Don’t write for the market, write for the heart

I recently read several writing articles that had tried and tested advice from those writers who have been fortunate to make a living on their craft. You’ve probably heard it too:

Write for the market. Figure out what readers want and give it to them. Somewhere in that, write what you enjoy. Learn to cut, change, alter, all based on what sells best.

This advice is, to me anyway, just plain dumb. Not because it’s practical, but because it defeats the whole point of what writing is about.

Telling writers they should conform based on what they think will sell is like telling people they should adopt a diet of canned beans. “Every nutrient and vital substance is here in this can. You can now cut out all the garbage and eat only what you need.”

Readers have shrinking attention spans today, this might be true. But if writers only write for what readers expect, and what they expect readers will expect, then what a sad death to creative diversity.

Write from the heart. I don’t think you can ever go wrong with this.

Even if you suck at writing, writing from the heart will keep you coming back to the keyboard. It will keep you thinking, “How can I get better at this?”

Even if your book(s) flop(s), well, you keep coming back, because the heart never runs out of energy. It never runs out of ideas.

Even if you have to scramble and go in debt and your life is a mess, you’ll always know you’re living for your deepest passion. You’ll do whatever it takes to give the time you need to write and improve. You’ll have the drive to lose sleep now and again, knowing that sacrificed dream time went into actually bringing dreams to life.

Wouldn’t it be nice to make a living off book sales. When the winners write history, they’ll give you all sorts of tips, but those tips ignore the “losers” who are writing their own history, possibly a history of tomorrow. In my mind, we are the winners, and our day is coming, which is why I’m so passionate about writing to be true to you, to your vision, to your passion.

There are so many kinds of fiction being written that change the life, even if in small ways, of readers here or there. These are the largest piece of the pie. The writing that has a sticker attached to it is only the tip of the iceberg. The mass market bestsellers capture many and many and many, but so has the obscure, almost forgotten fantasy book that happened to be on a hospital bookshelf and captured the heart of someone terminally ill who found comfort in it in their last days.

The problem with a diet of canned beans is you fart a lot. The same is true if every writer pushed themselves to write only for market and get to the top. The farts in this case are figurative.

I say don’t waste your time chasing markets. Invest your time chasing your unique vision and passion. Self-publish. Screw the traditional model, unless it fits in somewhere. Self-publish because there’s no censor on your vision and your voice.

Being self-published doesn’t mean being shitty, like the stereotype goes. It doesn’t mean being hasty and popping out a half-cooked muffin. Take your time and hack the process. Hire good editors and beat the shit out of your manuscripts, however necessary, to get something that’s been well-discerned and honed. Forgive yourself if it still flops because not every pancake turns out perfect. Make a whole batch, because tastes differ, and the pancakes get better the more you get used to the griddle and its nuances. And remember: a flop isn’t necessarily a flop. 30 copies sold are still 30 people who might be changed, in some way you might never imagine.

The griddle isn’t just the act of writing a draft in isolation. It’s the cogs of publishing: editing, revising, formatting, designing, publishing, marketing, getting read and listening to readers. You don’t need a big company to do it for you. I run an editing company and have several amazing editors who help self-publishing authors (http://www.storyperfectediting.com).

It costs money, true, but you’re better to spend money getting your work out to readers so you can start mastering those pancakes than you are in isolation with no sense of who will read your work and what it will take to be ready. Writing draft after draft in isolation is like mixing the ingredients for a batch: mix all you want, but the batter is still raw.

Write, publish, repeat. You’ve probably heard this advice before because it’s the title of a popular writing book. It’s catchy for a reason: suddenly you kick your ass out of the expectation that you have to write one perfect book and break in, and instead realize that actually, this is like scratching through a steel wall. Instead of scratching, go around the wall and start searching for drain pipes. There is a way in and it doesn’t have to lead to bloody keyboards.

When I dream of the fiction of tomorrow, it’s a fiction that is so far outside any box you can’t even place it anymore. No more cookie cutters, except when referring back to the history of how fiction evolved, those “turbulent times in the 21st century when the novel went through various limiting expressions, stemming from postmodern movements in the 20th century, before finally becoming so tangled and branched that categories no longer make sense, as is the case today.”

In the context of this dream, I don’t aim to be anything other than a writer who chases wild visions, whose voice will be sharp and alive, honed and strong. And I will be an author, because I’ll go through the process of write, publish, repeat, every time. I will have readers, even if the party room with my name on it is small and I have to find other ways to pay the bills.

Wouldn’t it be great to make a living off writing. But meantime, it’s great to live for writing, with no other ambition than to keep telling stories, and never stop.

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Why bother reading?

If you’re reading this, then I’ll ask you right now:

Why?

Why bother reading at all? Why are you taking time out of your day to open this up and read these words by some guy?

If you’re still reading, I’m honoured. You must have a reason you kept going.

I’ll try not to disappoint you.

See, I don’t know what to blog about when I’m not allowed to blog about writing. I like this challenge.

Reading is close to my heart. I can’t read enough. I’m convinced if everyone read for 4 or more hours a day, the world would be 10 times better.

It doesn’t matter what you read. If you’re on a high horse about a perfect program, that’s pretentious.

