Smarter Writing? Read smart.*

There are only 24 hours in a day. Subtract the things that must be done, and there’s not much time left. It matters how you spend those precious moments not otherwise earmarked. As a human being, I want to enjoy them. As a writer, I want to learn from them. Good books hit both marks.

Before I started writing fiction, I could go for months reading only non-fiction on a single obsession-of-the-moment subject. International commercial arbitration springs to mind. Then I would dive into a stretch of reading a single author. I went through a particularly memorable Hermann Hesse phase the summer before graduate school: Demian, Siddartha, Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, and my still-all-time-favorite The Glass Bead Game. (I may have read Peter Camenzind during this period, but I don’t remember.) I read what I wanted when I wanted, which is, of course, a perfectly delightful way to read.

As a fiction writer, though, I want to squeeze as much from the moments spent in someone else’s universe as possible. I want to dive in, enjoy the water, and when I’m done, I’d like to have learned something.

Enter: the Smart TBR list.

We all have our TBR piles. Those stacks of to-be-read books that grow like stalagmites from floors, tables, and desks. And Kindle. There are a lot of books, years’ worth of books. This is a great opportunity.

Take a moment.

Look at all the books you chose because they appeal to you. Then look again. This time, look at those books as guides. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to improve my exposition and become more conscious of voice. I’ve been alternating my reading choices between books I just wanna read, and books by writers who are particularly skilled at exposition and voice. Last week, I read Chris Pavone’s The Expats, and this week I’m reading Kellye Garrett’s Hollywood Homicide. (Please forgive me for being so late to the game. I know I am, and I am suitably repentant.) Pavone is a master of many things, among them exposition. He does Europe in a way that is fresh, sharp, and amazingly accurate. Garrett is a genius not only at character, but with the most appealing-yet-impossible-to-figure-out-exactly-why voice. (I would say she has a certain je ne sais quoi, but that would sound pretentious.) Anyway, the point is, I read these two books not only because they’re great books–and they are–but also because they are stellar examples of the very abilities I’m working on.

I suspect if you look at your own TBR list, you’ll find a whole slew (yes, slew is the technical term) that meet your own writing goals. Go with it. Read for the sheer pleasure and read smart. It’s great to kill two birds with one stone.

*I respect the position that I should have written “read smartly,” but I gotta say, it just seemed wrong.

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