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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Holy moley, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted here. Hi! I hope everyone reading this had some wonderful holidays!

It’s December 31st! The end of the year! And I wanted to take this moment to look back at what I accomplished this year. So let’s get to it!

I read a lot of awesome books!

I read 31 books this year. And while most of it was the usual fare–YA fantasy and a smattering of non-fiction–I also read a toooooooooon of MG!

But that doesn’t matter, because almost all of the books I 5-starred on Goodreads were non-fiction or adult fantasy. And so, for the second year in a row, almost all of my favorite books were not in the genre I’m trying to write. Delightful!

The books I enjoyed the most were:

  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, a book on elfin/goblin politics that has maybe 5 pages of action and is still completely riveting.
  • Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman, although I’m still conflicted about it. Every single line spoken by a dragon is pure shining gold, but the ending frustrates me to this very day.
  • How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman, which is just a lovely non-fiction book, and…
  • A New History of Shinto by John Breen and Mark Teeuwen, which is also super aweome!

I wrote a fair amount!

My original plan was to just dump numbers here. I have them! I seriously do! I can tell you with extreme accuracy how many words I wrote, and how many of those words went to novels, short stories, outlines, and query letters.

But… let’s not. I wrote the first draft of a 60K MG fantasy novel and four short stories. I sold two shorts. I placed in one contest.

And most of that was written after July. I had a pretty weird year, honestly. I spent the first 6 months just fumbling around–struggling to write a novel, puttering through short stories, and being furious at myself all the while. Sure, I pulled out of it. The last half of the year was extremely productive. But none of it was really good for me.

We’ll get to that in a second.

I finished querying a novel!

Okay, so. I kept saying that I was going to post my querying stats. I haven’t. I was imagining a nice, long post about querying where I explained what went well, what didn’t, what freaked me out, and how I worked through it.

I never wrote that post! And now it seems unlikely that I will.

So let’s get that out of the way. I queried a YA fantasy to 92 agents. I got 5 full requests and 1 partial. No one made any offers, unfortunately. I’m done querying that novel–and I have other plans for it, which I hope I can talk about soon! But for now, I can just say that it was a good experience, I learned a lot, but it’s obviously not where I wanted to be.

It’s one of the things I’m most unsure about this year. I feel like I’ve got a bad case of the almosts. I almost had what it took to get an agent to take me on. Almost. Not quite. But almost.

Almost’s not a great place. It kind of drives me nuts. But I also feel like a huge hypocrite in saying so. I know that the me from 5 years ago would punch me in the gut for complaining about getting full manuscript requests, even if they didn’t go anywhere.

So there’s my New Year’s resolution: To write more and agonize less.

So, like I said before, this year was weird. It started out bad. It ended up good. But none of that, I think, is how I’d like to write in the future. And that’s because I spent an awful lot of this year being angry with my writing. Here’s how my train of thought would go:

Writers write.

If you want to make a career as a fiction writer–after accepting that this is extremely unlikely to happen in the first place–you need to write a lot of stories. You have to produce constantly.

The more novels and short stories you complete, the more chances you have at publishing them.

If you are not producing complete novels regularly, you will not be working toward this dream.

OK. So that’s the stupid little reel playing in the back of my skull. It’s reasonable, right? It’s realistic! It’s entirely true. If someone wanted to make a career as a writer, they would have to write a lot of books, regularly and often. Heck, they’d probably want to do a lot more than I manage, which is roughly a novel a year.

But I beat myself over the head with with logic constantly. I wrote a short story a month earlier this year, and it wasn’t enough. 4 stories in 4 months? You can write a short story in a couple of days! It wasn’t enough.

I was writing a novel. When it puttered out in February, I was crushed. I had wasted 6 months on that thing, and I didn’t end up with a completed first draft. I needed to start another. Immediately. I needed to plan and outline and write, because it was February and if I didn’t hurry I wouldn’t finish anything by the end of the year, and then I would be a total failure.

But it turns out that screaming WRITE MORE! PRODUCE MORE! FASTER! at yourself every damn day doesn’t actually make you write better.

I did eventually sit down and write a novel. In fact, almost 60% of the words I wrote this year happened between July and November. But it was a heroic effort. It was repentance! I had struggled so much the first half of the year that I felt like I had to write 10,000 words a week to make up for it. (Though, to be fair, I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t like I was hatewriting the poor thing. I did really enjoy it.)

But the point is that none of this is good for the long haul.

I need to stop… Haranguing myself so much, I guess. And it’s hard, because I’m seeing some success. Some of my novels are getting interest, some of my stories have been sold. Those are all good things. But I have some fervent need to up the ante and do MORE BETTER FASTER.

So yes. That’s my goal. That’s my resolution: I really just don’t need to turn writing into a boom or bust cycle where I’m either frustrated about not writing enough or writing more than I can reasonably maintain.

Because, regardless of all the stress, I got a lot done. I sold more stuff. I wrote more stuff. I learned a ton. And I can continue to do more, and see more success, without making myself feel panicked about not doing enough.

So! That’s the plan. We’ll see how it goes. Here’s to 2016 being an even better year!

Screenshot of the cover of 'Rock Your Plot: A Simple System for Plotting Your Novel.'

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

I recently finished Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley, and my very short review is on Gooodreads. But, like always, I’m going to leave the review on Goodreads and ramble about what it meeeeeeans to me here.

This has not, so far, been a very good year for writing. I’ll write about that later, I’m sure. But one of the symptoms of this not good year is that the stories I’m working on have issues that should have been hashed out in my outlines. And for some reason or another, my outlines aren’t working.

