Are you well-read? Do you know what’s hot in your genre right now? What are fans reading more of? What are they reading less of? Whether or not you consider your book like today’s bestsellers, those titles are what your book will be competing against.
Even if you don’t buy a copy to see what they’re like, it’s a smart idea to know the state of your genre. Spend time looking through these titles at the bookstore or reading as much as possible about these titles using Amazon’s Look Inside feature and on GoodReads.
The science of keeping up
It turns out that aspiring authors aren’t the only ones struggling to come to grips with keeping up. Self-taught scientists, too, find themselves at a disadvantage when they don’t do the reading. “My clients know so little about current research in physics, they aren’t even aware they’re in a foreign country,” writes article author Sabine Hossenfelder. “They have no clue how far they are from making themselves understood. Their ideas aren’t bad; they are raw versions of ideas that underlie established research programmes. But those who seek my advice lack the mathematical background to build anything interesting on their intuitions.
“I try to help them by making connections to existing research. During our conversations, I point them towards relevant literature and name the important keywords. I give recommendations on what to do next, what they need to learn, or what problem lies in the way. And I make clear that if they want to be taken seriously by physicists, there’s no way around mathematics, lots of mathematics.”
The lesson for authors, of course, is to substitute “reading” for “mathematics” in the above equation.
Read more: Recommended craft titles for fiction authors
Reading list for authors
If you’re not writing, you should probably be reading. Here’s one take on a reading list for novelists—what fiction authors should be reading and why.
1. Read the classics. You’ve heard that there are only so many stories in the world. If storytelling is your stock in trade, you should probably know what they are.
2. Read debut authors. Find out what’s working right now. What do agents and publishers want? What do readers want? You can’t find a more obvious signpost toward what gets a book published today than a successful debut novel.
3. Read “bad” authors. What makes writing good? What makes it bad? Why is Dan Brown a bestseller despite the fact that his writing routinely gets slammed? Find out for yourself.
4. Read your genre. Is it too late for you to add your oeuvre to the teen dystopia wasteland? Are Bridget Jones wanna-bes washed up? What’s been done to death? What hasn’t?
5. Read outside your genre. Cross-pollination between commercial and literary fiction can be especially ripe with potential. What ideas and trends can you steal from other genres?
6. Read literary fiction. Even if you’re known for slingshotting readers through formulaic cyberpunk thrillers, you’ll enrich your stories and add depth by spending time away from the keyboard sinking into the rich characterizations of literary fiction.
7. Read commercial fiction. Some who wander are indeed lost. Read the bestsellers and learn how to drive the story relentlessly home.
8. Read a good series and a bad series. Find out how to successfully sustain an overarching story over multiple books. Find out what happens when you don’t.
9. Read the thing that everyone hates. Find out why everyone keeps reading it anyway.
10. Read different takes on your own ideas. Find out how other authors have twisted the threads and pulled them together in ways you might not have chosen.
This article was significantly updated Dec. 29, 2017
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