06 Sep

Building a Reading List

Posted in DIY MFA, Literature, Reading

One of the most important parts of a DIY MFA is putting together a reading list and working your way through it.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about The Essentials (books about writing that I can’t do without).  Now it’s time to look at the books that make up the rest of your reading list.

There are four types of books that should go on your list.  Two of the categories revolve around your current writing project while the other two should be unrelated to your WIP.  (For the purpose of giving a concrete example, I’m using an old WIP that’s currently on the back-burner.)

1) Competitive Books: In this category are books that I consider to be my WIP’s closest competition.  In the case of the above WIP, this would mean books where one or more children either run away from home or go on a journey.  (Examples: The Lightning Theif, The Wizard of Oz, Bud Not Buddy, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Alice in Wonderland.)  The goal in reading books in this category is to know what’s out there and figure out how your WIP can stand out.

2) Informative Books: This category contains books that are similar in theme as my WIP but not necessarily in the same genre or age-group.  In other words, this is where I put all the “road trip” books on my list (Travels with Charley, On the Road, Cold Mountain) as well as The Odyssey, The Aeneid and The Epic of Gilgamesh, which are the original “road trip” stories.  The books in this category might not necessarily impact my WIP directly, but they should help inform my writing and expanded my vision.  This is also where you put any books of research you need to read for your WIP.

3) Contemporary Books: This category fluctuates more than any other because there’s always something new out that I’m dying to read.  I have piles–literally piles–hiding in the corners of my room or under my futon.  The point here is to be aware of what’s new in your genre and read a selection so that you know what’s out there and where the genre is going.

4) Literary Fiction or “The Classics”: Right now I’m focusing only on short fiction for adults and classic children’s books.  For me, classic children’s books are ones that existed when I myself was a child (so figure 1990 or earlier).  My goal in reading the classics is to build a solid repertoire so that when I start teaching later this month, I’ll have examples of different craft techniques ready on the tip of my brain.  Even if I don’t use these books in my teaching, my hope is that they’ll make me a better reader.

As you can probably already tell, there’s a lot of overlap between the four categories, and that’s OK.  The point is, in order to maximize your productivity don’t just read books willy-nilly, choose books that serve a concrete function for your goals.

Your task for today: This week, take some time to put together a reading list.  Think about the next four months and figure out how many books would be reasonable to read during that time.  Now go on Amazon or to a bookstore and start browsing.

Eventually, your goal for the day is to make a list, but it’s best to browse because some books might jump out at you that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.  (Remember to browse outside your genre, too.)  Try to include books in each of the four categories above, though it doesn’t have to be split evenly over all the categories.  The idea is to find a balance of books relating to your WIP and books that will inform you as a reader.


Comments on this post

  1. Stina Lindenblatt says:

    Sounds like your TBR pile is as big as mine. I keep buying new books and borrowing from the library before finishing the ones I have. Some end up being read sooner because I'm in the mood for it right now.

    I read only YA, but I read a lot of different subgenres. My goal, though, is to read some of my old Robin Cook medical thrillers before the end of the year. This is mostly because I'm currently writing YA thrillers and romantic suspense novels, and I figure it wouldn't hurt to study Robin's books. 🙂

    1. Janice says:

      I think we're all the same. My TBR pile gets bigger every week.

      I have a lot of books in my genre of choice, including a book I almost had a heart attack over when I heard about it. The premise was so similar to my WIP and I wanted to give up. I was so relieved when I managed to get hold of an ARC. It has a similar theme to my WIP but there are a lot more differences than similarities.

      I never thought about organizing my books into categories before.

      Great post!

      1. Shelley Sly says:

        You know, this is so true. I'm looking at my bookshelf (filled with tons of books that I don't have time to read!) and the books all fall under one or more of these categories. We need to read to know the market and know our competition, but also to improve our craft… and for our own enjoyment. Thanks for highlighting this. Glad I found your blog!

        1. Meghan Schuessler says:

          Awesome idea! I just finished my list, I have at least 3 books in each category. Local library, here I come! 🙂

          1. gabi says:

            Hooray for the TBR pile, although mine also includes TBR files since I recently started going digital.

            Stina – That sounds like a good plan. Even though they aren't exactly in your genre, you're totally right that the Robin Cook books will inform your WIP.

            Janice – OMG I went through the same thing with my last WIP! I almost had a heart attack when this one book came out, then breathed a huge sigh of relief when I realized it's nothing like my WIP after all.

            Shelley – Thanks for your comment. You're so right that we need to know the market. I'm glad you stopped by!

