The Skill List Project: Reading Voraciously

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. This time around, we’re looking at the hugely important skill of reading voraciously—reading widely in order to expand your horizons.

Reading For the Love of It

From time to time, I see diatribes from writing teachers who say they have students who don’t read—students who say they desperately want to be writers, but who simply don’t read books or writing of any kind. Apparently, this problem is rife among would-be poets: they want to write poems, but they feel no need to read poetry by anyone else. In fact, they seem pained by the very notion of reading either the classics (“Too old and boring”) or more contemporary work (“Too mundane or convoluted”).

I’ve seldom run into would-be SF writers who don’t read SF. However, I’ve met many beginners whose reading is very limited. They only read Heinlein…or they only read Tolkien and books exactly like Tolkien…or they can’t bear to read anything written before they were born.

It makes me shudder. How can you write if you don’t love reading? And how can you love reading if you turn up your nose at 99% of what’s ever been written?

Of course, no one has time to read everything. Long ago, I faced up to the fact that there are countless good books, new and old, that I’ll never get around to reading (not to mention numerous books that aren’t good but that I should still read for cultural literacy—Twilight, I’m looking at you). We all have to be selective, and it’s tempting to stay inside our comfort zones: only reading books that are similar to books we’ve enjoyed in the past.

But that’s not loving books. That’s loving the memory of books—nostalgia for the way some book once made you feel. Loving books means being excited that you might make a new discovery. Your reading might grow.

Loving books means keeping an ear to the ground (e.g. through blogs, web sites, and newspaper book reviews) in search of suggestions for what to read next. Loving books means checking out the “What’s New” shelves at your library. Loving books means deliberately expanding your horizons beyond SF: mysteries, li-fi, romance, wuxia, science, history, politics, religion, poetry, plays, essays, and weird experimental none-of-the-above. Loving books also means reading outside of your own subculture: books by people from different countries, different times, different classes, different ideologies, different sexual outlooks. Loving books may well mean strolling through the library and picking things off the shelf at random.

Inevitably, some of what you pick up won’t be rewarding enough to justify much of your time—you may read ten pages, then put the book down. That’s why I think it’s important to make a habit of going to the library; if you insist on owning every book you read, you’ll only make safe choices for fear of wasting your money. Writers really really have to break every habit of playing things safe.
(A side-note: Of course, this principle doesn’t apply to books written by members of Do not get their books free from the library. You must buy their books full price, not used, from a duly accredited bookstore. Preferably multiple copies.)

Grist for the Mill

Why read outside your comfort zone? First, because there’s a lot of great stuff out there that you won’t find otherwise. Second, because it’s bad for the soul to refuse to read something merely because it was written in another country, or because it’s about people who believe things you don’t; walling off your mind is another terrible habit you have to break.

But most of all, reading widely gives you material to write about. Years ago, I was a judge for the Sunburst Award, a prize given annually to an outstanding Canadian SF book. We judges had to read every fantasy/science fiction book written by Canadians that year…and the experience made me aware of how much that different people brought to the table. Some writers quite obviously knew nothing outside their genre—the only material they had to work with was the same old stuff, used and re-used by other writers in the genre for the past umpteen years. The most interesting writers, however, wrote about things I’d never seen before. The winning book dealt with violinmaking, and the process of canonizing Roman Catholic saints, and puppetry, and Commedia del Arte (as well as time travel, magic, and magic realism). In other words, the book had breadth and depth. The writer knew things I didn’t, and he put them on the page. That gave the novel a fullness and remarkable solidity…as opposed to the shallowness of so many other contenders.

The moral of the story is simple: writers ought to know stuff. They ought to know a lot about a lot of things—not just the stock material that’s been used in the genre for decades. You have to read widely, not just inside your favorite stomping grounds.

Other Suggestions?

I’m going to stick with reading for at least one more blog post, because I want to look at the skill of reading as a writer (as opposed to reading as a reader). Specifically, I want to talk about methodical reading, aimed at learning how to write better.

In the meantime, I’ll once again turn the podium over to you. What kind of reading do you think is important? What are the pros and cons of breadth of reading vs. concentrating on a particular genre? Do you have any tricks for finding good books outside your comfort zone? Have at it!

