“Read all sorts of things, especially in your preferred genre…Read everything that’s good. Start with Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book Award winners, the Booker Prize and Whitbread winners…” ~ Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, Pen on Fire.
The above advice is good, with exceptions. I once read a Pulitzer Prize winning novel in which men had sex with cows. I stopped with that scene and started to laugh. Did the author even know cows up close? Did those Pulitzer people know cows?
I have heard and seen enough in this business now to know that books can get popular and receive prizes for many reasons, none of them to do with the merit of the book. There are books put forth with prizes because of shock value in one form or another, although today it is nearly impossible to come up with anything shocking. It’s all been done. Others get prizes because of who the publicist or writer knows, or because they were given half a million in promotional budget, or the author is talented at promoting. Now before you get all up in the air about this statement, let me state that of course most books that win prestige and bestseller status are outstanding and deserving.
Such is the case of one book I recently set aside unfinished. It had a gold stamp of some sort of prize on it; the book had been highly recommended by a writer friend, too. But the book, wonderfully written (I kept reading far into the book because of the excellent prose), did nothing for me. I do think it is a commendable book. I see why people like it, but I did not care for it. I know why I did not care for it– the subject matter did not interest me, and I found I wasn’t moved by the point of view used, too distant for me. It is important for me to know these things, helpful to learn for my own writing, and to know myself.
“…the first rule of successful story-writing is find a feeling.” ~ Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
Techniques of the Selling Writer was first published in 1965, revised, it appears, in 1974. In the mid ’90s, an author of multi-New York Times bestsellers told me that she read Swain’s book through each time she began a new novel. She is yet still selling.
We never get beyond needing to learn and grow. That is the excitement of writing. I find Swain’s book is one that speaks to me, makes me feel and moves me to say, “Oh, that’s what I need!” and “Yes, I can do that,” and “I can work on that to make it better.”
Find books that speak to you. If one doesn’t, pick up another. Writers must read, but we must read what touches us individually and makes us feel, which is the point of reading and of writing. Don’t let others choose for you. Use your own opinions. Find the books that you feel are written just a bit better than your own writing, the books and articles that make you want to jump up and get writing– or gardening, or painting, or designing your dream home. Be true to your unique self, and you are moved forward.