The Best Writing Advice I Ever Heard: Read 100 Books

In all the writer’s workshops and classes I’ve attended, in all the conversations I’ve had with successful writers, the best piece of writing advice anyone has ever given me, was this:

READ 100 books in whatever genre you wish to write in.

Really… 100.

Only after doing so, did I really understand why the author had said that.

All of the great artists of history have at least one thing in common: They first studied the masters, before becoming masters themselves.

And by “studied,” I do not mean “glanced at” or “looked at for a long time.” I mean “studied” – they examined how the artist used colors, how the brushstrokes were done, how faces were drawn, the “shape” of the central image, the materials used to create the image, etc.

If you want to truly excel at writing, and if you want to be a successful paid author whose work is read and enjoyed by people outside of your own family, your best path is to read and study the masters of your craft.

Do more than merely read them. Analyze and study how the writer created the work. Write down your analyses so you can review and compare them later. To use an analogy from the art world again… Look at the “brushstrokes,” and think analytically about the “overall image.”

Some of the things to look for while reading analytically include:

  • (Sub-)Genre: Which genre or sub-genre is the story? How is this (sub-)genre different from others that are similar to it? What basic genre elements are present? What is the order/pacing of those elements?
  • “The Numbers”: How many pages, chapters (include if there there is any epilogue/prologue), estimated number of words (letters across a page, multiplied times lines of text, divide that by five, multiply this times number of pages of text), illustrations, etc.?

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  • What POV was used? If omniscient, how much omniscience is the reader allowed to experience? If first- or second-person, how does the author show what takes place out of sight of the narrator? Is only one POV used throughout?
  • Characters:
    • How many characters are there (how many major characters, how many minor ones)?
    • How are they distinguished from one another?
    • What are their archetypes?
    • If characters are cultural or literary stereotypes, is it for comedic effect or another reason?
    • How they are described (physically and psychologically) and brought to life (how much detail is given for each of them, what foods they eat, their hobbies, etc)?
    • How are “good” characters made more/less “good” and likable vs. “bad guy” character?
    • How much time is spent describing characters/how much time are they “on screen/on stage” for the reader?
    • What kind of relationships they have with/to other characters?
    • What kind of lifestyles they live, what jobs they have?
    • What pets they have, if any, and how they relate to their pets (also: are the pets used to symbolize the characters’ traits in any way)?
    • Are there any aspects of the writing outside of the characters that are used to symbolize them and/or their character traits (such as a family crest with a snake for an evil character, a necklace with a cross for a religious character, a character who is destined to die pulls an ace of spades from a card deck, a painting on the character’s home of a person famous for being good/evil, etc)?

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  • Scenes and Settings: What kind of setting is the story, how it is described, why that setting is better for the story than others might be, number of settings used, etc.
  • Plot:
    • What major plot points happen and when do they happen?
    • What plot devices are used (when, how introduced, what purpose for them…)?
    • When is each character and each plot device introduced in the plot arc?
    • How does each chapter begin & end (tone, is the reader left hanging mid-action, etc.)?
  • Statements/Theme: What is the theme of the story? Does the story make any social or other kinds of statement – i.e., does it have a moral or a lesson taught? (This is not necessary in every kind of story, but some sub-genres do have this as one of the unwritten rules of their stories.)
  • Tone:
    • How does the author create and maintain a mood: suspense, humor, reader interest, mystery, romance, etc?
    • How much sex/violence/mature material is used (if any)?
    • What kind of words & language are used (long/short sentences, little/lots of punctuation, colorful/plain words & terminology, idioms, colloquialisms, etc)?
    • How is comedy & humor used (if at all) in a non-humorous story, romance in a non-romantic story, and so on?
  • Show vs Tell: How does the author show the reader things without saying them straight out? For example, instead of saying “Bob was scared”, the author should say how Bob was trembling, breathing heavily, wide-eyed, etc. Instead of saying “the forest was scary,” the author should show that wind in the trees whispering strangely, branches seeming to grab for people, wolves howling, etc.

