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Wearing Books Like Hats: On Reading as a Writer

In my continual quest to find new writing companions, I had a coffee date with a new writer last week, another Bay Area part-timer who’s trying to push out a draft of her first book. When she sketched the plot for me — a YA dystopia — my first question was “oh, so how many of the current crop have you read?” As a long-time dystopia fan, I’m used to my favorite subgenre being a few books stuffed in among the SF/F mainstream, and it still doesn’t make intuitive sense to me that The Hunger Games has thrown open the doors for a genre that now has its own section in the Young Adult shelves and what seems like a new movie released every other week. So I was expecting her to mention Divergent, maybe Matched or Uglies or Legend or The Maze Runner (I’ve read at least the first book in the first four series).

Instead, she just tilted her head and gave me a funny look. “I haven’t read any of them. Why?”

I know this new acquaintance isn’t alone in her experience. I’ve met other writers who don’t read at all in their genre, or who stay away from fiction altogether when they’re writing. I’ve heard the excuses, too, that it’ll pollute your vision or depress you or even that you’re opening yourself up to inadvertent plagiarism. But my own experience has put me firmly in the camp of those like Stephen King, who say that writers have to be readers first.

Speaking just for myself, the other way doesn’t make much sense: I definitely took my first step toward a writing life when I found a story I loved. The first book I can remember reading over and over again was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty: I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my first attempt at a novel, the year I turned eleven, was a first-person memoir from the point of view of a horse.

In my experience, that’s the hazard of turning from reading to writing once you’ve fallen in love with a single story. My second try at a novel-length work, started and abandoned in middle school, told the tale of a group of kids from half a dozen different planets who crewed a spaceship. I thought a lot about my characters, and in a move that should’ve given me the hint that sociology was in my future, I spent an enormous amount of time developing my various alien races’ cultures (though I can’t make any claims to high originality: I’m pretty sure there was a cat person and a fish person). But when it came to the details a little further from my geeky worldbuilding heart, like the mechanics of the ship, I borrowed very heavily from the sci-fi story I was most familiar with at the time: Bill Mumy & Peter David’s Space Cases (may it rest in peace).

The same thing happened to me as a college freshman, when I set out to write my very own dystopian novel. I had fairly well-rounded characters and a carefully worked out setting, but when I read the manuscript over now, I can’t see anything but echoes of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Teens being assigned to their jobs by a central council; children being raised in non-biological families so that no one has to actually discuss the messiness of hormonal reproduction (said hormones being conveniently repressed by a chemical); no music, art or poetry. You get the idea.

My current writing project isn’t dystopian, but it is a fictionalized memoir, and a big fat fantasy series, and a story set in a distinctly non-Tolkien world that nonetheless has magic and non-human sentient beings and swordfights. And as I work on it, I’ve increasingly come to believe that reading other books with those qualities — or some of them, or none of them — is an essential part of helping me to make my book better.

In PhD programs, one of the rites of passage that doesn’t get as much press as the thesis defense (with or without snakes) is sitting for qualifying exams. When I was in the Berkeley sociology department, that process typically involved choosing two substantive fields (like sociology of education, sociology of race, sociology of culture) and then sitting down for 6 months to make yourself an expert in those fields, along with the field of sociological theory. Once you felt like you’d reached expert level, you were locked in a room with four faculty members for two hours and forced to answer questions to demonstrate your expertise. The main goal of this exercise was to train you to teach, but it was also framed as being key to your development as an independent scholar. The thinking went that if you didn’t know where your own research fits into the field, you were working with one hand tied behind your back.

Obviously, writing fiction is different than writing sociology (one of the main reasons I’ve opted to do more of the former and less of the latter), but I think the principle stands: even if writing “marketable” fiction is the last thing from your mind, reading other things like the story you’re writing will help you write better. Now that I’ve read bits of a dozen different high fantasy series, when I hit a roadblock in my plotting or worldbuilding I’m less likely to catch myself defaulting to “what would Tolkien do?” And no matter what your final goal is for your work, it’s still useful to know if there are books out there in the world that do what you do. Other people will assume you’ve read them, and if your new idea for a YA dystopia randomly happens to look an awful lot like The Hunger Games, you’ll want to know it sooner rather than later.

There are immediate practical benefits, too. When I finish a book and want to rave about its amazingness (or terribleness), I’m more inclined than I used to be to sit down and figure out why it worked for me, or didn’t. In my reading, I’ve seen dozens of different ways to write action scenes; I’ve learned some of the common pitfalls for dialogue (hint: in most cases, your characters’ spoken words should probably sound different than the narrator’s); I’ve started to get a sense for when a twist is too obvious. Most times, when I’m reading, I’m learning and having fun all at once.

I didn’t tell my new acquaintance that she ought to drop everything and go to the library, but if I end up meeting up with her again, I may do just that. Because when you want to claim membership in a club, whether it’s sociology or authorhood, it seems to me it’ll give you a leg up if you know the senior members’ names.

Or, to put it another way, here’s some advice from one of the greatest members of the Genre Writers’ Club:

“You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” — Ray Bradbury

Sources I’ve used to find Things to Read:

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  1. Oh that Bradbury quote is wonderful.

    I totally agree with you on needing to read widely when you write. It helps you put more tools in your toolbox and can help so much with working through a stumbling block or problem in your own story. Sometimes I’ll get a total “but shit this is what I am writing” panic when reading something new, but hey, if it turns out what you’re writing has already been done just like that, then you probably need to rethink anyway.


    • That was honestly my first reaction to encountering Name of the Wind. 😉 “wait — a fantasy memoir? that’s MY story!” fortunately, the two stories are very different in most other ways. and I think it’ll be handy to be able to say “in the same category as Name of the Wind” when I’m marketing to agents in a few months…


  2. I’ve never heard that Bradbury quote before, but I’d also never heard of a writer who said that it would be better not to read extensively.

    I suppose I always figured that we all became writers after falling in love with books, and that we’d all be the passionate sort of folk that refused to give up one love affair for another.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think for some people that contamination fear is a very real thing: people are worried that if they read too much Stephen King they’ll start to sound like Stephen King. For me, I just accept that my writing voice is going to acquire the accents of whoever I expose it to and try to expose it diversely enough that it doesn’t get too regionalized 😉



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