I’m a firm believer that to be a good writer, you must read, and read a lot. I don’t read nearly as fast as many people do, but I manage to get in 60 – 70 books a year.
Sometimes people ask what I read. Other times they assume what I read. Whenever I answer either side of the question, the person on the other side seems surprised.
Some people assume I read only LDS fiction. That one surprises me. Why would I read only this market? Sure, there’s a lot of great stuff in it, and a variety of genres, but I’m not sure why they think I don’t read other things just because I publish in this market.
The truth: I do read a lot of LDS fiction. That’s largely because many good friends also publish here, and I want to read their work. Also because I need to keep abreast of my own market. And finally, because I’m part of the Whitney academy, many (although definitely not all) of the Whitney finalists will be from the market, and if I’m going to vote, I need to read the finalists.
I spend some of my reading time throughout the year making educated guesses on which books might be finalists, so that come February, I don’t have 30 finalists to race through in 2 months. It’s not unlike trying to guess who might be nominated for an Oscar; there are always surprises, but you can also make educated guesses in some cases. For example, Stephanie Black has won two Whitneys for Mystery/Suspense, so you can bet I’ll be adding her new release, Cold as Ice, to my to-be-read list.
The Whitneys have opened my reading to new areas in the national market. There’s a good chance that without them, I might not have picked up Dan Wells’s I Am Not a Serial Killer when I did (a book that tied in this year’s Whitneys for Best Novel by a New Author with the self-published Gravity vs. The Girl, by Riley Noehren). So hey, I read a horror novel and loved it. Who knew? Thanks to the Whitneys, I’ve also been introduced to national writers like Brandon Sanderson, Jessica Day George, Jaime Ford, and more.
What do I read besides straight LDS market fiction and national Whitney finalists? I keep a running list of books as I read them. It goes back about 15 years, and it’s fun to look at.
A smattering from the past couple of years, purposely leaving off all titles by LDS writers, both national and LDS market:
- Anne of Ingleside, by L. M. Montgomery (I regularly throw in an LMM book about once a year. She’s a favorite of mine.)
- The Man Who Was Poe, by Avi (YA historical)
- The Word and the Void trilogy, by Terry Brooks (urban fantasy)
- Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens (another favorite author)
- Plain Truth, by Jodi Piccoult (NY Times Bestselling author, several times over)
- Walking on Water, by Madeline L’Engle (great book on writing and inspiration from a Christian viewpoint)
- Crown of Swords, by Robert Jordan (That’s #7 in The Wheel of Time series. One day I’ll get to Brandon Sanderson’s final volumes of the epic fantasy.)
- A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini (Wanted to like this NY Times bestseller better than I did. Maybe it’s because I already knew more about the Afghani culture than the average American so I felt spoon-fed. Or maybe it’s because I felt that parts from a female POV were obviously written by a man.)
- Columbine, by David Cullen (Nonfiction. Sobering–and rather surprising–account of what really happened before, during, and after the tragedy)
- Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (Quirky classic I felt I needed to have read. Glad I did.)
- Chanters of Tremaris Trilogy, by Kate Constable (great YA fantasy)
- The Forest of Hands and Teeth, by Carrie Ryan (never, EVER thought I’d like a book about zombies!)
- Artemis Fowl series, by Eoin Colfer
- The Uglies series, by Scott Westerfeld
- The Help, by Kathryn Sockett (More on this below.)
- The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (I’ll be fighting my daughter for the final book when it’s released next week)
Other years, I’ve thrown in mysteries, forensics books, biographies, science fiction, romance, journals, and more. When someone asks “what” I read, I tell them, “everything.” It’s a rare genre where I can’t find something I enjoy in it. (That’s not to say I love very book I read, not by a long shot.)
One quirk I have that I’m currently unaware of anyone sharing, is that I refuse to read the back cover copy of a book. I hate going into a book with any clue what it’s about. I pick what to read based largely on recommendations from people who know me and whose opinions I trust. Some things I read because I need to (I have three daughters coming up the pike. I needed to know firsthand what’s in the Twilight books before my girls came asking to read them.)
A reason I avoid backliners is that I don’t always like how much information is revealed in those of my own novels (the author doesn’t usually get to write those things). For one of my books, the backliner reveals a spoiler that I really wished would have been kept a secret, a surprise to the reader. So I’ve stopped reading them. I’ve learned to love going into a book totally blind.
Such was the case with The Help. I knew plenty of people who loved it. I saw it everywhere. I figured it was probably a good book. Had no idea what it was about when I bought it. As is my habit, I slipped off the dust jacket so I couldn’t read the cover copy. In this book’s case, that also meant I’d unknowingly slipped off the author’s photo and bio on the back flap.
I read the book, coming to realization around page 16 or so what kind of “help” the title refers to and getting immersed in the story. I remember wondering whether the author was black or white; based solely on her characters, I couldn’t tell. She got so fully into every character’s head, heart, mannerisms, and even ways of speaking that I personally had no clue who the author was. And I loved that.
If the author was white, I figured she’d taken a risk, and that she’d probably gotten flack for writing in several black women’s voices. But from the novel, she could just as easily have been black. And I didn’t know her race until I finished the book, tears streaking down my cheeks, when I picked up the dust jacket. Turns out that Kathryn Stockett is very much white.
And as I suspected, I’ve since found reviews where people are upset at her writing “stereotypes” (which floors me, since each of the black women is so different) and claiming that she can’t know the dialect that was used then (in spite of the fact that she grew up in the area at that time). I’ve wondered if those people would have complained (or enjoyed the book more) if the exact same words had been penned by a black woman.
I had to wonder: Would they be as upset if they’d taken off the dust jacket before reading it and went in blind, not knowing the author’s race?
Of course, there’s no way to know. But I do know that I probably would have read the book with a different perspective if had I known going in that the author was white.
It was confirmation to me about why I love going into books blind: I go in without any preconceived notions beyond hoping it’ll be good, thinking that it probably will be because of who recommended it or how I found it. As much as the experience can (it’s tough to take off the writer/editor hat), it gets to be a feast for the imagination as I discover and experience the story.
So what am I reading now? I’m taking turns between books I want to read for fun that aren’t LDS at all (up soon: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Fountainhead, and Water for Elephants. I was annoyed to find out when and where Guernsey takes place. Don’t ruin the rest for me!), books by friends and other LDS writers (just finished H. B. Moore’s Alma the Younger and Jessica Day George’s Princess of Glass, am about to finish Jeffrey S. Savage’s A Time To Die) as well as other books I think just might be Whitney finalists.
Am I the only one with this “I don’t want to know” quirk? On the total flip side, I know people who actually read the last page of a novel before they ever start it (something I can’t fathom). I know others who read the back cover copy, the first page, and reviews before deciding to read a book. I’m sure there are as many ways to decide what to read as there are readers.
Tell me I’m not the only quirk out there. What are yours?