I’m not afraid to claim that the Number 1 writing advice is: Reading books. It’s what all the famous authors say, and what lots of amateurs say, too. And I agree, for the most. But what if your circumstances make it more challenging to read?
Some of us simply don’t have the time to read much or suffer from Editor Brain. Still others might not have access to all the books they want to read. This blog will focus on the challenges some of us face and how to work around some of them.
Why reading is different for everyone
Some people love all books ever. Name a trope, and they will pull out a book from their bookshelf and talk about how they loved reading it. It’s easy to believe that is the standard, but when you read to improve your writing, there are other factors involved.
First of all, I don’t like that many books. At one point, I had brought 9 books with me on a trip and only finished one. Part of that comes from the fact I can’t switch off my ‘editor brain’ in my free time and will think of all the ways I can improve the work of bestseller authors. That makes it hard to find a book I will actually finish. I recently learned there’s a term for this: I’m a narrow reader.
Aside from all that, I’m a slow reader. One of my friends reads thrice as fast as I do, so naturally, I don’t read as much as she does. In one day she can read more books than I do all month. And that matters when people harp on others for not reading enough.
Reading (and writing) as a day job
When I was a line cook, I hated having to cook for myself when I got home. When I worked a summer job as a cleaner, I hated having to clean my own house. And for close to a year now, I’ve been a freelance writer and editor. After a day of writing copy and editing, I don’t often feel like spending my free hours in the evening with texts as well. Creative writing itself has become difficult, and reading is a part of that same package.
I’ve had to adjust my writing system accordingly. I chose to focus less on reading so I can get more done overall. It’s what works for me and takes my personal situation into account. Someone who doesn’t know about my writing system and circumstances telling me to read more is not on the shortlist to become my friend.
Some people advise reading broadly in many genres. And with such a stance, it means lots of different books. Books that cost money. Which I don’t have. And I know for a fact that is a problem many writers and readers share. Having free access to a steady stream of books is not as normal for some as it is for others. Expecting others to spend money on books to fit your own standard is not how to treat people who have other financial priorities.
Others advise me to focus my reading on the genre I want to publish in. Books that don’t make it to my European mainland library until they are almost no longer relevant to the market — if they make it here, at all.
And as much as it pains me to admit it: I don’t have the financial resources to buy a lot of books. And with my narrow reading, that makes for a precarious situation where I want to know if I’ll like a book before I buy it. Add that to my need to research history for my own writing, and you can probably guess why I’ve mostly spent money on books about Vikings this past year.
To put a number on it: over the past 3 years, I bought 12 books. 8 were about Vikings for my research. Two were novels: American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and the Dutch version of The Discomfort of Evening, written by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. The other two were craft books that turned out to be disappointments.
The reason I’m so honest about my budget? I know I’m not alone. Buying books is not an option for everyone, either because of the money side or getting it shipped towards you, and I hate to see people shamed for their lack of funds. Buying books is a privilege that not everyone has. On the upside, because of my financial situation, I know lots of places to get stuff to read for free! Let me share all the best spots to scratch that reading itch for little to no money.
Ever since I got a library card, the number of books I (started to) read has skyrocketed. I can borrow up to 10 books at a time, and because of a city-wide program for lower incomes, I don’t have to pay the yearly membership fee myself. (Other countries might not have that fee.) But even without a card, I could go there and read — just not take books home with me. Since I live in a big city, my library is connected to a nationwide program where I can ask them to bring in books located across the country. Be sure to check with your library what they can and can’t do in this regard to help you.
Most libraries also offer e-books and audiobooks. If you don’t have a reading device that works for you, or (stable) internet connection, those won’t be of much use to you. If you have one around, be sure to check out their services. When a book is missing, you can ask them to get a copy for you. The downside here? The waiting times. Sometimes you’ll have to wait for a copy to appear. When Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments came out, I had to wait four months until I could read it.