When I read, it’s to become less ignorant. I used to read to get more smart. What arrogance (in hindsight, it’s innocent naivety, but if I had a time machine, I’d go back and give my smart-ass past self a slap).

I think the greatest value I’ve found in reading has been reading things I already know. Correction: things I think I knew, but really, on setting away my pride and actually just opening my mind to be refreshed, I realize actually, I didn’t know like I thought! Ah, those are the best.

What’s a tam? Oh, it’s a round hat, or something to do with hardware. *stops and consults dictionary* Ah! A tam-o’-shanter, named after a Robert Burns hero in a poem of the same name.

That might make you roll your eyes, but to me, who never knew that before, it blew my mind.

I’d like to think that I’m not the only person like this. I’d like to think that we’re all ignorant in different ways. I’d like to think there are two kinds of reading: reading where you’re the co-pilot, and reading where you’re the pilot.

I believe reading as the pilot is bad. This is where you go wherever you want. You read what interests you. You filter out what doesn’t interest you. You skim or skip things you think you already know (but actually don’t, but you’ll never know that because you won’t steer your plane that way to discover it).

I believe reading as the co-pilot is the way for us all to share our tribe energy, as a human collective. That sounds nuts I’m sure (remember: I’m not allowed to spend long on these posts, nor to revise, so you’re getting raw John in his pyjamas again). However, compared to some of the rants on fake news feeds or other discussion forums, I’d like to think I’m completely sane.

Reading as the copilot is this:

Your eyes are open and you are taking in everything. It’s a meditation. The object of focus is whatever words are in front of your eyes. When you catch your mind wandering (ie skimming or getting bored), notice that and begin again. Return to what you’re reading, and process it. Change from the inside out. Trust the pilot, that she knows what she’s doing, and you’re taking everything in to ensure the trip is sound.

Maybe that’s a bad metaphor, but, well, I’m in my pyjamas, so forgive me.

There is so much about the world we don’t know. The worst is what we assume we know, but actually don’t know correctly. The enemy is ourselves, that impatient urge to grab the steering wheel. The need for control, and so we read, and we read into corners and become opinions rather than beacons of truth that percolate light for others.

We live in the age of fake news, fake information, thirdhand and fourth-hand sources, and worse. I think there is a way out, and it starts with the individual, specifically, the one who says “I don’t know what I don’t know” and from that place, begins anew; and with that wisdom, begins to read, begins to change.

And we can change those around us, with this, in small ways. I truly believe in the power of books and scholarship and collective wisdom, of combing the sources rather than dangling in the branches of skewed discussion forums and hurried articles with agendas. If you’re still reading, then you’re sharing some of my light, and I hope it will compel you, as I was compelled, and if not, then on you go. Maybe I’m wrong. After all, I’m just some guy writing a blog post.

But maybe I’m right, in which case some day there might be some value to this. I certainly can say every story I tell, everything I do as a writer, is infused with this belief, this insight that’s been growing in me some time now. This post will be buried and forgotten, but it’s only a small glimpse, because there will be more (but you’ll have to pay money for that).

“What do I read?” you might ask. It’s not so much what you read, but what attitude you bring with you when you read. It’s not enough to think you know nothing. That’s just a part-step. Going all the way means you admit that you don’t even know if you know nothing, or if what you know is true or part-true. With a mind like this, you become a child at heart, and inside: curious, without limit.

There’s no end to what you can be when you reclaim this. And when you read, you gain power, so much power: because everything you read can make you better, make you more empathic, more compassionate, more understanding, more angry at the hate in this world that should all end, more aware of history and how the world we live in today has been becoming what it is, and continues to be so. You learn, like being a student all your life. You don’t become hardened in your heart and resentful, because you also see hope, and if not that, then at least the reason for it. With that hope, even if you die and still the world is a bad place, you die at least yearning for it to be better.

And that’s all I have time for today. It’s time to read this week’s newspaper. Time to change a little more, and repeat tomorrow.

Until next time,

Happy reading.

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Holding an actual book

I will make two promises on this new approach to blogging:

-I will not talk about religion

-I especially will not talk about politics

But I will occasionally lapse into musings, or some of the things that keep me up at night. This is my blog and the place to pick my brain, after all.

Here’s one:

The value of holding a physical book in your hand.

This has a lot more meaning than might be obvious.

No, it’s not just about the psychology of how reading a book in print invokes different kinds of memory and experience (ie tactile). For me, it’s about what the gesture represents, more than anything else.

I’m typing this post up on my phone. Before this, I was reading my way through a print book (The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith). When I read a book, I by far prefer to read something physical.

It goes a step further. When I take notes, I write them on a cue card with a pen. When I look up words, I collect them by writing out the definition in a small-page binder. I do this for all notes, even when I’m reading through Wikipedia.

I’ve tried typing things up at my computer, but it’s not the same. It’s like reading at my computer: a different experience.

A few weeks ago on the BBC Global Podcast, which I listen to when driving, I heard an interview with experts discussing consciousness. The leading argument in question: panpsychism.

This is the idea that your chair is conscious. This blog post you’re reading right now is also conscious. In reading it, you are communing with it in your own way, like having coffee with a friend, except in a language of exchange much deeper than that.

