Hello, bookish friends! As writers, we’re often told that we must first be readers. I couldn’t agree more, especially for those of us trying to get traditionally published — there are certain rules, trends, and subtle hints that can be learned from reading often, and reading widely.
For example, my most recent books were Divergent (2012 YA dystopian), The Selection (2012 YA dystopian), A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder (2020 YA murder mystery), and Crescent City (Adult Fantasy). The first two were huge releases during their time, especially Divergent, and I missed both back at their height. As a writer, I could immediately tell these novels felt like early 2010s novels, and I stopped to ask myself why that was.
First, they were both pretty trope-heavy. I don’t say this in a bad way, but it was certainly noticeable. The Selection hit a lot of the tropes that were popular at the time: the love triangle, the chosen one, the ‘I’m not like other girls’, the ‘whisked away to a new world,’ the ‘things are not as they seem’ among them. Divergent helped define the YA dystopian genre, and it prominently displayed the chosen one and ‘things are not what they seem’ tropes.
Are these bad things? Not necessarily, but they’re also not really trending right now, and that’s a big factor if you’re a writer hoping to be traditionally published. If you’re writing a book that’s hitting a lot of the big tropes that were popular 10 years ago and not so much today, you’ll likely have a hard time getting buy-in at the agent level or higher. I talk a lot about industry trends in this blog post, and it’s something to keep a close eye on.
What if you want to write those tropes? Sure! But keeping them feeling fresh is important, and making sure your writing is up to par is vital as well. Which brings me to my next point: these books stylistically make choices that aren’t always to the standard of today’s novels.
From both stories, I noticed a lot of telling — “I feel bad about this thing that happened;” “She said something that made me nervous” — instead of showing those feelings. Telling is an important part of writing, but knowing when to show and when to tell is equally important. Side note: if you’re struggling with this, I highly recommend the craft book Understanding Show, Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy, a part of the craft I personally struggled with early on.
These two books also have a lot of what I’ll call hitting-the-nail-on-the-head as well, ie, explaining everything to the reader instead of letting them make their own questions or assumptions. That’s another tough thing to learn, and it’s something I strongly believe writers have improved in more recent novels than even those a decade ago.
So if I’m a writer, and I’m only reading books from 10 years ago and absorbing how to write through those books…I’m going to have a few problems.
Should you not read anything 10+ years old, then? Of course not! There’s always something to learn from novels if you’re looking for it, and knowing what’s not in can be just as important as knowing what is. And frankly, if you enjoy reading the book, that’s a good enough reason to read it. But for me, I come from a film and television critical studies background, and I spent a lot of time watching content from all over the decades, different countries, different genres, and everything in between. I consider some reading to be like my ongoing bookish critical studies, and I want to have a wide knowledge.
Alright. Let’s talk about A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder and Crescent City, both of which released in 2020. AGGGTM is hot right now: contemporary novels are very in, and Holly Jackson successfully captures the way teenagers speak/act, which is somewhat different from, say, ten or twenty years ago. This is, again, very important: if I’m only reading older contemporaries, some things are bound to be outdated. The teens of today were born into the digital age, and that’s always been a part of their lives, whereas a contemporary from the year 2000 will be totally different (computers were barely a thing, almost no one had cell phones, etc.) Some things are universal to the teen experience, but keeping it fresh and current is key.
Say hello to Crescent City, one of my current favorites. It’s also hot right now, as it’s urban fantasy, which is one of the bigger trends we’re seeing (and frankly, when does Sarah J Maas disappoint? The queen hasn’t let me down yet). CC is closest to what I actually write — fantasy elements with lots of adventure, tons of worldbuilding, romance and heartbreak, big twists — except it’s Adult, not the YA I write. One of the reasons I was keen to read it was to see how being an Adult novel would change her writing, and the short version is there’s a lot more swearing, a bit more sexually explicit context, and we’re not so focused on the “teen experience.” It didn’t feel overtly different to me from, say, Holly Black’s The Queen of Nothing (YA fantasy, 2019, and another favorite), apart from those points.
Reading widely, and making sure you’re interspersing with newer books, is key. For one, you’ll get a better sense of what’s trending right now (for example, vampires and dystopians were big ten years ago, witches and magic are big right now), and how your book may or may not loosely fit in. Hopping from genres and age ranges gives you a broader sense of the writing craft in general, and I firmly believe there’s something to learn from each novel.
I want to be careful of two things here. No, I don’t particularly believe in chasing trends, because I frankly can’t write fast enough to catch a trend, and I find I only care to write the stories I’m interested in, trend or not. And no, I’m not telling you to not write the book of your heart — if you want to write a vampire dystopian, go for it, friend! But I simply want to note you may have a harder time selling it at this particular moment in time. That may change in another ten years: the blessing and curse of trends is that they always seem to come back around, but you never know when.
How many books should you read in a year? That’s a tough one for me to answer — some writers read 10, others 25 (which is about my range currently), and some read upwards of 150! I’m hoping to read closer to 50 this year if I can swing it (that number is a bit daunting!), with a greater emphasis on newer YA fantasy sprinkled with random reads from all ages/genres. One way to build up your reading list is to simply add a couple more than you did last year, and to keep your goals realistic. If you read 10 books last year, I wouldn’t jump to trying to read 75. But maybe 15 or 20 is realistic, and diversifying with different mediums like audiobooks can help a ton (audiobooks have been a huge helper for me so far this year, and I’m ahead of my reading goal)!
My biggest recommendation is to shore up your knowledge of the industry as much as you can. Reading is a big part of it, but attending virtual talks and events from agents, authors, and industry pros help give you a wider understanding of the industry itself (and are often free). Reading articles in Publishers Weekly or Writer’s Digest can help give you up-to-date knowledge of what’s happening around the industry. Reading craft posts from authors or watching YouTube vlogs about craft can be invaluable, as can proper craft books (I have a list of recommendations anyone wants specifics). There’s a lot of resources, and the more you learn, the better off you’ll likely be.
Wishing you lots of successes,
Note: above image taken for my bookstagram of Adalyn Grace’s All the Tides of Fate (2021)