            Meghan – Woot! Go you! Happy reading.

            1. Jen says:

              I have a feeling my TBR list will extremely big by the time my list is created, not that I'm complaining, it gives me plenty of options!!!

              Your blog rocks!!! I love it, Karen's BBQ thing has been a blast, I've been able to meet so many awesome people!

              1. salarsenッ says:

                Thanks. I already have three separate TBR lists. I review books so there's one list. My 'Writer's Help' books, there's another. And then I have pleasure books or books I think would make me leap out of my comfort zone. I'll take a few from each and make a new list.

                1. Gabriela Lessa says:

                  Wow! Finding so much cool stuff through Karen's BBQ!. Great blog, Gabi!

                  1. Elana Johnson says:

                    Yikes — I don't do this at all. Like, at all at all. I just read for pleasure, because it's something fun to do when there's nothing on TV and my house is clean, you know?

                    1. gabi says:

                      Jen – I know what you mean. I still keep finding books under the couch that need to go on the list. It's a deliciously uphill battle.

                      Sheri – That sounds like a good set of lists, considering you read so many books for different purposes. And it's always good to read stuff that pushes you out of your comfort zone.

                      Gabriela – Glad you stopped by! Great name btw 😉

                      Elana – I know exactly what you mean. I guess I should have been more clear in the post: these book categories are intended for building a reading list if your goals are pseudo-academic (as in DIY MFA). Of course I read books for fun too, but it's just like when I was in grad school… there are the books I read for DIY MFA and the ones I read for fun. I wish I could do only pleasure reading but teaching commitments, writing research and other such things require have-to reading as well as want-to reading.

                      Great comment! It really got me thinking.

                      1. just-cassie.com says:

                        I mostly read old stuff, books that have been withdrawn from the library (because I have a hard time returning things on time), and books that people have loaned me. I am quite out of the loop when it comes to contemporary stuff, so I am definitely going to have to work on that!
                        Great ideas for building a list, I am going to have to put a good deal of thought into this.

                        1. Kerryn Angell says:

                          I knew your posts would get me thinking but perhaps not this much!

                          I don't have a WIP. I am working on a short story at the moment but it's not planned as one of a collection and I'm not ready to commit to a novel. I assume that this DIY MFA thing kinda requires at least a more defined area of study.

                          I also don't have one genre that I write in and am finding it difficult to pick one to focus on. My interests lie in Fantasy, Historical, Romance, Contemporary (women's type fiction) and Speculative (medieval fantasy without the magic).

                          I guess you could call me a claustrophobic commitment-phobe. :/ Any suggestions or guidance would be much appreciated!

                          You also mention 4 months as a time period in which our reading list should encompass. Is this an average time you'd expect our DIY MFAs to cover?

                          1. gabi says:

                            Cassie – I totally hear you. As an English Major, I became pretty well-versed in the "old stuff" and had no idea what was going on in the contemporary literature. Seriously. My knowledge of contemporary YA literature (my genre) was limited to the Harry Potter books. (Not that HP books aren't good, they're just not all YA has to offer.) When I went to the MFA program the doors to contemporary literature opened and it's like I was in a whole new world.

                            One thing I'd like to stress is that DIY MFA is all about balance and most importantly, finding the balance that works best for you and what you want to accomplish. I'm just laying out the options… how you guys implement the plan is totally up to you!

                            1. darksculptures says:

                              Finally! I tried to narrow my list to include only three entries per category, but ended with a fourth entry on my competitive books list. My Iggy U Reading List @ http://darksculptures.wordpress.com/iggy-u-reading-list/

                              Most of my categories did cross over quite a bit, but I tried to find a diverse range of authors and chose differing dystopian settings in hopes of creating a well-rounded list. In hindsight I believe a book a week may be a little too ambitious, so I plan to mark two priority books in each catagory with my realistic goal being 2 books a month to start.

                              1. gabi says:

                                Kerryn – I love your comments because they always make me think! Let me see if I can answer your questions.

                                –Re: WIP, don't worry if you don't have a project in the works yet. When I first got back into writing, I dabbled in a ton of different projects. Then I went to the MFA program and again, tried out different projects until I finally hit on one that worked for my thesis. Give yourself the freedom to try things out. At the end of Sept. I'll post about coming up with a larger WIP goal (the equivalent of an MFA thesis, but not nearly as scary-sounding).

                                –Re: Genres, don't worry if you read across many genres. That's actually a *really* good thing because what you learn from one genre can inform your writing in another. For instance, both Fantasy and Historical fiction rely heavily on world-building but each genre approaches it in a different way. Reading across genres is great!

