A piece of advice writers often hear (and regularly from me!) is that to write effectively, you must read. And read a lot. This is simply mandatory. You learn from reading—not just information, but how other authors accomplish the things you’re striving for. Vocabulary expands. Your own voice (which you’re honing every day at your writing table, right?) gets challenged by other great voices. You begin to see story structure and scenes and how characters go through the arc of the storyline. Among a gazillion other things.
I’m often amazed at how very little wanna-be fiction writers actually read. Many ‘fess this up when I ask (as it truly shows), with a litany of excuses as to why they don’t read. My favorite of course being, “I watch a lot of movies and TV.” With all the schlock out there in both of those, that excuse is always starkly apparent in their prose. If you want to truly tank your writing, watch lots of television.
And yes, there’s a ton of schlock out there in the publishing world as well. In fact, that’s the preponderance of self-published work, and that by Traditional houses too. The old adage that publishing is geared to an eighth-grade level has actually changed. Now, it’s geared to the sixth-grade level. And if you’re going to be a successful fiction author, no matter in what genre you write, you have to be smarter than a fifth-grader. Which means, you have to read on a much higher level than what book publishing is geared to.
And that means—forget the Bestseller list. Yes, it’s helpful to know what’s there, and to read some of it so you’ll know what’s selling well (but be careful—this can be depressing! That such terrible books sit atop the Bestseller list could dismay a Buddhist monk). But that’s pretty much as far as those books will get you.
I loved this recent article by Shane Parrish in The Week, with even a different take on this. The gist of it is that if you just read the Bestseller list, you’ll think like everyone else. And thinking like everyone else will suffocate your creativity. I couldn’t possibly agree more! These generic, sixth-grade-level, god-awful prose, flat characters, but usually page-turning-plot books bore me to tears. And a bored mind is not a creative one.
Some small presses still strive to put out great fiction. They still do this for the very best of reasons—the love of the written word. Algonquin of course comes to mind, although as they get bigger and bigger . . . University presses still put out quality books, although with a very limited list. One of my very favorites is GrayWolf Press, and I’ve read so many great works from them. They still publish for the love of the word, and it shows in the quality here.
There are others of course—so go find them! Challenge yourself. Enjoy, but learn as you go. Expand those creative horizons. Dedicate yourself to simply writing the very best books you can. Give yourself something to shoot for. And admire those who have reached the goal you’re aspiring to.