understand what’s sought in today’s market. There’s a big difference between a 2017 hit and a 2002 hit. You should understand that difference when you’re writing your own hit.

    1. cds Post author

      Of course, the question here is, how do you quantify “read widely”? How do you know when you’ve read widely enough? 10 books? 20? 50? 100? 1000? The last thing I’d want is for someone with a great idea for a novel to be stymied because they don’t think they’ve read widely enough. If a person enjoys a genre enough to write for it, I presume they’ve at least read some books in that genre and know it to some degree. I’d say go ahead and write that novel. It may end up as derivative, and no-one will take it. At least it will be a learning experience.

      1. John Davis Frain

        I have no argument to that.

        I guess, like so many other things in this crazy industry, everyone has to define their own number that addresses “read widely.” Your number, like the mileage for your car, may vary.

        One thing I would love to change about myself is the ability to read faster, but it’s just never come to me. Small obstacle, though, so no complaints.

        A good post, Colin. Thanks!


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