“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
― Stephen King
If you feel like this quote is overused, its because that every writer knows its true. Writers need to read. They need to read for the sake of their craft. They need to learn and study the craft so they can apply it to their own.
Do it enough, and you may even develop your very own writing muscle. If you have a strong writing muscle, then you will analyze everything you read as a writer. You will critique it based on craft, voice, consistency, character development, plot, etc.
The writing muscle will piss off everyone you know and love, because you will critique everything from beloved bestselling novels to episodes of The Walking Dead. You may hate things that other people love, because of their flaws. You will love things that other people hate, because you see hidden gems that they don’t.
This year, I’m doing something a little different and simply listing the top 5 books I read this year with a few notes about what they taught me as a writer. In no particular order, here they are:
Planet of Exile. by Ursula K Le Guin Written, I believe, in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness. An earthling colony has been stranded on Werel for several Earth centuries, and the dwindling human settlement is beginning to thin out. Their leader attempts to form an alliance with the humanoid hilfs to protect both groups from a horde of barbarians before winter sets in.
I love this particular book in the series but love the world as a whole for the way it addresses themes of Otherness. With so many different forms of intelligent life converging, they become stronger when they learn to trust and accept one another in order to protect themselves from forces that pose legitimate threats. In a world where two different species perceive themselves as “real” people, it asks the question, “What is man?”
The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.A. Carey A disturbing novel if nothing else. I don’t want to say much more than what the blurb insinuates, in case you haven’t read it. I learned so much from studying the five primary characters it follows in the book. On their own, they are infuriatingly flawed, but when they function as a group, each person serves a specific and vital role that brings the story to its conclusion. (If you’ve read this book and have any thoughts on that, please email me. I’d love to chat with you, jane[dot]endacott[at]gmail[dot]com).
Saga series, by Brian K. Vaughn. A graphic novel series set in a sci-fi fantasy world where two species are locked in a devastating and endless civil war with a Romeo and Juliet story as its focus, but instead of killing themselves like temperamental teenagers, Romeo and Juliet start a family. More themes of Otherness (the two sides have been fighting for so long, they don’t remember why they hate each other). The artwork is absolutely stunning. I could tell a lot about who Special Agent Gale simply by his facial expressions and demeanor.
The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood Like watching Ursula Le Guin speak, seeing Margaret Atwood at a Powell’s reading for this book was something akin to a religious experience.
Fun fact: she started writing this book as a serial novel, self-publishing chapters on Amazon. When her publisher found out about it, they were all like, “Nuh-nuh-nuh-no, you’re going to do this as a traditionally book,” and its TOTALLY OBVIOUS at what point in the story that it was published as a serial book and at what point it became a traditionally published book. The plot moves at breakneck speed up to a certain point, with so many twists and turns, that it had me think, WHAT NOW, MOTHER ATWOOD?, and then it kind of slows down. But I loved it nonetheless. Much, much more uplifting than the MaddAdam series.
The Disaster Artist, by Greg Sestero (on audiobook) I listened to this as an audiobook, which was brilliantly narrated by author Greg Sestero. If you don’t know the story of The Room, read the next section. If you do know the story of The Room, skip ahead. Meet you after the video clip.
Don’t Know the Story: The Room is – with no exaggeration, no hyperbole, and absolutely officially – the worst movie ever made. It has the critical distinction of being the worst movie ever made. From what I understand, film classes teach it as “Everything You Must Not Do”, and if you watch the film, it becomes painfully (in the literal sense) obvious.
It was written, directed, and financed by Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau plays the lead, and he’s kind of an unusual guy, and if you want to know just how unusual, here’s a clip.
Know the story? Okay, now you can join us: When most people watch The Room, they wonder, “Did the people who made this know how bad it was?” In The Disaster Artist, Sestero answers, yes, everyone knew how bad it was…everyone except Tommy Wiseau, a tortured man who poured his heart and soul into this film.
Greg Sestero , who plays Mark in the film, was a young, struggling actor and close friends with Wiseau, and he knew Wiseau intimately throughout the making of this film. Wiseau is an easy target, and it would be so easy to make fun of him or mock him. But Sestero saw a very human side to Wiseau, and he writes this book with real compassion for the man. If you’re a fan of The Room – in whatever fucked up iteration of the word that it entails – I PROMISE that you will be entertained by this book, even more so if you listen to the audiobook. Sestero’s impression of Wiseau is incredible.
If you’re not yet a fan of The Room, the only way to watch this movie is with a rowdy group of people, and don’t forget to follow this guide of heckling.
Diverse Books Reading Challenge
I made a commitment at the beginning of 2015 that half the books on my reading list for this year would be written by diverse authors. Update: I failed miserably.
Out of the 21 books I read this year a whopping 2 were written by diverse authors: Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi, and This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz.
I was keenly aware throughout the year that I was behind on this challenge. I had not forgotten about it at all, but the books that were calling to me this year were written by non-diverse authors. See my spiel above about developmental and self-help books. Books about topics that I needed help in weren’t written by diverse authors. I say this not as an excuse but to bring awareness about why I wasn’t successful at this challenge.
Still, this is an issue that is important to me. I believe that art is stronger when all voices are represented at the table (read more about my thoughts, here), and one thing I can change is what’s on my reading list. For 2017, I commit to reading a minimum of 5 books, which is still not enough, but I’d rather set myself up for success.
Walk of Shame: Books I Didn’t Finish This Year
Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner: A dense, nonfiction book about how the once wild rivers of the western states have been tamed and reaped in water project after cumbersome and extravagant water project. It may sound like a dry topic (pun intended!), but anyone who lives in some of our arid western states understands how valuable a resource water can be. And don’t think that just because you live in a place like, say, Oregon that you can disregard it. Read the story about how the city of LA grew by taking water from communities hundreds of miles away and see how closely these issues can affect you. A fascinating history about water management in our country. I will definitely return to this one.
A Dance With Dragons (A Song of Fire & Ice Book 5), by George R.R. Martin: Got about halfway through it (so 600 pages) before I decided that I wanted to feel good about life. Since it will likely be another five years before Martin finishes Book 6, I figure I have time to come back to this.
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Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie: I tried. I really tried. But a new year means new chances and a clean slate. I figure now’s a good time to put this one down. 2017 is for a fresh start.