Writing without reading is like…

…I don’t even know. Analogies fail me. If you’re out there writing fiction and you aren’t avidly, voraciously reading  fiction, you’re in the wrong business. How can you create something you don’t love? I will never be able to understand that.

So from here, let’s all assume we’re in our avid reader/writer safe space together, and talk a little bit about what we’re reading and why and how, and fun stuff like that.

If you follow me on GoodReads, you’ll see that I’ve set up another Reading Challenge there, committing myself to reading fifty-two books in the coming year. That is, of course, an average of one book a week, which when I first set the goal several years ago, seemed entirely reasonable. If I dived into a very long book that might take me more than a week to finish, there was always a shorter book devoured in a couple days to keep me more or less on track. This was the number I set for myself last year and actually made it to fifty-three books.

Success on this challenge has been a bit mixed, with 2020 inexplicably coming up short at only thirty books—yet another reason to pretend that year didn’t actually happen. But I hit fifty-two in both 2019 and 2018, which is when I started making this an annual event. I set up the 52-book challenge first in 2012 and now I can’t remember that far back as to why I ended up reading a paltry twenty-nine books, but let’s say the statute of limitations has run out on that one.

Now, that said, I am in a bit of a weird position in that as an editor, what I do pretty much all day, for work, is, y’know… read books. I spend at least four or five hours every day very carefully, closely reading (mostly) novels. I’m in the position where I routinely read books well before they’re published, if they’re ever published at all. I even read books while the authors are still writing them. I read fiction in rather rough form, and fiction in rather finished form, and all stages in-between. Those, for the purposes of the GoodReads challenge, don’t count, but in the greater scheme of writers must read, they absolutely do. Still, I do tend to mentally separate the “edits” from the “books” I read every year, though many of the “books”—it might even be fair to say all of the “books”—I read are in fact in some way or another work-related.

But those GoodReads Challenge books are all books that are done, and have been done for some time—even centuries gone by. There’s nothing I can do to change them—nor would I want to—though it can often be difficult, even impossible, to turn off that “editor’s eye” and not see the typo here, the “nodded his head” there, the little plot hole elsewhere, and so on. But I have a feeling most readers would notice that stuff, too.

A few of the books I read every year I go into with some agenda. I read books on the art and craft of writing fiction to keep up with what other people like me have to say about the central passion of my working life, and a few other books that I’m reading with some “work” purpose in mind. But the overwhelming majority of the fifty-three books I read in 2021 I read because I wanted to. They came to my attention in one way or another. Some have been sitting on my shelves for literally decades. Some I just bought the week before.

And though if you look at the list of books I read last year, it might seem a bit random, there was, actually, a method to the madness. And this is where I worry that I’m going to start sounding a bit like a crazy person.

I sometimes have a tendency to over structure my world. In some cases, this has been a good thing. As a managing editor at Wizards of the Coast I helped keep an impossible schedule running on time because I can lock into minutiae and systematize things. My energy in that regard has been flagging a bit over the past few years, but it still shows up in some admittedly odd ways. One of those ways is what I call my “reading scheme.”

I know, right? I have a reading scheme, because that’s… healthy…?

Let’s say it is.

This is how it works.

Over the course of 2021 I was reading four books at any given time. One was a non-fiction book on any of a wide range of subjects. One was a science fiction, fantasy, or horror novel. One was a “literary” work: fiction, poetry, or plays. And the fourth was a graphic novel/comics collection.

I like this. It means I’m not always reading one thing.

But the “scheme” doesn’t stop there. I went at least one layer deeper and started the year with a plan to not just read one SF/F/H novel at a time, but to alternate between an ACE Double, a book that has been sitting on my shelves for a while, a random pick, and a book that I bought in 2021. This means I’m reading my adored ACE Doubles, working through the giant grab bag of old SF/F/H paperbacks in my closet, and reading some old and some new books instead of just piling up the backlog. Go me! This more or less worked, too.

Oh, and “new” books? That doesn’t mean the book was written or published in the last year but that I bought it in 2021. I buy, religiously, one book from Amazon every Wednesday—another bit of scheduled happiness I allow myself. And I also still go to bookstores and spend more than most people on a semi-regular basis. The books I’ve bought in 2021, even though I have read some over the past year, now reside in three surprisingly large stacks (SF/F/H, “literary,” and non-fiction).

Now it’s 2022 and I thought, sure, let’s reset that, and not just start a new 52-book challenge but a new scheme as well. This year’s scheme will be pretty much the same, except I’m wrapping the graphic novels/comics into the SF/F/H category and reading only the books that I bought over 2021, in order. The fifth slot is reserved for an ACE Double or a random SF/F/H book that I’ll pick when one of my random behavior modification prompts tells me to.

Oh, and I’m also subscribing to literary magazines, so I read those, too, in the order they come in. I just finished Not One of Us #68 and started in on the Winter 2021 issue of The Paris Review this morning.

Is this normal?

Am I advising that you do this, or think this is what everybody, or any number of people more than me should definitely do?

Okay, I’m not that nuts. But in the end—at the end of 2021, 2019, and 2018, anyway—I did average a book a week and read books across a wide range of categories and subjects with authors ranging from Stan Lee to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from Little Nemo cartoons from 1905 to books published in 2021. I read one really “meh” self-help book, some poetry, a couple vintage mysteries, a Star Trek Fotonovel (because if not me, who?), and more.

With no regrets.

So then, advice?

If you don’t feel you’re reading enough, think about a GoodReads Challenge. If you feel you’re in a nothing-but-epic-fantasy (or whatever) rut, maybe start thinking in terms of a reading scheme.

But whatever you do, and however you do it… read!

—Philip Athans

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Science fiction and fantasy is one of the most challenging—and rewarding!—genres in the bookstore. But with best selling author and editor Philip Athans at your side, you’ll create worlds that draw your readers in—and keep them reading—with

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction!

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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1 Response to A REMINDER TO READ!

  1. Scott says:

    Love your content Philip, Most writers prefer to build their world along with the development of their stories, detailed plans are a science fiction writer’s best friend if you spare time please read my blog Genius World-Building Tips for Science Fiction Writers hope this will help. Thanks

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