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.?

screenshot_20200901-170600_write now44925256527528770..jpg

  • 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)?

note-taking-clipart-clipart-taking-notes

  • 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!

Advertisement

Harlan Ellison’s First Day of School

Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to see the late great Harlan Ellison in person at a convention. He told a simple but delightful story about his first day of school, which perfectly illustrated his love of stories, reading, and learning in general…

Harlan had learned to read long before going to school, and was a voracious reader of anything he could find. His parents did not stifle his love of reading, but instead allowed him to read any book or story for any age.

When it came time for his first day of school, his mother walked him to school. He was very excited. He’d been told school was a place of learning, so he had imagined rooms full of books and books and books, all over the walls, like a huge library.

His was deeply confused and disappointed when he got to his assigned classroom. There were only a few pictures books; mostly there were toys, some desks, and other kids playing on a colorful rug.

Where were all the books of learning?

Bored, and unwilling to socialize with the other kids, he sat down at the teacher’s desk and began to read the adult-level paperback she had set there at some point.

Before too long, the teacher came up to him and tried to get him to join the other kids and sit at his desk.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m reading.”

(In his household, he had been taught it was always impolite to interrupt someone when they are reading.)

The teacher persisted, and used a firmer tone, telling him he really needed to go sit down.

“Excuse me,” he said again. “I’m READING.”

Well, his poor mother, who had walked him to school, had no sooner walked in the door to her house, when she heard the phone ring.

The school was calling, asking her to come in and speak to the Principal about her son. So she had to walk all the way back.

(I take it from his narrative at the time, that this was not a small distance.)

When she got there, the Principal told her that her son had been repeatedly lying to the teacher.

“Harlan,” his mother asked, “What did you say?”

“I just told her I was reading,” insisted young Harlan.

The Principal chimed in. “Well, that’s the problem, you see. He had a grown-up book and insisted he was reading it.”

“But he CAN read it,” said his mother.

The Principal obviously did not believe it.

His mother took a thick book from the Principal’s desk. “Here, Harlan. Read to the man.”

So Harlan proceeded to read out loud from a thick, adult book, without pause or problem.

That was his first and last day of Kindergarten.

They put him into the First Grade, only because school rules did not allow any higher promotion than one grade level.

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!