Advice I Ignore and Why You Should Too

“Read widely in your genre.” “Make sure you know what’s current in your genre.” “Read books from the past year or two to spot trends in your genre.”

I see this advice all over the place, especially from agents. Mostly, I ignore it. I want to do better about reading newer books in 2015, but I ignore it with good reason. Remember how Picasso said you have to know the rules before you break them? I know them. I break them anyway.

This year, I’ve read 42 books so far, so it’s not like I don’t read. Instead of reading a ton of newly published books, my biggest priority, year after year, is re-reading.

Thirteen of the 42 books I’ve read this year I’d read before, and that’s a lower number than usual because I was trying to read every book on my bookshelf at least once (three to go, and two more e-books).

Reading books that came out this year teaches you about publishing trends two or more years ago. Re-reading books helps teach you how to craft a novel.

But don’t take it from me:

You have to reread – the surface amusements of plot, subject and mystery drop away, the deeper pleasures of prose and reflection stay. I must have read some favourite novels 30 times

— Philip Hensher

You have to find out by experience what everyone tells you: that a good book is never the same twice. Rereading is a pleasure and duty of middle age, and illuminating, even if it only sheds light on how you yourself have changed

— Hilary Mantel

I never set out to be well read but I did always want to be well reread. I scout around and I pay attention to what’s coming out, but being a good reader, I feel, is probably a bit like being a good family man: at some point you have to give up on promiscuity and just settle with the people you really love.

— Andrew O’Hagan

(source for all three quotes)

And a quote from C.S. Lewis:

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old.

J.K Rowling is said to have read Jane Austen’s Emma twenty times in a row. (Learned from this site; can’t find the original citation)

Speaking of JKR, it’s hard to find a Harry Potter enthusiast who hasn’t read the entire series multiple times (I’m on the low end; I’ve only read all of them four times.)

While I think re-reading great books is helpful for readers (I was a re-reader long before I was a writer), I think it’s immensely helpful for writers. Find the books you love and absolutely tear them apart. (Not literally. Please, not literally.) Figure out what makes them work. Dissect what makes them brilliant.

Go through Emma and find the clues about Frank and Jane. Dig through Harry Potter for foreshadowing two or more books in advance. Re-read beautiful books like The Book Thief for its prose and odd style of narration. Re-read The Great Gatsby to unpack its symbolism.

I have my favorite books on a bi-annual rotation. I read C.S. Lewis (Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, the space trilogy) and Harry Potter in odd years, and Jane Austen in even years. I read The Giver whenever I feel like it, since it only takes a few hours.

Every time I re-read a classic, whether it’s five years old or five hundred, I learn something new. That is far more important than trying to use new books to analyze marketing trends. So please, support our fellow authors and buy their new releases. Read them, review them, and show some love. But when you’re looking to learn the craft, read books that have already stood the test of time. Then read them again.

What books do you re-read?

Comments

  1. I reread books all the time. I only save books on my shelves that I plan to read again at some point (or are just too pretty to sell (you know the ones)). But I also read new stuff coming out. Because, yeah they teach you about the trends that are 2 years old, but they can also teach you to craft a novel, too, if you look past the “trend” part of it. I’ve read some AMAZING debuts this year and last, ones that immediately earned a place on my bookshelf. And I read some amazing new books that weren’t debuts. Just because the book just came out, doesn’t mean the author doesn’t have the chops. And sometimes in order to learn you do need current books, like if you’re trying to capture realistic teen dialogue, you’re better off reading a new book, than reading something published 5-10 years ago.
    I’m 100% a person that thinks you shouldn’t write to a trend, because, yeah, you’re already behind the times, but i’m also a person that says you should be aware of what’s trending. Well, if you’re trying to make a go of being a writer as a business anyway. If you’re not, then write all the vampire portal fantasy angel dystopians you want!! 😉
    (also, that sounds amazing. Someone should write that)

    • Ooh I love books that are too pretty to sell. Mine are a collection of old books. 🙂

      I’ve been terrible about reading newer books because I tend to make a list of books to read in a year in December of the year before, when I only know about a few of them. For 2015, I’m including blank spots for 20 books published between 2013 and 2015 (and a spot on my bookshelf for your debut!).

      I know perfectly well that current books can be just as good as, or better than, the classics. The reason I mainly re-read is because I think you can learn more on a second or third re-reading than on the first read through, when everything is dazzling and foreshadowing sweeps by you. I just don’t have enough time to read and then re-read new books. But you’re absolutely right about dialogue. I spend a ton of time with teenagers, and forget that a lot of YA authors don’t. 🙂

      Being aware of what’s trending is a good idea, for sure, if only to know what to avoid. But if I’d known to avoid dystopians, I don’t think I would have written Damaged, which was the first full novel idea I’d had. And if I didn’t write Damaged, I don’t know if I would have gotten my new idea, etc.

      If someone can successfully pull off a vampire portal fantasy angel dystopian, that would be impressive. And I would probably have to pick it up.

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