More on “Show vs Tell”:
https://annethewriter33.wordpress.com/2017/09/11/show-dont-tell-in-your-writing/


  • What symbolism & foreshadowing, if any, is used? How, where, when? Is it symbolic or obvious?
  • Backstory/Descriptions: Most importantly, how does the author work descriptions and backstory without using obvious exposition and/or leaving the reader feel like they are being lectured at, and/or feeling like the story was rudely interrupted by the other information? Your writing should be smooth and flow comfortably. How do other authors achieve this?

For the first few dozen books, I took notes on everything. But I quickly discovered that it was impossible to analyze for ALL of these aspects at the same time. So I tried focusing on only a few of these criteria at a time. (This made it all the more important to read a full 100 books, as it turned out.) Reading all those books not only taught me to look for one of these criteria at a time, it taught me to see many of them as I read through books now. Reading so many of one genre also taught me that there is a formula for my intended genre, and that there can be SUB-genres within that overall classification, with their own specific requirements and rules.

For example, in most “Cozy Tea Mysteries,” the killer or villain of the book must appear anywhere by the end of the first three chapters, or at least have their name mentioned multiple times by that same point in the story. (Similarly, the killer in many hour-long “whodunit” TV crime shows tends to appear in the first ten minutes of the episode.) Most of the ones I read were told in the First Person POV, and a large number of them had female amateur detectives. The murder(s) tended to take place “off stage,” and gory & uncomfortable details were rarely used. There was almost never any sex scenes or excessive profanity. These criteria were not present every time, but they did tend to happen more often than not.

Some of these ideas were obvious by the time I was done with Book 20, but others didn’t become clear until I had finished Book 99.

So, yes… 100 books is a lot, but there’s a very good reason for the large number.

RECOMMENDED LINKS OF INTEREST

How to Analyze a Novel
https://courses.lumenlearning.com/introliterature/chapter/how-to-analyze-a-novel/

Analyzing Novels and Short Stories
https://writingcenter.tamu.edu/Students/Writing-Speaking-Guides/Alphabetical-List-of-Guides/Academic-Writing/Analysis/Analyzing-Novels-Short-Stories

How to Critically Analyze a Book
https://human.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Literature_and_Literacy/Writing_and_Critical_Thinking_Through_Literature_(Ringo_and_Kashyap)/04%3A_About_Fiction-_Short_Stories_and_the_Novel/4.05%3A_How_to_Analyze_Fiction-_Elements_of_Literature

9 Elements You’ll Find in Every Story
https://blog.prepscholar.com/literary-elements-list-examples

Analyzing Literature
http://www.surfturk.com/advancedcomp/analyzeliteratureguide.html

How to Analyze Fiction
https://davehood59.wordpress.com/2010/01/28/how-to-analyze-fiction//

iWriterly Channel on YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/c/iWriterly

“Read Like a Writer”
https://youtu.be/E2NNupsc73Y

https://youtu.be/TTl2peOPuQk

https://youtu.be/ukoJ3efQmBg

If you enjoyed this blog, please remember to “Like” it (click on the star below) and to “Like” any social media posts/comments where you saw this link. And don’t forget to “Follow” me here on WordPress, for more helpful and concise writing tips. Your positive feedback helps me to help more people online.

Thank you!

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Genre: Writing “Surprise Soup”

Every genre has a formula. Many writers pride themselves on breaking formula, but are later disappointed that not many people seemed to like their changes. Those writers who don’t understand why, need to understand that consumers don’t like to buy “Soup Surprise.”

To explain…

Imagine you have the biggest craving for chocolate cake. And not just any cake, either—your mouth is watering for the cake that is served at your favorite restaurant. So you go to that restaurant and order chocolate cake. After waiting patiently, you get your cake. You pick up a huge forkful of chocolatey goodness and put it in your mouth, only to discover…

SURPRISE!

They changed the recipe, and no one told you. It is now Peanut-Butter-and-Mint-Chocolate Cake.

Assuming you have no potential anaphylactic shock from any possible peanut allergies, you would still be very put out. Yes, at any other time, you might actually have enjoyed trying some Peanut-Butter-and-Mint-Chocolate Cake. But this was not expected, so your tastebuds revolt, and you have to spit it out.

