What to Read When You’re Writing

I read the advice of professional writers from time to time, like ya do, and they all have exactly two pieces of advice in common: (1) practice. (2) Read stuff. The thing is, they often aren’t great about telling me what to read, and for years I labored under the general assumption that it didn’t matter overly much as long as you read. But yesterday, my brain hit a save point of sorts where it gave me a cut scene of my reading practices as they relate to my writing, correlating and organizing and generally giving me an “oh, wait” overview.

I was listening to Stephen Jay Gould’s Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms. I have to pick up a reading copy, as opposed to the audiobook, because I apparently do not have the attention span to catch the meaning embedded in subtlety and inferred connections that characterizes Gould’s writing while listening and driving. I have grasped maybe a quarter of what he’s saying. At one point, he poses the question of what the world might look like if China had done the empire building instead of western Europe, and I have no idea if this was an off-the-cuff thought or the point of the essay because my brain immediately screamed, “Ahhhh! That book would be SO much fun to write!” And I was off.

I started building a mental checklist of questions I would need answered:

  • What was the technological leap that made it possible for Europe to do it’s conquering?
  • Would it make geographical sense for China to need the same technology to conquer, and if not, what challenges would they face and given where they were at, what’s the minimal change that would have made conquest feasible?
  • Was a philosophical difference in attitudes towards conquest a determining factor? Who would the lynchpins have been and what would have had to change for them to be successful with a different message?
  • What is the Asian culture that would have been dominant at the time? Would an Asian conquest be more likely if a different Asian culture had won a particular war? How would the dominant philosophy (minimally tweaked for conquest purposes) impact the way that technologically less-advanced native peoples were treated?
  • What diseases were rampant in Asia at the time, and how would they have played out versus smallpox?

This is just a smattering of questions that I would need to answer and/or know more about in order to fix the questions in order to ask better ones once I learn which ones are based on flawed assumptions. I know a fair deal about the conquest record of western Europe post-1400 because I’m an American with a decent liberal arts education, but what I know about China in specific and the broader Asian context could fit in a shoe box. For baby shoes.

So that means, in order to write this story, I need to do some reading. Because I know so little about China, I’ll probably start with popularize non-fiction with strong bibliographies and work my way back to original (well, translations anyway) sources and denser history research. I’ll need to read Chinese fiction and mythology and philosophy. I’ll have to brush up on the finer points of European history to look for the credible lynchpins that make the most sense to change to posit a different world, which probably means reading some personal letters of influential people and doctrine and philosophy that was being produced at the time.

As I was making this laundry list in my head, I realized that THIS is what writers who have made it are talking about when they say writers need to read. This process, of discovery and inspiration and research. So, just to get a discussion started and for the sake of being useful, I’m going to throw some percentages out there on what writers need to be reading.

All of these numbers are bound to fluctuate by where we’re are in the process of working on a particular concept, obviously, and sometimes our background knowledge or the nature of the story means the research reading load has already been largely completed or is light to begin with, so these are just generalized averages.

  • Popular non-fiction along a broad range of categories that we’re loosely interested in. (books, magazines, blogs, trade publications, essays) – 30%
  • News/current events. (not because you shouldn’t read the news, but because you should probably be reading so much that catching up on the news doesn’t take up a vast piece of your percentage, unless current events are relevant to your subject matter) – 5%
  • In-depth scholarly reading on a subject that has sparked enough interest to merit book-writing research. (history, science, letters, historic decrees, old newspapers, philosophy, more in-depth and specific pop non-fic by reputable scholars, classic fiction/plays/poetry that will help you develop the culture/voice/what-have-you) – 50%
  • Writing about writing. – 3%
  • Fiction in genres not closely related to ours. – 7%
  • Fiction in our genre and closely related genres. – 5%

I’m only slowly coming to accept the lowness of that last number, but here’s the thing: reading other people’s fiction in my genre is more likely to inspire envy (or judginess) than ideas. Reading too much of it makes me feel incompetent, too far behind (or superior and lazy). Neither response is productive for improving my craft. And while I can swoon over a well-executed bit of SFF and learn from it’s plot/voice/structure/world-building/whatever, I almost never walk away from other fiction itching to get my ideas onto the page–that energy comes, for me, from great non-fiction and new discoveries.

But I’m only one writer, and not yet a published one at that. How does this list stack up with what you have success with in your own reading to writing life?

UPDATE 4/15: For those of you who don’t read the comments, my co-conspirator in the arcane art of writing genre fiction, Dan Bensen, responded at length, going so far as to put up an excellent blog post answering and providing resources to explore the questions posed on how China might have come to rule the world.