How I’ve created a reading curriculum to become a better fantasy writer

Now that I have finished the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads (if you’re not on my newsletter and want to hear more about that, click here), I am turning to related writing tasks, like this one. Today I want to talk to you about something that evolved as I wrote the draft, and which I think truly helped me improve as a fantasy writer: a focused reading curriculum.

If you’re a writer, you have likely heard the advice that every writer must read. That might be a case of Stephen King’s advice from On Writing popularized in our mainstream writing culture, but the fact is it resonates with advice from many writers over time. My goal is not to convince you about the benefits or relative necessity of reading, as many articles are out there that do that. Instead, I want to explore the more important question: if you’ve decided that as a writer you must read to improve, then what exactly must you read?

Becoming targeted about what books you want to read

When I got serious about reading earlier in 2017 and began a daily practice, I just ran with it. It made sense that as a fantasy writer, I should probably read fantasy books. For that reason, I made a point of reading The Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss.

But when I finished that book I was faced with a burning question: what do I read next? More fantasy? Or outside my genre—and what exactly does that mean anyway?

I decided as a simple rule I wanted to stay balanced. My initial strategy: alternate fiction and nonfiction. I kicked off 2017 by reading The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People by Steven R. Covey, which changed (and is continuing to change) how I approach my work/lifestyle on a daily basis. But then, because of applying this rule of fiction/nonfiction alternation, I also read On Writing by Stephen King, Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, and Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond.

I decided to explore this rule of alternation a bit further. Beyond simply a binary fiction/nonfiction rule, I instead highlighted the main categories of fiction I want to be investing my time in.

Being a fantasy writer, it makes sense that I have a fantasy category. Because of this, I also read American Gods by Neil Gaiman last year and am happy to say in 2017 my perspective on the fantasy genre grew as a result. (I also apply a rule of not reading a book by a given author back to back in the same category; for instance, as much as I want to read Wise Man’s Fear, sequel to The Name of the Wind, I am going to stick to my curriculum and wait until the fantasy category comes up again.)

But wanting to be a balanced writer who brings something diverse to my genre, I saw the value of having a balanced influence from other genres. For this reason, I have a “not fantasy genre fiction” category. Because of this, I read Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey, The Shining by Stephen King, and I’m presently reading, as part of this rotation, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi.

And, to keep my feet on the ground further, I defined a “non-genre fiction” category where I can be directed to include anything else, such as classics or just generally popular fiction books, even works from antiquity (like Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which is on my roster). For this reason, I labored my way through Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, a feat which I would not have managed if I didn’t have my curriculum, yet which, after completing it, added some valuable perspectives to my appreciation of how the novel and language in the novel has evolved (plus Dickens’ wondrous skill with describing rural setting, which rubbed off on the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads). I also read (well, listened to—see below) Dracula by Bram Stoker, which also inspired me, especially with regard to parallel tone and symbolism in the end of A Thousand Roads—and which I was inspired to read only because of the momentum I created by learning to read something that does not quite interest me at first, but which I know is good for me. I’m presently also reading (listening to) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, which I find drags on a bit but which has taught me a lot about moving story through polarized dialogue, and which has in turn inspired me for some dialogue revisions I’m planning to make in the fifth draft of A Thousand Roads this February.

The big takeaway for me from this curriculum is that reading whatever we feel like reading can—like the choice to not read at all and just focus on writing more and more—limit us from the level we might otherwise attain as writers. There are so many books. Several million, according to several internet estimates. Where do we start?

The answer is that we will never know exactly what books we should be reading. But creating a curriculum that uses this sort of alternation is a sure way to at least create some balance in our reading diet.

Becoming targeted about what it means to read

But this is just one dimension of the problem. What do we read? And what does it even mean to read, anyway?

The obvious answer, books, is as limiting as deciding that reading books equates to reading only our genre or whatever we feel like reading.

Books are just one thing we can read. We live in the age of the internet at our fingertips. This is a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is that it serves us up the equivalent of junk food—anyone can publish anything, and if you think being overwhelmed by the millions of books to pick from is a problem, the billions (trillions?) of online publications in the form of blog posts, forum posts, message threads, and other click-and-publish content is even more overwhelming. The good thing is that, if you become targeted, you can cull from this pile a list of worthwhile material—much like you do when picking the books you plan to read.

