Yes.

Post’s over! You can all go home now, guys. You–…what? I need to write a little more than that?

Honestly, this is one of those questions I’ve never understood. “The best writers are avid readers” appears in every “Advice for Writers” forum, book, and blog ever written. But writing communities are full of posts asking, “Do you have to read if you want to write?”

The short answer is yes. The long answer is the rest of this post.

Yes, because you must actually like books if you want to write one.

You know what just baffles me? Some of the people who ask “Hey, I want to write. But do I have to read books?” are actually trying to say, “Hey, I don’t actually like reading, but I do want to write a novel! So, uh, what about that?”

And that’s… hm. That’s a problem. Let’s take this question and apply it to other creative arts:

  • I’m creating my own videogame! What’s my favorite genre? Oh, uh, I don’t play games. They’re wastes of time. I really prefer movies, honestly.
  • My dream is to create my own movie! What do I watch? Oh, nothing. I can’t stand sitting down for that long and just watching something for that long. I just wanted to see my name on the screen, you know?
  • I’m learning to compose! But I hate music, and…

Okay, okay, you get the point. This is silly, right? Why would these imaginary people invest hundreds of hours of work into a medium where it’s hard to make something, harder to get it in front of people, and nearly impossible to make money off of? And why would they do it when they¬†don’t even enjoy this thing?

Unfortunately, writing is seen as a low-skill task that anyone can do, so you actually do encounter people who hate books but also want to be a famous author.

So, yes. If you don’t like books, creating one will be especially difficult for you.

Yes, because it helps you learn how to analyze and dissect writing.

OK! So let’s say that you do like reading, and you do read for fun. But, you might wonder, does reading a lot actually¬†help you write better in any appreciable way?

And yes! It does. Here’s reason #1: the more you read, the more you can practice reading critically.

It’s fine to read passively for pleasure, especially if this is how you decompress. I do that, too! But reading without thinking doesn’t teach you anything. To figure out what makes a book work, you have to really peel it apart and analyze it.

And if you’re a writer, this is an invaluable skill to have. When you write a novel, you run into all sorts of problems. How can you make this section less boring? How can you make your characters more interesting? Why is your dialogue so ineffective? These are big, scary questions. And where can you get the answers?

Well, you can get a lot of them from reading! Good books are repositories of successful techniques. If you find a book with really good characters, you can pick them apart. How does that author make them seem real? What made the dialogue good? How did they grow? If you find a really fast-paced, exciting novel, you can study its pacing. How did it keep the action going?

Reading books teaches you how to identify problems, too. Even the most popular, most successful books will probably have a few… iffy choices. And that’s great! Learning how to identify those problems, describe them, and clearly articulate why they didn’t work will help you do the same to your own books.

Yes, because you need to know your genre.

It’s also good to know the genre you write in. Then you can learn:

  • What does a book in your genre look like?
  • What cliches are common?
  • What themes are popular right now?
  • What are the big names in your genre?
  • What are the most anticipated books of this year?
  • How does my book stand out from what’s out there already?

And so on, so forth.

I know people hate rules. But if you are writing a book in a particular genre, there are a few things you have to do for your book to function within that genre (even if it’s just “fantasy books have to include fantastic elements.”) The more you know what a book in your genre looks like, the more you can innovate–because you can point to what other people are doing and explain how your book’s unique.

Also, do you want to sell that thing? Do you want an agent? Then this is really good market research, because it helps you learn what already exists and what’s currently selling.

Finally, if you find novels that are similar to yours, that’s great! You can list them in your query letter as comps, and say “My novel’s like [this successful book], but [different in this way]!”

Yes, because it might help fill your creative well.

And, finally, reading can be important for writers because… well, if you like reading, then you’ll enjoy it, right?

Whenever I can’t write, I read. It always helps. What if I find a book I like? That’s amazing! I can spend days thinking about the things I liked and picking through why I liked it–was it the description? The tone? The way the information was delivered? “Could I do something like this?” I wonder. “It seems like so much fun!”

Or maybe I hate it! That actually helps, too! I can’t imagine how many times I’ve said, “I HATE THIS PARTICULAR TROPE” and then rage-outlined a story that inverts it.

But most of all, reading is relaxing, it’s fun, and it helps me remember the things I genuinely love. And if I’m neck-deep in a story I can’t figure out, which is driving me crazy and making me ragey, remembering that I do actually love this stuff–and that I can do it, too!–helps a ton.

So yes. If you’re writing, yes. You should read often.

This isn’t a judgey thing. You don’t have to be obsessed with reading. You don’t have to feel bad for not reading as much as you’d like to. If you like books and also like reading, you’re golden.

But if you want to be an author, you really should enjoy reading, at all, period, end sentence. That does make sense, right?

Yeah. I really could have ended this post after the first word.

 

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I read this ages ago, but hey. Let’s talk about YA tropes, through the lens of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Screenshot of the cover of the novel.

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

My complete review is on Goodreads. Like always, I’m not going to duplicate the review here. Instead, I’m going to wax philosophical. Bear with me.

So, I read Miss Peregrine’s a while ago, and I really liked it. This was honestly a surprise, because I’ve really been struggling to find YA novels I like. But if you check out its reviews on Goodreads, you’ll see that they’re very… divisive. So what drew me in?