                                –Re: 4 months, I just picked that time frame because it seemed long enough so people could put together a decent-sized list, but short enough so that the list wouldn't be overwhelming. What you'll find is that your TBR list will constantly evolve as your writing develops and as time passes. Even as you read, one book can lead you to another, and that one to yet another, changing the direction of your list.

                                My advice: don't stress about committing to a project just yet, but keep writing. And as you read, be flexible and let your list evolve over time.

                                1. gabi says:

                                  Darksculpstures – I tried posting a comment on your blog but it didn't seem to work. Anyway, I'll try to recreate the comment here.

                                  Great list! I'll have to check out some of those books myself. My only suggestion for the list is Re: the HG trilogy… in my mind, since they're all by the same author and in the same series, they kind of count as one book. My reasoning is this: we learn from reading different authors so if we only focus on one author's work, we're limiting the scope of what we get out of our reading.

                                  Here's what I suggest: give yourself an extra month for the list and add two more books in that category. If you haven't read Feed by MT Anderson, I highly recommend (especially if you're into dystopian YA). Also, check out the a blog called Voracious YAppetite (http://www.rebloco.com/). They do reviews and tend to cover what's new in contemporary YA.

                                  Overall, though, great list! Go you!

                                  1. Lynda Young says:

                                    I've not thought of this in such an analytical manner before. It's great though to break it all down. Thanks 🙂

                                    W.I.P. It: A Writer's Journey

                                    1. darksculptures says:

                                      Thanks, Gabi. I had to approve your comment because of the link, but it is posted now. I added Feed to the list right away and I'll find another book to add. Lowry's The Giver Trilogy was a series I just completed and would have fit well into my list. See what I get for being proactive, extra reading. LOL

                                      1. KarenG says:

                                        Do you do Goodreads? That's my favorite place to keep track of my books read and to-read. I'm not that organized about it tho. I basically pick up a book if it looks good and I read from a variety of genres. I prefer MG over YA generally, and I love literary fiction, memoirs and autobiographical novels.

                                        1. gabi says:

                                          Lynda – Funny, I've been called many things but "analytical" usually isn't one of them. 🙂 I guess my ideas are sometimes so all over the place that I need to break them down and give them structure so I can focus.

                                          KarenG – I'm just starting out on Goodreads so I definitely haven't tapped into all it has to offer. Basically I've just been adding books to my Goodreads list willy-nilly. I hadn't thought of using Goodreads to organize my DIY MFA list. That's a fantastic idea. Thanks!

                                          1. Sonia says:

                                            This is great! I read often, but I'd never thought about how to "categorize" the books that I am interested in picking up. I will definitely think about this in the future.
                                            BTW, your WIP sounds interesting! I love novels like that— remember the first Boxcar Children book? : )

                                            1. kathanink says:

                                              Doing this sounds overwhelming to me since I have so many books floating in my head…I'm afraid I'll never get to them all. But I'll give it a shot!

                                              1. gabi says:

                                                Kathanink – if it sounds overwhelming, why not focus on just the last two categories? Then when you have a WIP in the works, you can add categories 1&2.

                                                1. Kerryn Angell says:

                                                  Thanks for your comments, gabi. I would be absolutely thrilled if I could work through the DIY MFA to a point where I have a major project to focus on. I'd be interested to hear more about how you dabbled in different projects before finding the one for your thesis. I'll definitely be interested in that article post-September.

                                                  I realised (while working on the categories for online communities) that I won't always have a WIP and my reading won't always be evenly spread across the categories depending on where I am in my writing journey. This has helped a lot and I've begun to build my lists to include all the genres I'm interested in.

                                                  I'm also going to sign up for Goodreads to hopefully get into the habit of reviewing books myself and getting more exposure to new books.

                                                  1. kathanink says:

                                                    gabi, I posted my list on my blog at http://kathanink.wordpress.com/book-list-for-iggi-u/. Feel free to check it out! 🙂

                                                    I have to confess, I've been in the process of reading some of these books, in my effort to tackle similar categories, even before you suggested it. So a couple of them I read this summer. I am a slow reader for the most part (esp. when reading fiction), so this is not too big a list for me.

                                                    Thanks for making me put this in writing!

                                                    1. Wannabe Writer says:

                                                      I started reading my first "Competitive Book." In the past I've avoided these, but I decided to jump right in. It's good. I'm jealous. Should I be scared? 🙂

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