If I wrote this blog post out by hand, it would have a different consciousness, the same way as J.R.R. Tolkien would be the same essential person if born as a woman instead of a man (but be completely different and unique).

What is consciousness? Such a deep question that keeps me up and often keeps me pondering.

So the book I’m reading, it’s just a book, printed by a printer, the words set in place by an author, tailored by collaboration. The ink came from a machine, spattered on the page by fine motor control and precision. That ink itself came perhaps from a chemical factory, or maybe even (at least in part) from the ocean itself as in the old days. The paper came from trees, and those trees grew in the forest, took in water, spread their roots. So many things come together to make that book. All these things, perhaps, may be the life and soul of its consciousness, if this new possible theory to explain consciousness turns out to be true.

Imagine that. Your day is a conversation with things in a language you don’t even know you speak. You are surrounded by life in manner beyond your comprehension.

Is it any wonder why a simple thing like taking a deep breath, closing your eyes and focusing on it, can be a life and world unto itself?

Oh the possibilities!

I still don’t have an answer for why reading a physical book translates to be something different than digital. Maybe I’m old fashioned. Or maybe I’m too attached to a dying trend. Or maybe . . . it’s not so much attachment as it is listening, listening to this older way that lives and breathes in the printed, tangible thing, a way that refuses to die, a way that asks us to remember, in our deepest hearts.

Here’s to the book, the printed book. Here’s to it being the last furniture remaining in our completely digital homes of the future. Here’s to a pillar to remind us always of what we are, like trees in the forest, bigger and older than us, in which we are immersed.

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Reclaiming my blog

It’s 12:10pm. Here I am, writing a blog post, in my pyjamas.

Exactly how it should be.

No plans, I won’t even read this for typos (okay, maybe once, or…twice). It’s been a few weeks since I wrote my last blog post and the reason I haven’t written one is because I kept thinking about what to write, which led me in circles.

I realize I need to reclaim my blog.

Have you ever done something you thought was right, only to later realize it was glaringly wrong, and feel deeply embarrassed afterward? That’s how I feel about this blog.

First off, I’m no expert on writing. Let me absolve myself of that. You’ll find if you dig through my feed, an awful lot of posts on how to write. Let me be clear:

I don’t know a damn thing about how to write. I’m making it all up as I go. I try to fuck up a little bit less each time, and that’s progress. I try to learn and I love to describe what I’m learning, but I also know some people like masturbating in the corner and that’s not good manners (especially at a writing convention). So for that, I apologize.

I also am not smart, or wise, or any other kind of hybrid guru with expensive snake oil. I read a lot not to get smarter, but because I’m dumb and I hope I’ll become less dumb (it’s working). There’s really nothing to brag about here, just another writer showing his notes. So if you’re a new reader and you’re scrolling through my feed, you’ll see traces of my Wikipedia geek-a-thon, as well as my orthorexic Ultimate Reading Curriculum post. I still do that, and it works for me, and I like it, but really, opinions are assholes, and I have learned my manners now.

I don’t know what I’ll be blogging about, but I know one thing: future posts will be written like this, off the hop, ideally in my pyjamas before the night’s wind down reading (tonight it’s the November issue of National Geographic).

One of my editing clients once told me in another life I must have been a comedian. So maybe I’ll try to connect with that. George Carlin is my all time idol, though I’ll rein in the f-words if I try to find my voice in that direction (you have to buy my book for those). I can already feel a rant or two (but let’s save those for another night).

It’s 12:23 and that’s longer than I should be spending on a blog post. This really is like an email to a good friend. The microphone is up and I can’t edit what I say, so here it is. I’ll save all the editing for the books or courses you can pay money to read. There certainly is enough of it.

Goodnight all, and welcome to my blog with more cobwebs cleared away.

Now, time to get less dumb.

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Welcome to 2019! A new year, a new take on blogging

It’s a new year, and with that comes new opportunities. To start, I’m going to change how I blog.

Over the holidays, I was inspired by fellow fantasy author Bruce Blake. (Check out his blog here.) I’ve been following Bruce’s posts for several years. Like me, he’s a laid back Canadian who mostly wrote about fantasy or writing.

Bruce has done some amazing work. Be sure to check out his books if you wander over. When I go to his Amazon author page, I get inspired. This guy tells some great dark fantasy. Blood of the King (the first in the Khirro’s Journey series) is a tale of hope amidst darkness and corruption. It’s even got a Necromancer. This one’s on my to-read list.

But it’s Bruce’s new spin on blogging that caught my attention. More specifically, it was this declaration he made:

“Fuck writing.”

That’s right. Fuck writing, I couldn’t agree more.

By that I don’t mean fuck writing, and neither did Bruce. (Read the full post here.) The writing happens, and it’s beautiful. The thing to fuck in this case is all the pretentious “how to write better” and “how I write” stuff that’s cluttering the blog feeds like deadwood.

But I want to take this fuck a level higher. Fuck social media and humble bragging about word counts and what your MC just got up to in your WIP. Fuck writing about how you wrote your book as though you’re in a Writer’s Digest interview (unless you actually are). Fuck telling people why they should care about your book. Let the book do that work instead.

