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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“Cheap at the Beginning Makes for Expensive in the End” (A Commentary on Self-Editing Your Manuscript)

“A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,” Abraham Lincoln once said. In that same vein, it can also be said that “A writer who is his own editor invariably looks foolish as an author.”

Or, to quote another adage, “Cheap at the beginning makes for expensive in the end.”

Three to five cents (USD) per word is a not-uncommon fee for freelance editors. So paying for a professional editor can be expensive, especially for a first-time author. A book that is 75,000 words in length might cost as much as $3,750 for one round of editing, depending on the kind of editing you’re having done (at least two rounds is recommended by some editors).

How Much Does an Editor Cost? What to Expect for Pro Services – Reedsy

When “Inexpensive” Becomes “Overworked and Underpaid” – Nikki Auberkett | Pen & Quill

Costs like this can make the idea of “self-editing” your manuscript or using only editing software very tempting.

But before you toss away the idea of paying for an editor, consider this…

An author of my acquaintance online (I’ll call him “Bob”) was able to self-publish a novel he had long been wanting to see in print. This author claimed he had already been published professionally by a traditional publisher, so he certainly would have dealt with the publishing industry— including editors— before.

All throughout his draft-writing process, he made lots of comments on many social media posts (whenever writers were asking about hiring an editor). “Bob” repeatedly said that editors cost too much, and that writers should try to “self-edit.” He praised the capabilities of editing software. He told countless writers that “self-editing” was not only possible, but just as effective as a professional editor, and perfectly acceptable for self-publishing. “Bob” made himself quite the advocate for this, in spite of the many times when myself and others tried to explain that editors do far more than merely spell-check, and do far more than any app or other computer software could do.

Recently, “Bob” self-published that book. It was a story he had been wanting to write for a long time. He paid money he said he could not really afford, to have 10,000 copies printed up and have the e-book posted online. (I suspect he was vanity published, despite his claims otherwise.)

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He went on social media, spending the entire morning promoting his new book online.

Because it was my favorite genre, and I rarely get to read many new authors writing in that genre, I was looking forward to reading it. As soon as I read his announcement about his new book, I downloaded it and began to read.

…And instantly became so very embarrassed for his sake.

While there were almost no spelling errors, it was rife with punctuation issues. The first few pages alone had several sentences that were confusing and poorly worded. His first chapter was basically an “information dump,” without any characters being introduced, and was incredibly uninteresting. Even the paragraph-long synopsis for his dust jacket had numerous errors, and was not engagingly written the way a promotional blurb should be, in order to get people to buy the book. The book was painful to read, and I didn’t even get past the first chapter.

While I was trying to figure out how to tell him that his dream book was… not the best quality work, I went onto his first post where he had announced the release of his new book, less than a few hours before. I saw that a few other people had already politely and gently told him it was not as well written as he thought, and desperately needed a good editor. Some were not very kind about it at all.

“Bob” was floored.

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Now that he had some of the problems with his book pointed out to him and could see them more clearly, the reality of his situation was sinking in. “Bob” had invested a lot of his own money, and had 10,000 printed copies of a book that was an embarrassment to any professional author. He would have to either eat the huge loss or continue to humiliate himself online, in hopes of making a few sales.

He chose to delete his promotional posts, stop promoting his book, and slink off into the sunset by leaving social media for awhile. (Apparently, he didn’t believe in doing things by halves.)

This scenario is a too-common occurrence. Writers try to be cheap and apply “do it yourself” mentality to publishing, or just don’t realize the vital and incredibly powerful role editors play in the publishing process. However, this time, this writer’s humiliation was even worse. Remember, this particular writer had gotten on social media on numerous occasions, claiming that “self-editing” is more than sufficient for self-publishers. And now “Bob’s” hubris-driven blunder was out there on the internet for everyone to see.

To make matters even worse, this author who had repeatedly claimed he was publishing his latest book as a professional, now had a book that made him look like a vanity-press-printed amateur.

Don’t get me wrong. “Bob” is a good writer. Overall, his ideas and stories are very good. He has a quick wit and a great sense of humor in his blogs & posts. So it’s quite believable that he has indeed been traditionally published before. But submitting to traditional publishers is very different than self-publishing.

A Submissions Editor at a publishing house expects to see an unpolished work. They expect to have their editorial staff go through every manuscript and make lots of changes, with several rounds of edits, before allowing it anywhere near the printing press. So submitting an unedited (or “self-edited”) manuscript to a traditional publisher is perfectly acceptable.

However, in self-publishing, your initial readers are Joe and Jane Average. They expect (and very rightly so) that every book they download or buy at a store will have been written and perfected, prior to their reading the opening sentence. They expect (again, rightly so) the same quality of writing and professional publishing that they would get from a book published by any of “The Big Five” publishing houses.

Your book is competing in the same marketplace as books that have been through several rounds of editing, beta readers, and marketing professionals. A lot of money was invested in those books, and they are your competition.

So for you, a writer looking at venues for your book, this means that you must ask yourself:

Can you afford to be a professional author while self-publishing, or should you submit your work to traditional publishers?

Because if you can’t afford to pay for a good editor to polish your manuscript, then— to be brutally honest— you either don’t want to be taken seriously as a professional author, or you just don’t belong in self-publishing.

However… This is not to say you don’t belong in print. As I said before, traditional publishing is a great option for the beginning writer with no editorial budget– the best option, in my opinion. The publisher there will pay for the editor to go over your work, market your book for you, and you always receive some kind of payment for the time you spent writing (this is never the situation with self-publishing). The person first reading your manuscript at these places expects grammatical imperfection, and is looking at the overall quality of your story and use of language.

Remember: If a company is promising to do all the editing & printing, while also charging you a lot of money to “publish” your book, they’re probably a “vanity press” and definitely a SCAM. You will pay far less to hire a freelance editor and publish your book for yourself online.
RUN AWAY!

Yes, traditional publishers will probably reject your manuscript at first— and if you wisely and stubbornly keep sending it back out the door, various publishers will probably reject it more than a few times. But if you research which imprint/publisher you are submitting to and how your manuscript fits into their image & product offerings, and if you write a good query letter, then a good writer stands a good chance of being published (and polished) without paying out of your own savings to do so.

…And you will never have a book on the market that makes you look like an amateur hack.

Anne Fisher-Ahlert is a freelance editor who is happy to look over several pages of your manuscript for free, in order to demonstrate how much you need an editor, and with hopes that you will hire her. Anne’s email is Anne_Ahlert@Yahoo.com .



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.

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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!