Before I talk about what I did online, I want to talk about what I did offline. Another important goal for me over 2017 has been to create a proper evening routine so I can sleep better. On a typical day, I have done my end-of-day housework by 11PM and I’m in bed reading for an hour before lights out at midnight.

I’ve had piles of magazines building up on the headboard of my bed for the last several years. Scientific American and Writers Digest to be exact. To keep up on them, I will skim through, maybe read an article here or there.

I decided instead to read one all the way through, the way I’d read a novel. Even the articles that did not at first interest me. What I found was, like persevering through Oliver Twist, I learned something every article, usually many things. My perspectives changed. I went to sleep, my brain cleared out its cobwebs of the day, and I awoke the next day often applying these new perspectives to the work I did.

I now have been reading every single article of both Scientific American and Writers Digest, and the pile on the headboard is empty. This has become part of my reading curriculum, and I am so inspired by it that I plan to get a subscription of National Geographic so I can have a great trifecta of material (in part inspired by reading Guns, Germs & Steel and the desire to further appreciate cultural diversity). I want to keep up on all three of these through all of 2018, then I will see where the rabbit hole leads from there. (Time MagazineMacleans?)

Now, to the online content. First off, let’s talk about the need to be ruthless in saying “no” to 99.9% of material that comes our way. Every time I choose to say “yes” to reading something, even if that’s a message thread or an interesting article that caught my attention in my news feed, that’s time I could be spending reading material in my reading curriculum.

If something truly catches my attention, I will flag it and come back to it later. This is why I like to subscribe to educational email newsletters, or follow blogs like Writer Unboxed, so I can flag the email I receive and include that in my morning reading time if something does seem worth reading all the way through.

What I do focus on is Wikipedia. Don’t get me wrong, Wikipedia is not the place to back up your scholarly paper, but I’ve found that, to get a general sense of information about the world and how it’s all connected, it’s excellent. For a fantasy writer who wants to build a cohesive world that will make sense and draw on layers of how our own history, culture, geography, science, and biography come together, it’s an absolute gold mine.

And I’ve become a gold miner. In fact, reading Wikipedia, about the same amount of time I spend reading whatever novel I am working through, has created true balance in my reading curriculum to complement magazine articles at bedtime.

There’s a trick to doing this. Wikipedia will get you lost quickly, as you no doubt can attest if you’ve ever wandered down a series of links that cause your query about a type of French wine to evolve into reading about the 24-hour 25-lover tour of the infamous Messalina. My goal was to avoid this.

To do this I created a reading track. In order for this to work, I needed to create some rules that would keep me on it.

The obvious starting point for me was the English monarchs. I say obvious for me because I am forever curious about who’s who when it comes to English kings and queens and can’t get enough of TV shows like The Crown and Victoria. I had found whenever I look up a monarch on Wikipedia I’d end up following the lines of succession backward, and I would want to understand how the events of a previous monarch influenced the next one.

So, to kick off this reading track, I started at the beginning. I used the line of succession to direct me, i.e. as soon as I finish the article of a given monarch, I go to the tick and click “succeeded by” under the quick facts, to take me to the next stop. (I am presently on Mary I, aka “Bloody Mary”, whose reign reminds me an awful lot of our recent political landscape with the rise and fall of Stephen Harper’s government.)

Now, Wikipedia is wonderful for its links, and I would be missing out if I didn’t take some time here or there to wander down one. In fact, it seemed wrong to stick to the rule of only reading the biographies of the English monarchs and nothing else. That’s like going on a vacation and sticking only to the hotel and tour bus and never getting out to enjoy the setting. But, as is the case when traveling, I don’t want to get lost.

To help keep me on track I generalized my rule a bit. I read on a tablet which allows me to tap on any link I’m curious about as I’m reading and read a preview of the start of the article. Usually, this is enough. Occasionally, I feel the context is very important and I will visit the article and read at least the opening. For example, today while reading about Queen Mary I’s engagement to Philip of Spain, I was curious about just who the Habsburg’s were (I keep seeing them mentioned as I’m reading). That was good enough. I was curious, and boy did I want to read more. But I stuck to my principles. (You might be surprised how much you can still learn about the world in general just through sticking to the stories of those who were major players in it.)