All these things flashed through my head the night I read Bruce’s post, but they’ve since festered. I nearly quit writing several times in the last few years. All occasions were related to being exposed to the “buy my book” buzz. Dread that hung on for days at a time, striking often monthly, that sense of comparison to other writers and thinking who am I kidding? It still goes on, but I’ve found better anesthetics, at least enough to keep me moving forward.

And the whole time, I went on blogging as though this struggle were secondary, as though I have to perform here with as much flare as what I try to do in the writing (and rewriting (and rewriting (and..))) of my stories.

Thank you, Bruce, for giving me a new perspective, one that’s helped me enter 2019 with a new spirit in this thing called blogging.

Here were my plans for 2019 on this blog:

-write a blog-based course on how the editing process works for writers

-write about the history of the epic fantasy genre

-write about how I make maps

Let’s play Abraham and Isaac for a minute.

All of the above is pretentious, and might not make it through the fuck writing filter. Who am I to tell you how editing works? Who am I other than some Wikipedia and Google hack to tell you the story of how the epic fantasy genre evolved? Who am I to tell you how to draw a map?

Now, hold back the dagger for a moment.

I can say a lot about how editing works. I started out as an apprentice editor in 2012 for a small press, then ventured into full-time freelance editing in 2014 when I started my own company. In 2016, we incorporated and presently our team numbers over 12 (almost 20 if we count everyone who lends a hand once in a while). I’ve seen hundreds of manuscripts go from finished draft to fully edited publication. I didn’t just see this, I directed it, using what I learned when I got started. I’ve been every kind of editor, from draft coach, to writing mentor, to developmental editor, to copyeditor, to proofreader. I’ve been a ghostwriter on 2 memoirs. I put all these hats on myself before learning how to train others to wear them under my direction. I learned what I did by reading books and articles on writing craft and the publishing business. This has carried me even further, driven by a passion for how the publishing process works and how to provide the best possible services for self-publishing authors (as well as for our newer startup publishing divisions). I’ve done the copywriting for nearly 100 publications. I’ve overseen cover art production and marketing plans for more than 70 titles. I’ve even been acquisitions editor and know the submission process as one who has been on both sides of the fence.

So, I could write about the steps involved in editing, though it would only be from my perspective. It would not be about writing, but about what I’ve learned, in the spirit of being helpful.

Item #2 gets the dagger, though. I write epic fantasy because I love it, because though I am 36 years old, there’s a part of me who still is that 8-year-old staring at the map to Wilderland, a boy who hated reading but was willing to learn how to do it just so he could see what kind of story went with that map. A boy who has never looked back (and is gradually getting better at reading as a result). So, there’s no reason to write about the history of the fantasy epic. I’m busy reading and learning about it, and writing my own epic to add to the body of work. My energy needs to go there. If I live to 100, I’ll still be that 8-year-old boy, intrigued by this world that feels ever-beginning, the prose that forever evolves like a fractal, the wonder that lurks between the lines.

Without even getting to it yet, I’ve already redeemed item #3. Drawing maps! Imagine this in my best Bilbo Baggins voice: “Oh, how I do love maps!” Yes! I could write endlessly on that.

But the fuck writing filter has helped me strain something important away: how to draw a fantasy map is quite a bit different from the kind of show-and-tell this is turning into. I will write that series of posts on how the steps of editing work, and I will write about the evolution of the map appearing at the front of A Thousand Roads next month (a 20+ year personal story), but in all of this I will be about sharing candidly about what I learned, and trying to be helpful.

Which brings me back to Bruce. Beyond his powerful declaration, is the candid style of being humble and honest. And real. So real your sentences don’t read like they were finely tweaked and perfected to attract a certain market, or appeal to a certain reader.

If you’re still reading this, then it’s because you’ve chosen to follow this blog, or you visited and wanted to check out who this John Robin guy is. But you’re reading it because you want to know more about me, and it’s pretentious to assume otherwise.

So, going into 2019, you can expect more informal posts like this. My fantasy novel is coming out in print next month! I’m excited! But you’ll get that between the lines of my posts. I’m going to assume that if you’re interested enough to read my thoughts here, then you’ll decide on your own if you want to check out my book. This is the age of Google at our fingertips, after all.

I’ll be posting all about things that are actually interesting (I hope), not things I hope you’ll find interesting. I’m following my heart with blogging, just like as a writer I’m following my heart slaving away on tome-length epic fantasy (when that is the worst career choice any sane writer could make).

There’s something fun about this, and I think for the first time since I started blogging back in 2014, I’m actually getting what blogging is supposed to be.

My name is John and I’m a writer, but you know that already, so stay tuned for more more about me, the kind of stories you won’t get anywhere but here.

(Pardon any typos. I blame the cat who is right now curled at my feet, his second choice after losing the cuddle war for the keyboard.)

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A Thousand Roads is out!

This is my official book release blog post!

That’s right, after 6 years of work and 7 drafts, A Thousand Roads is now available for readers. You can find it on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble. Please go buy a copy and help me spread the word:

               

A Thousand Roads is the story of a boy who grows up under the sway of a mysterious blood magic. Necromancy and rites of darkness should be terrifying, but to him, they are the call of destiny. Intrigued by tales of the Dwarf Men and the Dragons who made the world, he is determined to learn about his power and its secrets, while somehow leading a life free of the corruption and intrigue tangled about him like a spider’s web…

Please reblog this and help me reach other fantasy readers, or share on Twitter.