Filed under For Novelists, learning to write, reading, writing process. You can also use to trackback.

There are 7 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Olivia

    Reading within one genre, or simply re-reading books, better ensures that you will enjoy whatever it is you’re reading, but I think loving to read isn’t about enjoying a book. It’s about the joy you feel at the thought of going to a library, or the prospect of sitting in a bookstore for a few hours.
    It’s about making your mom drive you to the library 3 days a week because you finished yet another book, or something you requested has come in (I did this up until I got my learner’s permit, and now I drive my mom to the library 3 days a week).
    Loving to read is loving the fact that a bunch of paper can house entire worlds and people, and wanting to meet as many of these people as possible.

  2. 2. Mary

    Read history! Read lots and lots and lots of history! Particularly primary source, which is to say, stuff that got written at the time, not the stuff written afterwards about an era. Read it from lots of eras!

    This is not so much to give you info as to knock your block off and open your eyes to the boundless possibilities of human society. You will know you have done enough when you look at some trait of modern society, accepted without comment everywhere, and think that’s weird and abnormal, historically speaking.

  3. 3. Alma Alexander

    On my newest TBR pile – and I am talking JUST about the books i got for Christmas – there is one biography (yes, Twain’s, didn’t EVERYBODY get that for Christmas?) SEVEN non-fiction books ranging from Bill Bryson’s “At Home” to books on linguistics, the middle ages, and Klondike during the Gold Rush, and two fiction books, one of which is a collection of “new” fairy tales or stories told in the vein and manner of old fairy tales by the likes of Neil Gaiman and other giants of contemporary literature (not all of them Genre writers, either). I just received two (fiction) review books from a place I regularly review for. On an older pile there are more biographies, non-fiction books on anything from the Leper Colony at Molokai to the evolution and domestication of the dog from the beginning to the present day, poetry, travelogues, and yes, more novels. I just ordered two books from my local indie shop, both novels, one dealing with growing up in a magical world heavily involved with books (Jo Walton’s “Among Others” which comes highly recommended) and the other integrating an old Russian folk tale and a plethora of Russian folk motifs into a setting that is basically Soviet Russia – it has a Soviet of Domovoi, which was UTTERLY IRRESISTIBLE (Cat Valente’s “Deathless”, currently on pre-order).

    I don’t lack for reading matter.

    And if I walked into a bookstore or a used bookshop tomorrow, I’d likely come out with books on CHinese Dragons, on the Trail of Tears, on anthropological history of Outer Mongolia, on forgotten languages, on the history of the cuckoo clock. I”m WIRED that way. If it has words, I want to read it. If it has roots in history or anthropology or geography or human lives as lived either generically (as groups) or specifically (as individuals) -I am interested. I am hardly ever without one, often several, books on the go. I write, therefore I read. It’s as simple as that.

    It’s the very first question I ask an aspiring writer – “Do you read?” And my estimation of how long they will last in this game depends almost entirely on the answer to that question. Because it isn’t about writing “what you know”. It’s about writing of what you CAN know, of what you are interested enough to learn…

  4. 4. Daemon

    Read outside your own culture.
    The entire world has produced excellent fiction in every conceivable genre. If you can find African, South American, Chinese, Japanese, etc. works in a language you can read, then do so!

    Read philosophy.
    At least the cliff notes versions. You don’t need to be able to quote them. You certainly don’t need to buy into any of them. There are a ton of ideas on how to run a society, on what constitutes ‘the good life’, on the nature of good and evil, etc.

    Read world religion
    At least if you’re planning on including religion as a significant element. If you’re going to make a very religious character, read some things written by very religious people. Ideally of different religions.

  5. 5. Carroll

    >The winning book dealt with violinmaking, and the process of canonizing Roman Catholic saints, and puppetry, and Commedia del Arte (as well as time travel, magic, and magic realism).

    …I want to read THIS one. Can you recall the title?

  6. 6. James Alan Gardner

    To Carroll: It was “Fabrizio’s Return” by Mark Frutkin.


  1. The “Skill List Project” for fiction writers | thoughtsignals

Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.



Browse our archives: