Read Recent Books

One of the best pieces of advice for those who are writing with the goal of publication — and this applies whether you’re hoping to get published by one of the major houses or you’re planning to self publish — is to read recent works in your field. It’s good to have a grounding in the classics, but to know where you stand in the market, you need to know what’s being published and what’s succeeding now.

The wisdom of this has become quite clear to me as I try to read my way through the to-be-read bookcase. I think of the 90s as “recent,” but for books, that seems to be ancient history. The pacing is so different then from what you’d find now. You can’t go for the old-school fantasy opening of the hero exploring the castle, then having a long conversation with the wizard about the history of the land.

Or there was the book I just read that’s about a journey. The goal of the journey is in the title of the book. The blurb on the back cover is all about how fantastic this journey will be. But we spend the first quarter of the book wondering if the hero is ever actually going to go anywhere. There are several chapters devoted to setting up why he would want to go on this journey, then once he decides to go, there are more chapters about whether or not he’ll be allowed to go. It’s not as though there’s much suspense to it. It’s there in the title that he’s going to go, so this feels like wasted space.

It would be like if in Raiders of the Lost Ark — a movie whose title tells us is going to be about going after the lost Ark — once Indy decided he needed to take on the quest, instead of him heading straight to Marian, we had to sit through a bunch of faculty meetings to decide if the university was going to let him go. We know he’s going to go. It’s there in the title. You’re just delaying getting to the good part.

The only reason to have that kind of delay and a question as to whether the main character is going to get to do the thing that’s in the title of the story is if you’re raising the stakes and forcing the character to really commit by having the authorities say he can’t go so that he then has to buck authority and go on his own — if Indy has to be so committed to the quest that when the university refuses to grant him leave, he quits, which means he has to succeed because he has nothing to come back to. But having that kind of delay only for him to be told yes instead of just letting him go really slows down the story. I suspect today’s editors would have cut several scenes.

I think there are also different standards today regarding racism and sexism. You can’t get away with having every female character be a courtesan who’s naked most of the time and who exists as a reward for a hero, and you can’t have all the characters with darker skin be some kind of savage or primitive people (and, for a bonus, they all have the kind of hospitality that’s “here, as our guests, enjoy our women).

That doesn’t mean you can’t read older books, but to get a sense for what you need to do with your book in order to succeed, you need to read recent works by people who are around the same publishing level as you. If this would be your first published work, read the first publications by new authors. Reading recent books by bestselling authors won’t tell you much because they’ve earned a lot of leeway. See what it takes to break in now. If you’re planning to self-publish, read the more successful self-published books in your category.

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