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How I read as a writer — an easy-to-follow template

If you’re a writer, then most likely you’ll want to develop a reading curriculum. “Read a lot” is good advice, but what exactly should we be reading?

Here’s a break-down of the curriculum I’ve developed (and keep developing). My method is highly nuanced to my goals and how I learn, but I’ve tried to distill this for the sake of sharing how I work — knowing that all you writers in the crowd might get a few ideas and use them in your own practice.

Overview of it all

My reading discipline consists of the following main areas:

  1. Novels (fiction or nonfiction)
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Articles
  4. Annex

I will go into detail on each. I leave a review on all the novels I finish on my Goodreads page, but for the sake of demonstrating the larger principle behind how I choose what I read, I’ll still cover novels here.

1. Novels (fiction of nonfiction)

It makes sense if you’re writing novels that you should read a lot of novels. I devote 1/4 of my total reading time to reading 1 novel at a time. This comes to about 6-8 hours / week.

A quick word on method

It’s important to me to read slowly and analytically. This means I read about 10-20 pages / hour and, depending on the length of the book, take about 3-4 weeks to finish (longer if it’s an enormous book).

It’s worth stopping here just for a moment to talk about this: quality, not quantity. I’m much less interested in how many books I’ve read this year than how deeply each of these books has impacted me. 52 books read in 2018 means nothing if I haven’t taken away from each book dozens, if not hundreds, of unique impacts from interacting analytically with the text; if each book has not changed me radically as a writer and a human being.

There’s no rush! When I read, I imagine I am Bilbo Baggins and that means I have 100 more years at least to read, and oh what an adventure I’m going to have each year, with whatever is in front of me (and what stories each is going to inspire me to explore deeper in my work as a writer).

How to build your novel-reading list:

It’s easy to find a novel to read and I find my pile grows by zeitgeist, but I’ve also developed some structure to keep me from getting blinkered.

The following table is the template I follow when I decide on the order of my to-read pile:(I have this table laid out in an Excel file, but you can easily do this with a ruler and paper, or using Trello lists.)

How to proceed with reading novels by this table:

The process is simple:  proceed from left-to-right, top to bottom. So on this table, for instance, you’d start with a book in the writing/editing category (more about that below), then when you complete it, move to “classic” (i.e. Oliver TwistWuthering Heights, etc.), then educational, etc.

I put the date next to each row so I know what span of time elapsed. For example, on the first row of my table, I have the date range June 2017 – June 2018 because that’s how long it took me to get across (Pat Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and the dense, but wonderfully rich Guns, Germs, and Steel were the culprits for the slower pace here).

One of these sheets can represent years of your life. When you fill it up, print/make another, and away you go. You can fold it up and keep it near you and appreciate the broad vista of your reading journey in miniature.

What each column means

Now, this table is somewhat customized to my particular reading recipe. For example, I am a fantasy writer, in my heart of hearts, so it makes sense one of the 8 columns is “fantasy”. For you, replace that column with the name of your genre, i.e. thriller writer? Then this column would be thriller.

But otherwise this table has evolved through the process of surveying the major divisions into which fiction and nonfiction novels can fall, the idea being if you read books across a row, you’ll hit one of the 8 main categories, and will stay quite balanced as a writer.

I’ll talk about each briefly:

1. Writing/editing

If you’re a writer, then learning more about your craft is crucial. It’s the same as a teacher having to attend PD days. There are numerous books on writing and editing and you can put them down in this column so you have a sense of which to dip into on your next pass. I have the Chicago Manual of Style on here and yes, I will read it front to back as a book, and I’m sure it’s going to increase my edge as a writer that much more.

Other books on here for me: Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. Your list will differ from mine, but the idea here is the ones at the top should be the ones that you are most excited to jump into (and you can make amendments as time passes if your eagerness evolves), with the help of whiteout.

2. Classic

I set classics as their own category because in my mind a good balance for any writer is to dip into the books which are the foundation of the fiction-verse we are building today in the 21st century. Awareness of the novel and how it’s evolved since the 1700s is a very important perspective!

On this column’s top rows for me are Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (currently reading, 1 day from finishing), Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. These might change. The Iliad and The Odyssey are kicking at the door, though, as you’ll see below, this is what the annex is for, so they may get read in that other quarter of my reading routine.

3. Educational

You might notice a pattern in this list: it always alternates columns between fiction and nonfiction. I think this is very important for a writer because nonfiction styles and material will further lateralize your thinking and worldview and awareness of just what it means to be a writer.

Educational nonfiction is a category equally important, in the sense that it’s focused on learning more about the world. Textbooks can go here, as can any educational nonfiction. For example Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is in this category because it served as a paradigm-shifting text that redefined my understanding of human history and diversity, especially the geographic and evolutionary impacts on how societies form. Can anyone say gold for a fantasy writer world-builder any stronger than that? (My thanks to L.E. Modesitt Jr. for recommending this to writers on this episode of Writing Excuses.)

