[This post is part of a continued blog-conversation (diablogue? I love nonsensical new Internet words) that Mr. Pond and I have going on around the topic of writing and editing. I'm taking it a step further, and talking about reading.]
All publishing industry advice blogs contain one unifying piece of wisdom: Read widely in the genre in which you intend to write.
As arrogant as it feels to say so, it's a piece of advice that has always raised a warning in my mind. I'm not quite crazy enough to oppose the successful publishing world and call the truism false. It makes sense to be well acquainted with the sort of book, similar to my own, that gets published nowadays.
And I do read in my genres. I look for books that have been published in the last ten years, especially authors' debuts. I try to do so regularly--but I'm picky, and when hunting through the bookstore or the library, there are specific things I look for (authors whose names I recognize, strong narrative voice, and/or a story that immediately draws me in. Note: "immediately draws me in" is not the same as "kicks me in the face with a mean first sentence." The advice to write an attention-grabbing first line has helped to make opening novels in bookstores an exhausting experience.)
I'm picky, and therefore do not necessarily read widely. I admit new books into my life like an introvert admits new friends (and I should know): slowly, with careful consideration of the necessary commitment, and usually one at a time.
And there's one thing that seems to me at least as important as keeping current with the newly published. For myself, I consider it more important and feel compelled to give the majority of my reading time to it, even when--especially when--I am absorbed in the writing process. That one crucial need is to re-read, repeatedly and obsessively, the stories that have mattered the most to me.
If I become a published novelist, this will be my secret to success: that I've lost count of the number of times I've read Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Austen's books, Narnia and That Hideous Strength, Little White Horse, and Speaker for the Dead. I've read them until I can almost play back whole sections of the text in my mind, till the worlds are my homes-away-from-home and the characters are my close friends and the authors' voices have irreversibly influenced my own.
My primary reason for prioritizing the Stories That Mattered Most is that those books did for me what I want mine to do for others. I believe that core magic to be more important than trends of subject or style--not out of a need to protest industry standards like 250,000 words is too long or to "believe in myself" or my book in disregard of my own writing weaknesses, but to devote my very limited time and energy to the thing that makes me want to write in the first place, that makes a book re-readable and therefore especially desirable.
I could also put it this way: I'm not just aiming at getting a spot on bookstore shelves. I'm aiming at Harry Potter. I'm aiming at Narnia. Don't get me wrong--no one can guarantee a bestseller, or even a seller. But what I can do, or at least, what I can do my very best to do, is write a book with a life and love that speak to the reader.
Reading from the new releases is wise from a business perspective, and I'm not under any poetic high that could cost me my understanding of writing for publication as a business. Likewise, as someone who hopes for success as a writer, I think it right to support other writers.
But I think it's of limited value. Most of what I need to know about current standards, I've gotten from helpful industry bloggers. Get plot and conflict on every page. Make your protagonist and your genre obvious immediately. Keep your manuscript in conventional word count ranges. All of that is important for giving my story the best possible chance of getting read. For how to tell the story, though, what I need to know most comes from the books I already love.
Mr. Pond: Momentary Editing, parts 1 and 2
Me: How Not to Write