And this is the key point here that I’ve learned in practicing how to tame my Wikipedia reading habit: the goal is to get more and more curious, and trust that information is layered. I am reading to become less ignorant in general, not to know everything. Drop the ego and become a curious child, and the world can only get more interesting.

Now what do I do when I get to Queen Elizabeth II? The answer has come to me in the process of doing, as it often does. Inevitably, reading the articles on the English monarchs leads to lots of name dropping. Numerous Scottish monarchs. Welsh rulers. French kings—lots of those. Popes. Holy Roman Emperors. Overall, an awareness of other lines of succession that are fascinating. Needless to say, I’m likely going to face death by old age before I run out of options here to keep this reading track going.

This curiosity from the process of doing also opened my mind to a second kind of Wikipedia reading track: topical. Reading biographies is great. In fact, as a writer, I feel like I am stoking my character inspiration fire to no end. But reading biographies alone limits me from the much needed desire that’s come up many times to take a really good look at a topic.

As with the English monarchs, I picked the topic that was closest to my heart as a natural starting point: mathematics. I started with the main article, and that alone was a worthwhile read. From there, I have embarked on reading the main articles that branch off it. When I’m done this, I’ll read the articles that branch off those articles. I may change it up now and again by picking at other topics, i.e. take a break and read through the article for “computer science” or “music” or “philosophy” or “religion” or “geography” (etc etc), following a similar pattern of reading down main topic branches should I want to follow up further on any topic. I’m not concerned with keeping track of these—if I forget that I’ve read the article on music, then I probably need to read it again.

These two tracks add wonderfully to my book reading and, together with magazines at bedtime, have become a great reading curriculum that is accelerating my daily improvement as a writer. In fact, if anything, I’m convinced only that I need to read more, and even if I got the opportunity to make a living on my writing, I’d probably add more reading time before I crunch to get in 4-5 hours a day of writing. (In my mind, full-time-writer-heaven looks like: 5 hours of reading a day, and 3 hours of writing, 7 days a week, except lighter on weekends and holidays.)

Beyond reading: becoming targeted about what the purpose of reading is as a writer

To close, I want to touch on one last level of abstraction that over 2017 has helped hone my reading habit: the context in which reading fits. The why behind it all.

I read for about two and a half hours every day. This is not including time I might get to read as part of my work as an editor. I read before I begin my writing for the day, right after I get up and as I’m enjoying my first cup of coffee. I actually set a timer to hold myself accountable, the same as I do when I write. Reading is, as far as I’m concerned, part of my work as a writer.

But why? Because it’s one component of a thing every writer can level up by doing: research.

Now, we all need to research on a given book we’re writing. I make mention of horses in A Thousand Roads. I’ve never had to care for a horse for a living, and the one time I rode one (as kid) I almost fell off. This is not “writing what I know”, so you better bet I’ll be doing specific research on horses. I even have consulted another author who is willing to read the next draft and call me out on my horse foibles, as I’m sure there will be many.

This is all reactive research though. Research itself can also be a regular discipline that’s part of our writing discipline.

By way of example: If you wait until you have a health emergency before you go to the doctor, you probably are going to maintain many bad habits and be unaware of many underlying factors which are creating the tip-of-iceberg problems that will keep you coming back. But if you instead use your relationship with your doctor as a partnership so you can be a good steward of your health then not only are you going to be better equipped to tackle health emergencies, you’re probably going to have fewer. Plus, you’ll be fitter, feel better, (most likely) live longer, and overall, be happier.

Likewise, researching, by way of reading and its many aspects, can be part of a curriculum we as writers practice daily (or whatever is your optimal pattern). I realized this higher level when I discovered how I am often wasting more than a hour of my day in the car. Probably what I find most shocking is I am a co-host of the Write Right Podcast, and even though we just finished recording our second season, I didn’t have the insight to realize until this summer that I should be listening to podcasts when I’m driving.

