Building A Writer's Reading List
From time to time in any given writing project, you’ll hit a wall. It would be great if this wall was painted with the perfect novel outline, but that doesn’t seem to be in the repertoire of most graffiti artists.
The Writer’s Reading List is the tool to use when you’re moving along in your work in progress at a great clip and then suddenly trip over yourself and can’t go any further. You’re stuck. What you need next is some inspiration to help you solve your technical craft questions related to…
- Dialogue – how to ensure each scene is infused with tension?
- Backstory – how much is too much, and how to shape it?
- Time – how to make it clear to your reader that your protagonist is living in the present day but recalling an incident from two decades back?
- Structure – how to take these three plotlines and have them intersect?
It’s the technical craft wall and hitting it can break your stride, and – if you’re not careful – keep you paralyzed and unable to write at all.
The main reason this happens at the draft stage is that we think we have to have everything completely figured out before we write it. But that’s a false understanding of the nature of drafts – repeat after me:
Clarity about the writing comes through writing.
Release the expectation that you’ll need to know exactly what comes next and how to handle every single technical craft challenge that comes your way as the story unfolds.
Once you’ve released that expectation, there is a relatively simple way to generate the craft breakthroughs you need. It’s this:
If you’re at all thinking “Oh, but I don’t like to read much…I don’t want to fill my head with other people’s voices while I work on my own masterpiece,” then please keep moving, there’s nothing for you here.
In all seriousness, I believe in reading for reading’s sake alone, but even more so as inspiration and technical guidance when writing.
Here are 2 key ways I’ve found to suck the maximum reading benefits from the marrow of books as a writer:
1. The Writer’s Reading List: 6-8 of Your All-Time FAVEs
Keep a running list of the writers who inspire you and a physical collection of your fave books by these writers.
I mean for you to look at this from a craft perspective. So it’s great – bloody fantastic, really – when a writer pulls you into their work by the throat and doesn’t let you go. But the trick is to then step back and look at the precise ways the writer arranged words on the page to achieve that effect.
I recommend keeping a list of 6-8 of these key books on hand in your writing space – and by this I mean buying the book, even if you have to do so second-hand, so that you can underline sentences, use a highlighter where necessary and fill it full of Post-It note flags to identify the brilliant parts you’ll want to come back to repeatedly.
Once you’ve identified those important passages for you in the books that inspire you, come back to them often and work actively with the text.
Here are two practical writing exercises you can use when working with your personal Writer’s Reading List:
- Copy out passages by hand, paying attention to the diction and rhythm of each line and what the writer is accomplishing in the passage.
- Take a short scene from one writer and re-write that same scene as though you were another writer on your FAVE list. (You can learn amazing things about the mechanics of voice doing this!)
2. The Writer’s Reading List: Your Project-Specific Stack(s)
Keep a project-specific stack of books to inspire you. In addition to keeping a list of your overall favourite books, keep a stack of books for inspiration as you work on your current project. (Again, you’ll need to be able to tag and highlight these, so you’ll want to buy your own copies.)
Here you want to keep immediately at hand 4-5 books whose authors have already solved the key technical challenges similar to what you’ll need to do in your current project. (The Time Traveller’s Wife for time travelling stories, The Silence of the Girls for re-telling a classical story, The Handmaid’s Tale for dystopian future fiction, etc.)
Have multiple writing projects going? Yep, keep a Writer’s Reading List for each one.
Neither of these lists are to replace everyday reading, bus reading or beach reading – they’re meant to be books you’ve already read that you can dip back into as needed for moments of inspiration as you face specific technical craft challenges in your current writing project.
If this seems like a lot of reading to you, buckle up Buttercup.
Reading is every writer’s second job and we have to make time for it if we hope for our own writing to evolve.
Millions of writers have gone before you to solve the very challenges you’re tripping over at your desk this week – it’s up to you to do the work to intentionally use them as your guides. Curating your own Writer’s Reading List can help you do just that.