2020 was a banner year for my reading habit. At least it was good for something, right? I read/listened to 152 books this past year, a new record for me. If you’re a voracious reader and you don’t keep track of the books you read, I highly recommend you start. It’s gratifying to look back and see what you’ve accomplished. And, if you’re like me, it helps jog the memory — What was the name of that book? Who was the author? What did I like about it?
I began keeping a written record of my reading four years ago because my local library sponsored a reading contest. Since then, I’ve continued each year. This year, I moved my reading log online to a Google sheets document. Many people use Goodreads to track their reading. Another fantastic method. I’m trying to add my books there as I go, but sometimes I forget. This way, I can always add them later.
Whatever your chosen method, the reading log brings back many wonderful memories from the stories you read in a given year. Here are some of the ones I read that helped me develop an aspect of my own writing. Some could have fit in more than one category, and I left off many other excellent examples.
As a writer developing my craft, I try to make double-duty of all my time spent reading. Not only do I read for pleasure, I read to study. I try – not always successfully, mind you – to pay attention to the words and turns of phrase, verbs, and punctuation as I read (the downside of audio is not seeing HOW the words are placed on the page). I have a journal of interesting word-related finds. I also track structure, characterization, and hints, clues, and foreshadowing regarding plot development. Anyway, here are my picks.
Plot and Pacing
Susan May Warren’s Global Search and Rescue series. Like many of Susie’s books, this series starts with a spark and builds to a forest fire. Filled with disasters, both natural and man-made, these stories demonstrate the art of catching a reader up in a non stop adrenaline-rush of plot and relationship. When the story slows, it is only long enough to gear up for the next big thing. Only long enough to gasp for breath before the next plunge.
Her writing explodes with well-researched, authoritative writing. No shoddy research here. The characters are true and the events plausible. Check them out for quick hints on how to make your own writing pop with authenticity and move, move, move. Readers won’t be able to put the book on the nightstand until they read, “The End!”
Worldbuilding – fantasy
Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series. Talk about a different world – this series is distinctive. The immensity of the world dominated by a storm and the power within it is incredible. The way Sanderson weaves in tiny details that give readers insights as to the motivations of characters and the complexity of plot is like studying under a master. The lore, backstories, the intense rivalries, all work together to elevate this series into a creative masterpiece.
Taking time (and it will take lots of that) to read and study these is definitely worthwhile for anyone interested in building a fantasy world.
Weaving in Backstory, Myth, and Culture
This is related to worldbuilding, but a more specific aspect of that category. A friend recommended A Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala to help me with this particular problem. Chapters 1 and 2 introduce us to the hero and heroine, but little else happens. These are dialog and thought driven chapters that are not at all boring. They weave the backstory seamlessly into snatches of thought and conversation. Much of the action throughout involves a cat and mouse trek through the land, but we discover much about the beliefs and hopes of the people. We see a network of lies and oppression, as well as the flame of hope still alive despite the dire future that seems inevitable.
Studying this understated method of plot beginnings proved useful to my own writing in which myth and backstory play a major role. You may find it useful, too, or at least entertaining.
Susan May Warren’s (all her books-she’s the queen of character) Montana Marshalls series. The largest benefit for me in reading this series was in learning how to tie multiple series together through various cameo appearances of characters from the other stories. The overall plot is enormous and the planning is amazing. I was impressed and inspired.
Brandon Sanderson again with Edgedancer (among others). A novella piece of the Stormlight Archive, Edgedancer is a delight. Humorous and sharp, it brings out how the uniqueness of a character endears them to the reader. Also, being true to the character is vital. Lift makes decisions no other character would make in her situation. She is delightful, yet wholly herself. When we encounter her, we cannot help but be drawn in. I want my characters to be as memorable and truly-drawn as Lift. I want my readers to think about them long after they finish reading the story. Maybe even as a friend.
There are other categories of craft that I study, but I’ll leave those for another post. Thank you for reading. My hope is that you have gotten something useful out of this or, at the very least, found some new reads. As always, the best way for you to support my writing is to sign up for my newsletter. Then next one comes out in March, just in time for the Eileccean holiday of Dragon Day.