Choosing What Not to Read

Two of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear about writing are:

* Write more

* Read more

I’ve also read many interviews where writers say they no longer have time to keep up with other novels published in their own genre.

Sturgeon’s oft-mentioned law is that 90% of everything is crud.  These days even if you only concentrate on a particular sub-genre (e.g space opera), the amount of reading material available means that the 10% is far more than anyone has the time to read.

In the pre-Internet days it was much harder to get recommendations for books.  Now it only takes a little bit of web surfing to uncover a slew of interesting sounding books.

Add to this the amount of free online material (magazines, blogs, podcasts, discussion forums, etc).

Another factor is that the more serious you get about writing the more likely it is that you’ll make friends with other writers.  It’s only natural to want to support your friends and read their books.

I keep a file on my computer with list of books I want to read.

There are now more than 600 books on that list.

It’s no longer the case where I’ll read a book simply because I want to read it.  I have to want to read it more than I want to read a lot of other books.

I used to decide which book on my bookshelf I wanted to read first, with the understanding I would read the other books later.  I own at least a couple of hundred books I haven’t read.  Given on average I read around 50 books a year, even if I stopped buying books and going to the library, it would take me a few years to clear my backlog of books to read.

With all of the information and book recommendations available online sometimes less can be more.  The more recommendations available, the strength of each particular recommendation can diminish.  They get lost amongst all the noise.  If someone gives you a list of their 100 favorite books how likely is it you’ll read a particular book on that list versus a book they place in your hand and tell you that you have to read?

Another factor I’ve noticed is that once writers are published they tend to read less fiction and read more non-fiction.

If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy it pays to do a lot of technical or historical research.

I’m working on a novel set in a monastery in an alternate-world feudal Japan and so I’ve been reading books about the history of Japan and  a book written by a Japanese salaryman that spent a year studying to be a monk in one of Japan’s strictest Zen monasteries.

The amount of available reading material has also changed how I read.  I’m a lot less patient.  If a short story hasn’t grabbed me by the first page I move on to something else.  I’m quite happy skimming non-fiction books looking for the parts that interest me.

I’ve also noticed I’m less inclined to read novels by authors I’ve read before.

One of the reasons I read is to encounter new ideas (hence my preferences for science fiction, fantasy and non-fiction).

Of course I still try and read books by my favorite authors.  But if I enjoyed a novel by an author and it’s not one of my favorite books, well maybe I’m more likely to try something from a new author I’ve heard good things about.

There is also the consideration of timing.

Controversial new books (especially non-fiction) can get bumped up my reading list, because it’s fun to read them while others are discussing them.  There’s also the sense of not wanting to be excluded from the conversation when people are talking about books that have made a big impact, such as Harry Potter.  But it would still take a lot more than that to get me interested in reading the Twilight books though.

What you’re currently writing can also influence your choice of fiction reading.
Some writers don’t like to read works in the same genre as they’re working on because they feel they might be influenced too much.

I’ve noticed it can be distracting for me to read works in a different genre from the one I’m working on.  If I read a great dystopian monkey comedy of manners novel, that makes me want to stop my current project and write my own dystopian monkey comedy of manners.

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