Also on this list, Life In A Medieval Castle by Joseph and Frances Gies. I read Life In A Medieval City by the same authors, 2 years ago, and this is the companion. Up next for me after I finish Frankenstein will be Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hirari (as it’s the next column in my sheet). At some point, there will be a math textbook here, and a large atlas by National Geographic, special edition, that I’ve had on my shelf since I was 9.

For you, put whatever nonfiction book on here you feel will expand your education about the world and how things work.

4. Genre

If you write a genre of fiction, then this category can be thought of as the generalization. For for me, fantasy books do not go in here. They get their own column! But here will go all the books in genre fiction that cover other genres.

I impose a few rules here to help me further explore the waters:

-every row must switch genre

-an author only repeats after 4 rows

This creates the following beautiful effect:

  • Over time, I will explore different genres
  • Over time, I will explore different voices in different genres

I even go so far as to try an alternate gender, i.e. prioritize a book by a female author if I’ve read one by a male previously. Diversity is the goal here.

For example, I read The Shining by Stephen King, and as much as I want to read more by this author, I’ve pushed the next read down a few rows deliberately. Unless there’s some kind of Bradbury-esque burning of books, King’s books aren’t going anywhere. So why not dive into another after I’ve not only read books in other genres, by other authors, but also by authors of a different gender. For this reason, J.K. Rowling’s Silkworm, under her Robert Galbraith pen name is next up in genre: it’s not only a different gender author, but a different genre too (mystery).

5. Improvement

This nonfiction column is focused on books that improve me. You might have a different goal, but I’m of a mind that this category is universal. Why not devote 1/8th of your novel-reading time on books that teach you how to be a better person.

This doesn’t just have to be self-help. It can also be books on author marketing or marketing in general, or if you’re like me and you run a business, books on how to be more productive and effective. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey is on here, as is Influence by Robert B. Cialdini (next up on my current pass across this row).

6. Nongenre

Fiction is vast, so vast that sticking to genre fiction is going to cut you off from most of the the known fictionverse. I think it’s important to have a column just for genre, if you’re a genre fiction writer, so that when you get to this fiction column, you can focus on other great literary works.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is a good example of a book that would fit here (and which I finished on my last pass). I also try to follow my alternating gender rule, so the next on my list is Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, despite how much I want to read Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins (I’ll get to that on the next pass).

7. Old/foundation

This column might be thought of as nonfiction and “meta”-fictional. By this I mean it’s devoted to old works. Think: Virgil’s Aeneid, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or The Epic of Gilgamesh. Sacred texts would go here too. I plan to read through The Quran and The Vedas, as well as other key texts to the world’s major religions.

I think of this category as the one that connects you deeply to the roots of our world’s cultures, the words that all we know in our daily life are built on. As a writer, nothing can interest me more as I search for the truest, most heartfelt stories to tell.

8. Fantasy

Need I say more? Aside from what I already mentioned above, this should be home base for you. 1/8th of your novel-reading discipline is focused on knowing more about your genre. I have made a list of all the major fantasy authors, and that includes older fantasy works as well. The gender-alternation rule applies as well.

2. Wikipedia

I could say a lot about reading Wikipedia as a writer. In fact, I already did, for those who haven’t read my post on how to read Wikipedia to become a better writer.

I will briefly summarize that post here, in brief, but please be sure to read that article on my Wikipedia reading method to get more background on what I’m doing here.

Reading for breadth: a caveat

I mention a caveat in that post that’s worth repeating here: Wikipedia is not sufficient to make you an expert on any topic you’re reading about. I like to think of it as reading for breadth, to complement reading for depth (which you get from the other 3 components of the overall reading curriculum).

Many writers / teachers object that Wikipedia is unreliable. This is true, in some respects. I like to think instead that it’s inconsistent. There is a degree of accountability on article accuracy and some topics have been internally challenged more than others. The general rule of thumb is, if reciting a fact you can trace back to something you read in a Wikipedia article, you better cross reference it before you place any stakes on it.

For a writer though, this whole caveat goes out the window:

The sole purpose of reading your way across the topic-verse that is Wikipedia is to get inspired, break outside of biases and limitations, and do so in a faster way. This is reading for breadth, and by that I mean roving the map to get a sense of all its contours; to complement reading for depth, where you deep-sea dive into the coves that interest you most (books, articles, artifacts).

My general rule is that my mind must get blown 10-20 times every weekday when I do my Wikipedia reading from the various nuggets of information that change how I think. That’s the quality vs. quantity part: if your aim is to learn literally everything and be smarter, you’re guaranteed to fail. When I began this endeavor, it wasn’t to get more smart, it was to get less dumb. In this regard, you can view this as a process that will only help more and more to further inform you, and this will translate into the fiction you write in thousands of interconnected ways, more and more each day / week / year you invest in the practice.

My main Wikipedia tracks

I talk about creating reading tracks for Wikipedia reading in my longer article on the process. Here are the 7 tracks I use:

  • Biographic
  • Major topic
  • Minor topics
  • Linguistic
  • Geographic
  • Chronological
  • Literary

I read Wikipedia for 50-75 minutes, Monday-Friday, and during this period I will cycle through all 7 of these, spending about 7-15 minutes on each (the time always depends on where specifically I’m at in any given article).