Or, you go to that restaurant to have some soup. Every day, they always have your favorite soup, so you plan on having the same soup. But that day, they tell you, they are out of your soup. Now, they only have “Soup Surprise” – AND you have to order the soup to find out what it is.

Even with this warning, even if a customer did not have any possible food allergies, most people are not likely to order it.

Yes, there are the people who like an adventure and who will try anything, but most people go to their favorite place to have their favorite flavors.

The same is true for books. Most people go to their favorite genres and sub-genres to have their favorite characters and stories. It’s the reason that book and TV series are so popular: people ENJOY the familiar and the comfortable.

For example, I had been a long-time reader of a certain Cozy Tea Mystery series. I enjoyed the characters, the concepts, the pacing, and everything. For eight books, I was comfortable in that town, with that heroine, watching her gradually develop as a character, enjoying that she was gradually developing a romantic interest in the last three. Then, on book number nine… BAM!

The author changed the recipe on my beloved chocolate cake to add mint and peanut butter. For some reason, the heroine had amnesia. All of the regular characters, plus the romantic interest that the author had developed over the last few books, were now gone. Another male character was thrown in the story to take his place. The previously G-rated series now had multiple sex scenes that were written mildly X-Rated, there was more profanity, and the violence of the crime was more graphically described. None of the characters, not even the heroine, seemed familiar. I felt as disoriented as the amnesic heroine of the story claimed to be.

Ordinarily, I know I would have enjoyed this story. The mystery itself was well-conceived, the storytelling in general was very good. But the fact that my favorite chocolate cake now had peanut-butter-and-mint in it left me with a bitter taste in my literary mouth, and I have not picked up that series again.

Another example…

I also enjoy some Science Fiction. There have been more than a few books over the years that people have suggested that I read, because they know I like Science Fiction. But SciFi is a strange animal, and has some very specific rules and formulas. It has many sub-genres that are very unique, including Time Travel, Alternate Universe, Hard Science Tech, Dystopian, and so on. Someone who is not familiar with the distinctions of these sub-genres is quick to assume that because I like some SciFi, that I like all of it. But any SciFi nerd knows that being a Trekkie does not automatically mean you will “go gaga” over Star Wars, or vice versa.

So, when I get these recommendations, I go in knowing that I am ordering the “Soup Surprise”—I merely know it’s soup, and I have no idea if I’ll really enjoy it. The way they describe the book sounds like something I might like, but I just have to read it to find out if it really is the flavor they claim it is. They have read a few SciFi books, so they are just sure this is one of the same kinds of stories that I like.

But that’s like saying, “Hey, I know you like Chicken Noodle Soup. You’re gonna love this. It has chicken in it, too.” (They think it’s the chicken that I like, when I actually enjoy the noodles the most.)

Sometimes I get lucky and they really did recommend a good SciFi story. But Science Fiction, like many genres that encompass a large variety of sub-categories, is not something you can have just a few tastes of, then assume you can make for yourself and mess with the recipe at the same time. As an editor, I have read stories by writers who were trying very hard to write stories from a genre that they had not read sufficiently, or for which they had only seen movies on screen. Their lack of experience with the formulas and “rules” for that kind of book was always apparent.

You might think that they had a right to experiment with that formula, and you would be right. But before changing around a recipe, you need to know the basics – that Chicken Noodle Soup needs to at least have chicken, noodles, and broth. Changing out a basic ingredient in the soup (genre) changes the kind of soup (genre) you are making (writing).

Before you as a writer want to get creative with a genre, be sure you have read enough of that genre to know its sub-genres and formula (“recipe”). Be sure to know what the basic ingredients are, before you end up serving your readers with a literary version of “Peanut-Butter-and-Mint-Chocolate Cake” or “Soup Surprise.”

If you enjoyed this blog, please remember to “Like” it (click on the star below) and to “Like” any social media posts/comments where you saw this link. And don’t forget to “Follow” me here on WordPress, for more helpful and concise writing tips. Your positive feedback helps me to help more people online.

Thank you!