Well, I started, and holy space cows! Complemented with my reading curriculum, that filled space has added a new dimension to a kind of learning that I understand as the research aspect of my discipline as a writer. I quickly found my way to great historical and educational podcasts like Tides of History, The Fall of Rome, and Lore. In fact, I have a queue that’s layered with about 30 different serial-education podcasts covering writing craft, history, culture, business, and biography. Among them: BBC’s In Our Time, the many TEDx feeds, Writing Excuses, Planet MoneyStar TalkStuff You Missed in History ClassStuff You Should Know, Totalius RankiumThe History of Rome, and the Grammar Girl podcast. You can find more podcasts like these by simply googling, “Podcasts to get smarter,” or “Great educational podcasts.” Or email me and I will send you the list of podcasts in full. But you can start by adding some episodes to your queue and running with that. You’ll find that many of them plug other related podcasts, so discover a few you love and add others that interest you and you’ll soon find you have no end of content to learn from.

Discovering audio led me to audiobooks. I’ll admit, though, that they haven’t quite caught on for me. I mentioned above that I “read” Dracula and am presently “reading” The Adventures of Huckleberrry Finn. However, I don’t feel like I truly am reading when I listen to audio. It might be the type of learner I am (I am very audio-visual and kinesthetic), and the fact that, when taking in only audio information, my brain launches off onto tangents to creatively process said information. In a Podcast that’s forgiving, because you can miss some discussion and grab bits and pieces. Not so much in an audiobook. That’s like skipping a page here or there then hoping you can still follow everything.

If you enjoy audiobooks and find you retain them the same as physical reading (or better), then this one would definitely be an opportunity to deepen your overall research discipline. I’ve found simply alternating the two works well, or associating a certain activity. For instance, I’ll put on my audiobook when I’m taking a walk, and keep to podcasts whenever I’m doing something built from simple/repetitive tasks, like driving or lifting weights at the gym or gardening.

There are further opportunities—watching YouTube education videos, transcribing books I admire, and occasionally, taking out a pen and doing a study of an image that catches my attention when reading Wikipedia. Of these, transcribing has become something so big it’s worth its own blog post, so I’ll save it for another time. But for the others, I try to do them more occasionally and spontaneously as further exercises to deepen my overall skill and hone my writing senses.

At the end of the day, it all comes out in that 2 hour window of time when I’m in front of the keyboard. But the advantage is that, when the tap’s on, the water flows all the time, and the torrent is strong and its sustenance rich.

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About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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6 Responses to How I’ve created a reading curriculum to become a better fantasy writer

  1. landofoyr says:

    i can’t put reading into a daily routine because it will ruin the pleasure of it if it is done as a job. i read when i can and what i like. i find your approach too pressured for my taste but i realize what you are saying. a writer is an athlete of mind and he must exercise his mind constantly. on the other hand, research must be seen as a different task from reading and i believe Wikipedia is a safe choice for at least a start of your research.
    overall i agree the more you read the better writer you are becoming.

    • John Robin says:

      Thanks for sharing! My method is definitely very personalized to me, but I was hoping that in sharing it would provide some inspiration in its underlying principles — as it sounds like it did for you. For what it’s worth, though the method may sound like it’s not enjoyable for you, it is immensely more enjoyable for me. Definitely want to make sure I don’t give the impression in sharing how my method has evolved that I feel this is a labor or a toil, so thanks for commenting and giving me the opportunity to clarify.

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  3. Kristen says:

    This is a great approach! I’ve often advocated to people trying to be writers that you not only have to read, you have to read good books. Reading terrible writing will make you a terrible writer. Question, though: What do you do to “stay in touch”? You advocate saying no to most internet articles, but even though they’re terrible, that’s where I find I’m most able to keep up with how writing is being perceived and what’s popular, etc. etc.

    • John Robin says:

      Thanks for commenting, Kristin, and a great question. I’m sure I miss out on a lot by cutting away a lot of online content. For me, at least with regard to writing, I find the balance in the magazine reading component. I read every article in every issue of Writer’s Digest and find that’s given me a good window into what’s happening in publishing—at least as far as I need to be concerned. For general world events, I get a good window through doing the same with National Geographic and Scientific American (the latter is more a personal pick as the science aspect is of great interest to me). That’s just the reading part. I find most of what I need to know comes through communication with other people who are already steeped in these other areas. It’s a difficult act of “nose in, hands out” but it seems to work for me. There is also skimming, which is not part of my reading practice, ie poring over lots of articles and chat threads etc and seeing the occasional spot to zero in. I find I pick up much-needed nuggets here and there.

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