What To Read When You’re Writing

The next book you read can make revising your own novel easier or harder.

Most writers are strongly influenced by what they read and when. Sometimes you’re aware of it.

For instance, Margaret Atwood said that when she came up with the concept for A Handmaid’s Tale, she realized it required her to to write dystopian science fiction. She read dozens of sci-fi novels to become more familiar with the genre.

Other times it’s unconscious, such as when another author’s style creeps into your prose.

You don’t notice as you write, but when you return to a first draft after having set it aside for a while, you see a shift in style, level of detail, or dialogue rhythm that reflects what you were reading as you worked on different parts of the manuscript.

Because of that, it’s worth choosing books that influence your writing in a positive way.

Know Your Strengths And Weaknesses

To make a good choice, you need to understand the strengths and weakness of your draft. That usually requires some distance.

For me, setting a first draft aside for 2-3 weeks is ideal, though I’ll let it rest longer if I need to work on something else anyway, and I’ll take a shorter time away if I’m on a deadline.

Regardless, when you read the draft with fresh eyes, think about plot, pace, character development, dialogue, and scene level detail.

Ask yourself which aspect is strongest and what needs the most work.

Below are some thoughts on what to read to help the revision process.


For strong plots, genre books like suspense, mystery, horror, thrillers, and romance are good choices. These books usually have strong, clear plot outlines you can see if you pay attention when you reread.

When I was trying to get a better handle on plotting, I reread Stephen King’s The Dead Zone and wrote an outline of it. (I later read an interview where King said that was one of the few novels he outlined before writing.)

Watching movies and noting what happens in the beginning and at each quarter point in the film also can be very helpful. A major plot turn typically happens at the 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 point.

You can easily see this in The Dead Zone, in the film The Terminator, or in the book or film Gone With The Wind.


For character development, I like Pat Conroy’s novels, as he delves deeply into his characters’ lives. The Prince Of Tides and The Lords Of Discipline are two excellent choices. Read either book to see how backstory plays into the plots.

Gone Girl also is an excellent book for character development (and plot for that matter).

Regardless whether you like horror, Stephen King develops his characters in great depth. That’s what I love most about his work. The Stand and It show how really knowing the characters makes the stories pay off.


If you feel your prose is too wordy, read any John Sandford book to help achieve a clear, clean style. In a single line, Sandford can do more to set a scene or portray a character than most writers get across in an entire page.

My very old copy of Gone With The Wind

On the other hand, if your writing tends to be too sparing, again go back to Pat Conroy. He writes beautiful description and, in his best work, does it without distracting from the story.

Gone With The Wind is also a great choice for describing scenes and characters in a textured way that draws on all the senses.


For engaging, fast-paced dialogue that reveals character, one of the best choices is Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice.

Any play by David Mamet is a good choice. For TV, Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, also has an excellent ear for dialogue.


The pace of your novel or story is best addressed toward the end of the revision process. For that, you’ll usually want to read books that fall within your genre.

If you’re writing a thriller, read books praised by reviewers as page turners. If you’re writing literary, immerse yourself in your favorite literary novels, which generally allow for a far more leisurely pace.

One caveat on pacing—when you choose your examples, consider how established the writer’s fan base is.

Going back to Stephen King, while It is a wonderful example of characterization, on first read, I found the first half of the book far too slow. I had the same reaction to The Stand (and that was the less lengthy edition that was initially published, not the later extended version).

Because I already loved King’s books, I stuck with both and found I was glad I knew the characters so well. Had I not already been a huge King fan, though, I might not have finished either book.

In other words, if you’re aiming to draw in new readers, you may need to pick up the pace a bit more than does an author who already has readers eagerly buying the next book.

What do you like to read when you’re writing? Feel free to share in the comments or via email.

Until Friday—

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on the plot points referred to above, including an analysis of the stories mentioned, check out Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel.

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