This is an incredibly obnoxious problem, because it’s new. I have a very well established system for outlining, and it’s never steered me wrong. I wrote 6 manuscripts this way, so what the heck is going wrong?

Short answer: I don’t know. But it’s dumb.

So in comes Rock Your Plot. This is a pretty simple book. It’s short. It’s basic. And it covers a bunch of stuff that you probably already know about (well, assuming that you enjoy outlining.) At its core, it combines the philosophy of Goal/Motivation/Conflict with a very standard story structuring system, and uses this to create a scene-by-scene outline.

And this appeals to me. I don’t know if it works yet–I’m only starting my outline now–but it got me to write half of a new outline (and quickly!) so it seems to be working so far. I like it because it’s close what I normally do, while being different enough to make me think about why I’m doing what I’m doing.

I’ve written a lot about my system. I like to start with a word count (usually ~70-80K for Young Adult fantasy), guestimate my average chapter length (which I know is 3,500-4,000), and calculate my approximate number of chapters (usually 20). These are beautiful, round numbers. I never write according to this formula–being flexible is the whole reason it works–but it makes it easy to write the first outline. And that’s all I needed to get my thoughts on paper before I tried my first draft.

Rock Your Plot is extremely similar, except she breaks the story into scenes instead of chapters. (And really, this is a pretty common–and sensible, given that a “chapter” can be an incredibly subjective thing.) Then it uses the Goal/Motivation/Conflict system for every scene and every major character, so you can test that every scene is moving the story forward and maintaining tension.

So it’s what I used to do, but more methodical. Mostly, it’s just making me think.

And… so far, so good. I’m not done with my new outline, so I don’t know how it’ll turn out, but the concept behind Rock Your Plot is eminently sensible. And if you’re a detailed person who loves outlining, it may appeal to you, too.

Mostly, it just got me outlining something again. And that’s exactly what I needed to do right now.

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.

Another year has come and (almost) gone! That means it’s time for that most precious of all New Year’s traditions: Brutal self analysis!

…well, okay. I’ll hold the “brutal.” Let’s just see what I did this year.

Reading!

I read an awful lot this year. I read 41 books, in fact, and that’s pretty darn good for me. Almost all of that was fantasy and most of it was YA.

And yet, bizarrely, my favorite books this year were all MG. I only read The Luck Uglies a month or so ago, and it was seriously the most charming action adventure I’ve read in a while. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was also exceptional, though I may just be saying that because the villain is a little girl with a massive hat and a tragic backstory.

And yet, if we’re going just on Goodreads ratings, One Summer: America, 1927 and The Gift of Fear were the only other books I 5-starred this year. And they’re nonfiction.

So why have I not mentioned a YA book so far? Tragically, the YA I read this year just didn’t hook me. Some of it was good and some of it was not-so-good, but nothing really gripped me by the heart and refused to let go. If I was forced to choose something, I’d probably go with Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and only because the writing was beautiful enough that I’m still thinking about it half a year later. I really didn’t enjoy the romance, but at this point it has enough brain-burrowing staying power that I may read the sequel anyway.

Oh, yeah. Almost none of those books came out this year. I just read stuff. There isn’t much of a pattern to it.

Short Stories!

In March of this year, I finally decided to give short stories a try. Considering that I had never written one before, I did pretty OK. Here are the stats, courtesy of Duotrope:

  • I wrote 6 short stories…
  • …Which are, together, about 14,761 words.
  • I submitted 15 times…
  • …Which led to 3 acceptances (for 2 pieces)!
  • And all those sales went to semi-pro markets.

That’s not a lot. But, hey! I didn’t write that many (I had a I MUST FOCUS ON NOVEL TIME crisis mid-year) but I sold 1/3 of what I wrote. That is not bad. Considering that I hadn’t published at all before these sales, I should really admit that it’s quite good.

Novels!

Most of my progress this year had to do with Justice Unending, a novel that I have been agonizing over since I finished it in 2013. This year, I:

  • Got 4 new beta readers (and 4 wonderful reviews!)
  • Rewrote the first 1/4 of the novel, changed one entire character, and rewrote several scenes from scratch
  • Edited every word in that poor thing at least twice
  • Wrote a totally new query letter
  • And got a boatload of critique on the query and the first 5 pages.

And now I’m querying it!

I am also a little over 20,000 words into a new novel, a YA steampunk/fantasy. And that breaks my heart, because I put about that many words into an earlier, aborted draft of the same story. I REALLY wish I had gotten more done this year.

So that’s the goal for 2015: I am going to finish the heck out of that thing.

And that’s it! It’s been a busy year. I published my first things ever. I got a wee little bit closer to selling a novel.

So, to all the folks who follow this blog: I hope you had a wonderful 2014. Here’s to an even better 2015!

I’m querying! That means I glom onto absolutely everything I find online that is related to the process of querying. In fact, I am currently I’m sitting on a treasure trove of agent-related links, none of which I have actually bothered to post here. So it’s time. I am actually going to start posting these things.

So here’s one: A post from New Leaf Literary and Media on what it means to them when they have to give the heartbreaking response of “Your story is good, but it’s just not for me.”

When agents reply, "It's good, just not for me," isn't that admitting to being gatekeepers to traditional publishing? – New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc..

I moved across the whole darn country last week, so I couldn’t post this earlier. The new Humble eBook Bundle is out! And there’s still time to buy it:

Humble eBook Bundle 4 pay what you want and help charity

It’s the same as always: Pay what you want, get lots of books. At the time I wrote this draft (on Sunday morning), you just had to pay $10 or more for 13 books. This one seems to have a lot of adult high fantasy, along with the smattering of nerdy stuff that all these bundles have.