More downside? Libraries have been closed because of the COVID-19 outbreak. For the time being, my library has a system where I have to reserve a spot beforehand to gain access for half an hour max. But that still puts me in a country that can lift their restrictions, whereas others might not have that option available in the foreseeable future.
Libraries as an ESL
If you’re living in a non-English speaking country like me, there is one thing few writers seem to mention. It takes forever to get a title abroad. I’m not talking about the newest Danielle Steele or John Grisham titles, as those get shipped worldwide instantly. The English version will be in stores immediately, but a translated copy can take a few months. Non-bestsellers can take up to 2–3 years to make it here.
And when you write in your second language, it can be a hassle to find the right books to help your writing. Have you ever tried getting your hands on a Japanese version of Harry Potter? Or a Spanish Lord of the Rings trilogy? Add the waiting time for the library to get me a copy, and it’s easily 4 years later that I have it in my hand. Of course, the reverse is true for other languages.
When an agent is looking for current comps, that waiting time can be an obstacle. The best way I have found around that issue is to have a few well-read beta readers give some suggested comps. That narrows down the search considerably and lessens the financial impact of buying recent titles in your genre to look for good comps. If even that is too expensive for you, you can choose to leave the comps out of the query letter, explaining the situation. But very likely, it will impact your chances of landing an agent — though not all agents want comps in their query letters.
Online paid services
If you have a budget that allows for a bit more than mine, these services might help you read more for less. These few came up when I went searching.
For $9,99 per month, I can get access to magazines, books, and audiobooks. Some of the world’s bestsellers and most popular books are on there, contrary to other services. This provides an excellent opportunity to read in the genre you want to publish in.
Audiobooks can be perfect for listening to during a long commute or may be useful to people who have trouble reading because of their eyes. Their online library has a great selection of bestsellers available for $6.95 a month for the cheapest plan.
This free service provides you with a selection of books – free of charge. It uses real library’s digital collections to lend out copies online. On the due date, your book is returned automatically, so no late fees!
Kindle is only available in twelve countries outside the US. Still, for those countries that do have it, it provides an all-you-can-read buffet with plenty of content. For $9.99 per month excluding taxes, you have a subscription.
However, even with a Kindle subscription, writers can run into trouble. If you’re looking for comparable titles (comps) to your manuscript or want to investigate the market, a writer is often forced to look beyond Kindle. You will need a full sampling of the recent 5 years of publishing, and though Kindle helps, it is not the end-all. Writers will have to look beyond Amazon when they’re doing market research since none of the Big 5 publishers put their titles on there.
Online free reading
The internet can be a wonderful place. Lots of writing is freely available and lots of different formats are ready to go.
Free short stories
If you’re looking for some freely available classics, check out Classic Shorts. They have a decent selection of famous writers such as Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, and Edgar Allen Poe. For more modern short stories, check out the extensive list of websites by Bookriot.
Yes, I said it. Fanfiction comes in all degrees of quality. There are plenty of stories that, had they been original fiction, would get a publishing deal instantly. If you are looking for examples of how to nail character voice, descriptives, and pacing, the top of the cream in fanfic can definitely teach most writers a thing or two. If you don’t want to sift through the chaff yourself, check out the weekly recommendations thread on Reddit that’s pinned at the top.
There are three big players out there when it comes to fanfic. Archive Of Our Own (AO3) has a wide variety of shows, books, theater, music, and more to write fanfiction about, as well as a section for original fiction. Fanfiction.net has an extensive collection of mostly older material, and a dedicated readership. Their technical side and support, however, have been slipping as of late. Wattpad has a younger readership but focuses more on original fiction alongside fanfiction. Some writers have been able to use Wattpad as a launching pad for their writing career, but generally speaking, that’s not a route you want to try on purpose.
Somewhere in between these free reading options and an excellent writing group to help me along, I manage to improve my writing with the limited resources I have. Writers like me thrive off giveaways, free online resources, and reliable critique partners. And though I read as much as I can, people who tell me to read more are very likely not considering the obstacles other people can run into.
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