Well, that gets to the core of what I’ve been struggling with. I like action. I like adventures. I also like well-developed characters and character drama. I like romance, but I like it as a subplot. Basically, I like “Fantasy with romance subplots,” not “Romance with fantasy elements.”

But romance is super duper in right now. Daughter of Smoke and Bone? Shadow and Bone? Graceling? These are all strong fantasies, but their main plotlines are about romance. Everything else is secondary.

And that’s fine, it’s just not my favorite thing in the world. Unfortunately, this seems to be an extremely popular trend, and I’m having a hard time finding more straight-up adventure fiction.

And that’s why I loved Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The characterization is not as deep as I’d like, either for the heroes or the villains, but it’s a strongly-paced, high-tension adventure. It was mildly creepy, consistently tense, and mysterious. I didn’t like the romance in Miss Peregrine’s either (I actually found it uncomfortable), but it didn’t make up the majority of the novel. It was a subplot.

Would I have liked it as much if I hadn’t read so many YA fantasy-romances lately? Who knows? But it had something I desperately wanted in YA fantasies right now: A lower smoochy-smooch-to-adventure ratio.

Here’s a question I don’t have an answer to: Should a writer also write book reviews? Unsurprisingly, opinions differ. (Here’s a recent thread from Absolute Write.)

(EDIT: Eep! It just occurred to me that this isn’t clear. I’d never argue that a writer who doesn’t review books should start. I’m asking from the other angle: Is there any danger for writers who do like writing reviews?)

On one hand, you have those who are pro-reviews: They write book reviews because they’re a service to readers. These folks feel that an honest, detailed, and well-articulated review will help others decide whether to purchase a book. They will write positive or negative reviews as needed.

On the other side, you have folks who believe it’s a conflict of interest. They believe that other authors in your genre should be your colleagues, your allies–and if you openly discuss how flawed their books are, you’re treating them more like competition. And if you’re actually out there and published, negative reviews can seem like a backhanded way of promoting your own work.

(And then there are lots of people who just won’t review anything that they didn’t like, for a variety of personal reasons. That also makes perfect sense, though it’s outside the scope of this post.)

That’s food for thought. I can see why an author–particularly one who’s already published, and especially one published through a large publisher–might not want to publicly post reviews of other authors’ novels. Once you’ve published, your name becomes part of your PR, and anything attached to your name becomes part of your brand. You are then Author X, Published with a Big 5 Publisher, who hates the most popular novel that came out in their genre this year. It’s easy to see why you might not want to take that stance.

So what does that mean for aspiring authors? For folks like me, who doesn’t have an agent and hasn’t published a book?

I have no idea.

I doubt it matters for me: I don’t have a fanbase, I’m not widely followed, and no one is going to care if I 1-star a popular book. But I’d be lying if I said I never worried. I’ve given middling reviews to books and then queried their author’s agent. Sure, I’m honest and non-confrontational on Goodreads–but am I spoiling my changes? If I, in some hypothetical future, actually publish a novel, will I wish I hadn’t nitpicked every YA novel I read?

It’s an interesting question. And not an easy one.

Cover of the novel, 'Daughter of Smoke and Bone.'

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

The more I think about this novel the more conflicted I become. My full review is on Goodreads.

YA readers have been raving about Daughter of Shadow and Bone and its sequels, so I wanted to see what the fuss was about. And I’m conflicted. Still.

Here’s the problem: I don’t really like romance. I do like adventure stories! I like friends and conflict and angst and love as much as anyone, but I don’t like romance as a genre. This is an extremely fine line, and probably not one I can accurately describe, but I like action where people fall in love on the way. I do not like stories where the story is people in love.

So, I was not fated to adore Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which is a fantasy/romance. Roughly one third of the novel is backstory, and it’s all cuddly-wuddly I’ll give up the world for you, I’ll do anything for you, you are the perfect one for meeeeeeee romance. Of the two-thirds that are left, roughly half of that is a slightly different flavor of the same romance. The rest is really good, really beautiful fantasy.

And so I’m conflicted. When I first read the novel I was so struck by the beauty of the writing that I was willing to forgive it anything. But I was undecided on the romance after I read it, and time has only made it worse. Do I want to read more? It’s certainly pretty. There was an amazing cliffhanger. But if I’m on the fence about the romance, I’m probably not going to change my mind later.

But ohhhh goodness the author writes beautifully.

Cover of Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927.

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

I love Bill Bryson’s books. I always leave feeling like someone could’ve removed 100 pages, but I love them anyway. He’s amusing, and I love amusing history books. One Summer: America, 1927 is exactly that. My review on Goodreads is here.

The novel (roughly) follows the summer of 1927. It covers all the big events–Lindbergh’s flight, Babe Ruth and the Yankees of 1927, the trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, the development of the Model A Ford, and more. And the best part about is how Bryson humanizes everyone. These are people–strange, bizarre, quirky, flawed people–and you get to know them all.

And it brings the 20s to life. You see the movie palaces, the shift of power toward America, and the dawn of modern technology, right next to eugenics and rampant racism. And even though it’s 90 years away, it’s striking what parallels you can find to modern America–at the very least, we’ve apparently been covering sensational murder trials at the expense of actually important news for at least a century. That’s kind of… uh. I don’t know if I want that to be a cultural tradition, actually.

But it’s great. And long. I finished in about 4 days, and that was still too much. I love Bryson’s writing, but… no. I really should not have done that. I was exhausted by the end. But I’d still whole-heartedly recommend it.