1. Biographic

Currently, I’m reading my way through the English monarchs. I began with William I and just today arrived at Elizabeth II (this took me about a year).

A quick note: when I say “read” I mean I read each article top to bottom, no skimming. I do follow linked articles, with the rule that, unless very short, I read only the summary to get a sense of the topic. No following links within those linked articles — that leads to hell.

The English monarchy was my starter lineage. You might wonder why I didn’t start with Alfred the Great, and that’s a great way to make an important point: there is no beginning but what you make it, since you’ll be able to double back to earlier lines each time you finish one.

For instance, when I’m done with the English monarchy, I plan to sweep back to Julius Caesar then read my way forward along a much longer arc, by way of the Roman Emperors. I will continue forward in time and follow various branches, such as Popes, Western and Eastern Emperors, French Monarchs, Spanish Monarchs, and so on. The rulers of Wessex may factor into this (probably when I read up on the lines for the 7 kingdoms that merged into England), in which case I will reconnect to that partial thread that evolved into the English monarchy.

I’ll update this page periodically as more of that picture unfolds.

2. Major topic

My major topic is math, so this is where my reading might not interest you. If you want to follow the same principle, pick your major topic and work sequentially over its main branching articles. Read my Wikipedia article for more explanation on the method.

You might wonder why as a fantasy writer I’ve chosen mathematics as my focus (why not epic fantasy?). I think this is a good demonstration that one can write fantasy and bring in diverse interests, so as to make that fantasy even more unique. It’s no wonder that my magic system, and the world-building at its core, is highly based on a mathematically-endowed beings (the Dwarf Men), though I promise readers of my books, this will remain background except for those who want to delve into my world-building appendices.

3. Minor topics

You can think of this as the larger parent tree from which the particular major topic you choose branches. What I’ve done is make a list of all the topics I can think of. There are about 40 on this list right now. Here are some of them, so you get the idea:

My main objective is to read my way through the main articles for each topic, i.e. cosmology, psychology, science, medicine, computer science, economics, law, business, etc. Then occasionally, double back on a topic I found interesting and read the main branching topic articles in it. For example, philosophy. I want to go back and read through the articles on the major divisions within this topic (i.e. knowledge, western philosophy, Islamic philosophy, etc). When finished, I’ll resume working my way through the main topic list.

The list will grow a bit as time goes on, each time I think of another vast topic that’s worth exploring. This way each time I finish one article, I have plenty to choose from.

4. Linguistic

My original reason for wanting to add a linguistic track to my Wikipedia reading was to gain a broader appreciation for the different languages in the world and how they work, the idea being that this will further inform how I use my own language, English, when I write stories. (It also helps me make more realistic languages in my fantasy world.)

So, I started at the top, reading the article on language. After reading it through, I decided I would maintain a meta-focus for a while before going into a survey of the main language branches, then starting to read more about some of the 6,000 languages of our world.

Of course I’ll never get anywhere close to reading about all of them, but the point of this process is to always give me a sense of “where to next?” that will drive me forward like the narrative of a story.

5. Geographic

Just like with language, I started meta on this one by making my parent article the list of sovereign states. As with language, it will take a while before I begin reading about the individual nations/states/regions of the world, but this time in the dugout is important to appreciate just what “nation” means, and how this concept has formed (and is forming) in our world today.

I’ll update this as I go, but for now it’s safe to expect once I finish the main branches of the parent article, I will focus on the commonwealth states, then the original 51 states of the UN.

Should I wish, as I proceed, I can read about the divisions of states, or former states no longer in existence, by way of doubling back. But the overall logic behind this track is I can always be reading about the world from a geographic lens.

6. Chronological

Reading with a chronological lens is also useful because it allows me to follow stories not tied to a region / individual. For example, I can read about the Middle Ages, ancient history, World War II, or the major battles of the War of the Roses. It also broadens my perspective a lot to avoid the tunnel vision I’d get by sticking to history through dynasties  (i.e. English monarchy tells me a lot, but what was happening in Japan? China? Southeast Asia? America?).

As with the previous two list-based tracks, I started at the top with the timeline of world history article. From here, it lets me read through all the major divisions and sub-divisions of historic events.

7. Literary

There are more than 100,000,000 books in existence (according to Google). I’ll be lucky if in my lifetime I can read 2,000. But meanwhile, I want to have a bit of a survey of the major books and read summaries of a wider vista, so I created this track.

Start here:

This one is not as easy to navigate, so I’m following my nose a little. You can use this as your guide (just be sure to refresh the page as every time I finish an article, I’ll be adding it to the tree). If you prefer not to, then the general principle is to start with the parent article (i.e. fiction or nonfiction) then read the main topics branching from it.

For example, within the narrative article I’m reading, the first paragraphs are a goldmine of major branching links, i.e. anecdote, myth, legend, short stories, novels, etc. I’ll likely branch off on those before I go back in and start reading about all the specific genres of fiction and more on representative authors and works.

8. NO MORE TRACKS

As much as I could keep going with this, I’ve set a limit, because I want to be able to spend 5-15 minutes / day on each one.

This brings up an important caveat: the goal isn’t to read all of Wikipedia.

