Becoming a better writer by reading 36 books in one semester
There are two types of people in the world: those to whom 36 books in four months is an obscenely large number, are you okay, Karis??? And those to whom 36 books is really not that much, actually.
Well, I guess there's a hidden third kind — me! The person who read 36 books over the course of one four-month-long semester and who feels pretty accomplished, but also knows she could have read even more if she'd had an inch more brain power to devote to it.
This is not a post about reading speeds or anything, though (whatever your reading speed is, that's fine & dandy & good for you). It's a post about how reading 36 books over the course of the semester has made, and will continue to make, me a better writer entirely. Buckle up, kids, we're going grad school retrospective-ing!
If you didn't know, now you know: I finished my first semester of my MFA program this past week. Well, "finished" is a big of a loose term here; I turned in my final assignment but am still waiting for feedback, etc. But if you wanted to know all my deep thoughts about grad school, you should sign up for my newsletter. Today I'm specifically going to talk about books.
I read 36 of them between the end of January and the end of May: 1 picture book, 10 middle grade books (including two graphic novels), and 25 young adult books (including two novels in verse and one in epistolary format). I think the longest book I read was Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend, which is over 600 pages — but it's also middle grade, so I flew through it like nobody's business.
One of the things that VCFA does is encourage us to "read like a writer" — there's actually a whole program about that wherein everybody in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program reads the same four books over the course of the semester, and we discuss them from a craft angle. There's also a group that meets monthly to read specific books and discuss them, again from a craft angle.
I found that really fascinating. As someone who's been pursuing professional writing for nearly a decade, the idea that reading makes you a better writer isn't foreign to me. And I always read a lot as it is; I read books and newspapers and online magazines and personal essays; I read fiction and nonfiction; I read fantasy and contemporary and historical. I mostly read YA, but I also love a good middle-grade for a steamy adult romance.
But I've never really had a direction for my reading other than: do it broadly. In January 2021, I started taking notes on books I read, so I could review them better and have a reading journal-like log of thoughts and feelings as I read, and that helped. But VCFA's direction to read like a writer really clicked for me.
Suddenly, I wasn't just taking note of whether I was wrapped up in the story and whether I liked the characters; I was noticing "ah, there's the inciting incident — a little late, isn't it?" or "I really love this character but she didn't much develop over these 350 pages, did she?" Alternately, of course, there was the, "This recurring motif worked really well for me!" and "The foreshadowing was so masterfully done I didn't even realize it was being done."
And I found that this reading helped inform my own writing, too! I wrote almost a full draft of a YA this semester (I finished the 61,000-word draft on Saturday so it wasn't quite during the semester), and it's possibly one of the cleanest first drafts I've ever penned. Now, part of that is because I started studying story structure before the semester and actually outlined this beast. But the actual mechanics of the writing? The way the sentences flow, the setting descriptions which get markedly better halfway through? That's all thanks to VCFA. Especially, it's thanks to reading.
If you're reading this post looking for some tips, I'll try to boil them down in a few easily digestible bullet points here! Feel free to comment, DM me on Twitter, or shoot me an email if you have questions!
Read with an eye toward story structure — familiarize yourself with the basic beats of a story and read to make sure a book is hitting them. And if it's not, you don't have to write it off entirely: just ask yourself why, and did it work anyway?
Think about the narration and the point-of-view — does it pull you out of the story, or is it seamless and does it make sense? What works for one book may not work for another, so try to identify what and why.
Consider characters and pacing — do the two go hand-in-hand? Does one help the other? How or how not?
Think about the purpose the writing is serving for the story — we all love a beautiful turn of phrase, but does that serve the POV narrator? Does it move the story forward or is it just window dressing? Consider ways you can use your own gorgeous prose to improve the story.
And that's it!