Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Reading List

This is my reading list for the next two weeks. They are all books written by the faculty at the Pacific University MFA program, where I'll be starting in January. I'm hoping to have at least one, if not two books, written by each of them read before I go. This is a very small start!

Last week I read The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint (by Brady Udall) and Leaving Atlanta (by Tayari Jones). Today I'm starting Pete Fromm's How All This Started. None of these are books I'd heard of before, and judging by the awards they've received and the quality of them, clearly I'm reading the wrong things. These are amazing books!

One thing I don't do enough of as a writer is make time to read. I love reading, and maybe it's that very thing that makes it feel like an indulgence. To just curl up on the couch and read... what a luxury! And yet, I've been reading these books lately, I can tell you I think this may be the most worthwhile thing I will do over the next two years in improving my writing. Reading great writing inspires and motivates me to write better. It makes me think about plot and character development and what makes a book more than just an interesting story. It stretches my reach, challenges my comfort zone, and increases my vocabulary. Or, even better, increases the way in which I use the vocabulary I have.

I've learned two big things this week while reading.

1. Any rule can be broken if it's broken well. In the blogging world, we are told not to use adverbs, and to use adjectives sparingly. Don't overuse backstory. Don't use passive tense. Don't start a book with someone waking or dreaming. Begin a book with a bang...action and drama and suspense all wrapped in the first sentence. But a great writer, if he knows why these rules are important, can break them if he does it well. (For instance, a writer shouldn't rely on adverbs because that makes them lazy about using strong verbs in the first place. But if your writing is full of strong verbs, the adverbs can become less a crutch and more to drive home a point of specificity.)

2. No piece of writing is perfect, and as reading is such a subjective thing, it can never be perfect for all people. As such, I've learned to stop criticizing each book for what I think it should have done and learn to appreciate what it does brilliantly. This was an easier lesson for me to learn here, because these writers are going to be my teachers. I went into the books with the idea that I would learn from them. So when certain things came up that I wouldn't have chosen to use in my own writing - or when absolute rules of good writing were broken - I looked at why it worked, how the writer got away with that, and instead of criticizing it, I came to appreciate it. And the things I still wouldn't have chosen to do, I let them go and focused on the brilliance I did see.

I can honestly say I'm loving these books, and amazed that I'm going to get to meet these authors, talk with them, work with, have them read my work and be mentored by them.

What book are you reading lately?


  1. I *love* pictures of piled-up books. Makes me want to go admire my own pile of TBR books! This is really a brilliant post. Those two lessons are two of the most important any writer (or reader, for that matter) can learn. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Just goes to show how many good books there are out there and that I haven't even scratched the surface of my reading.

    I just finished my first non-fiction book in a while, The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs.

  3. I've had my head stuck in kidlit for so long. I need to branch out and read some adult fiction! Anyway, you know how I feel about #1 :) I love snuggling with a book, too...if my kids will let me.

  4. Homework!

    I've been lax in book reading lately. I need to get back to it.


  5. What a rich, rich experience. I am so thrilled for you!

  6. I'm just writing. Not reading. Sadly.
    I do agree about the rule thing. If it's done well, you can get away with anything - the problem is getting your foot in the door.

  7. Oh I thank you for this post. I love that you are looking for what is amazing in the books-- I need and want to do that so badly!
    And I am finding myself choosing to break one or two rules with my current WIP. I am cringing but I think it is so much better.

  8. What book am I reading? Well, I'm on page 191 of a wonderful book titled, "Some Kind of Normal." Perhaps you've heard of it? ;o)

    LOVING it!

    And you're right, Heidi. There really are so many amazing books out there. My daughter is taking an ancient Greece & Rome class in college right now and she's inspiring me to dust off some of the "ancient" classics I haven't read since I was in college myself!

  9. Great post, Heidi! I'm glad you are enjoying the books so far...

    I love your lessons. I agree, it's all about the writing...you can break the "rules" if you do it well. :)

  10. I love finding new authors, hidden gems outside the big box book stores. I like your point about knowing the rules, and then knowing how and when to break them. I'm looking forward to learning how in the near future, too.

    I'm reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. It's taking me longer to read than normal due to re-reading her sentences consistantly because they are just that GOOD.