The main purpose is to learn several interesting things every day. These tracks just keep that happening in a way that drives it all like the narrative of a story. Otherwise, reading Wikipedia is no different than reading an encyclopedia — there’s no order or structure to make it cohesive.

The story that comes together as you invest in this process evolves into beautiful perspectives over time, as you appreciate your progress, and how it can continue and continue. And Wikipedia will only continue to evolve into a more efficient epicenter of information as time and our technology progresses.

3. Articles

Articles are the other major component to reading.

I read from a curated mix that, like with Wikipedia and novels, I’ve created to try and balance me across my biggest areas of concern. It’s quite simple:

  • Every article of every issue of Scientific American
  • Every article of every issue of National Geographic
  • Every article of every issue of Discover Magazine
  • Every article of every issue of Writer’s Digest
  • Every article of every issue of Nutrition Action
  • Every article in the occasional miscellaneous magazine (i.e. Wildlife)

When I say I read every article, I mean that. I even will read ads and study pictures, this more as a writing exercise where I try to notice details about composition and how I would describe these, and what I can learn or appreciate differently.

On Saturday, I read:

  • Articles in email that I starred during the week (includes links to online articles I’ve decided are worth reading)
  • Highbrow courses
  • Other longer emails that require attention (i.e. author submissions)

On Saturday, I also always finish whatever magazine I’m reading. I read 1 magazine per week. I find this pace, with Saturday as catch-up-if-needed day, lets me read all those magazines listed above.

I also read the weekend issue of the local paper, The Winnipeg Free Press. I try to read it all. Even the obituaries. Actually, those are probably the most inspiring to read as a writer, not just the details of real lives lived, but the perspective through which those lives are told. My favorite one so far? “Goodnight.” That was all — nothing else, not even a funeral announcement. That had my creative brain going for a while (still does).

Reading the paper was the one part of reading I resisted the most, but I’ve been surprised. I would now say that, of all the things I read, the articles in the paper are a goldmine (x 1,000) for storytelling.

But there’s more behind my decision to read every article: I don’t want to be one of those people whose opinions about world events are based only on reacting to headlines or skimmed summary, but rather on the nitpicking details, all the angles behind different issues. I try not to have an opinion, since as a writer I feel my role is to focus on what’s behind the opinions one might draw from the basic details. This leads me to tap into more interesting characters, conflicts, and moral arguments than I’d come up with on my own.

4. Annex

Occasionally I just want to throw all the structure out and read freely. When I do this, I have a pile of things I like to think of as the annex.

The annex is what it sounds like. It’s the extra space where I can build a completely random reading queue, for that reading I might want to do above and beyond my targeted reading.

For example, my editor for my book gave me targeted reading on surrealism, and as I’ve tackled this reading, I’ve put it here. I also use this to explore wild cards, like comics or graphic novels. Beta reading, when applicable (but I do say no to 99% of requests because as you can imagine, this annex is small and must be filled with care).

5. Beyond all this…

Structuring reading time means having to say no to a lot of things, and be okay with that.

That said, I do practice skimming. Once in a while, usually on my breaks (I work in 25-minute blocks and take 4 minute breaks between), I’ll wander into a post or chat thread. I try to see what I’m missing, but admit I miss a lot.

A simple technique I use to add blogs or online articles that come up during the week:

1) Open a compose email in my email

2) Copy link to article in body

3) Subject: name of article

4) Email to myself

5) Open email and star it

This means I’ll read it as part of my Saturday star email reading. There, done. Now I can get back to work without getting off track.

There are a lot of great blogs and other feeds. I’m missing those. But I’m not missing them.

I feel inundated by information, especially online. I avoid it all as much as possible. I’m quite active on Twitter for the networking and for promotion, but when I’m on there, it’s to connect and share and be open to opportunities.

I don’t feel like I actually get to read until I’m unplugged, and that’s the whole reason for developing the system I’ve developed. Take this or leave it, but my hope is if nothing else you’ll see the idea behind it and it will inspire you to create your own system so you can read with more purpose. There are so many books and articles out there, and our time is limited, very very limited (with respect to how much there is to read); therefore, there isn’t even a minute to waste on reading the wrong thing.

Some last words

I’ve been criticized by some other writers about how I read. “You take the joy of out reading, making it so systematic,” would be a common kind of comment I’ve heard in conversation.

While this may be true, it’s also true that any job takes the fun out of the activity (in a sense). For instance, if I had to make espressos and fancy drinks at Starbucks for a living (which I once did), I wouldn’t have the same fun making those drinks as I would making them for myself at home for friends.

The same goes with reading as a writer. What I’m doing with this method is defining reading as a job. Like any job, I want to do it as best as I can. Why? Because I fully believe (and have seen results) reading is as critical to my writing skill as triceps workouts are important to bicep curls for overall arm strength.

For the record, I don’t find this takes the joy out of reading at all! In fact, I love my job! I have even more fun seeing how this practice is evolving and growing. I also enjoy how every day I read I learn several small things that change me in large ways.

If you’re resisting this kind of structured practice because you’re afraid it’s going to take the joy out of reading, then I’d suggest you challenge that assumption. Reading might be fun right now, but with more tactics and strategy, you’ll trade in fun for deeply rewarding, and never look back.

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