Reading is Fundamental

The next writing prompt from DIY MFA focuses on the directive to “Read with Purpose.” The DIY MFA approach encourages writers to develop their own reading lists organized into four areas:

  • Competitive Titles: Current books in your genre or with similar theme and/or subject matter.
  • Contextual Materials: This broad category incudes books read for research, related films, music, magazine articles, etc., as well as books or stories that use a technique or techniques you’re using in your own current work.
  • Contemporary Books: Books in your genre published within the last three years.
  • Classics: Those books in your genre and beyond that have stood the test of time to earn classic status.

So, the question for this prompt is simple: What’s on your reading list?

I’m still toying with a longer-term reading list that reflects all these categories and will help me best develop as a writer during the next few weeks and months. So, in the interest of keeping this post brief and manageable, I’ll just mention one title in each category.

Competitive: I’m currently working on a novel best described as pulp action-and-horror. This is the hardest category for me to nail down. I might take a look back at Peter Kline’s action-packed Ex-Heroes and the rest of that series that recounts the battle between a team of superheroes and the zombies that, once again, have taken over the planet at the expense of the living. These are really fun, compelling reads.

Contextual Materials: Much of the novel takes place on a mysterious and supposedly uninhabited island in the pacific. To get a sense of island evolution gone bonkers, I’ll look to the King Kong movies (including last year’s Kong: Skull Island, which has files on many of its mega-fauna right on its promotional website), and to get a better sense of the way islands spur evolution via isolation I’ll revisit David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, a wonderful natural history book with fascinating case studies of island evolution. His description of komodo dragons feeding is one of the finest pieces of nature writing I’ve read. I’ve also been reading a variety of stuff online about CIA experiments with mind-altering drugs in the 1950s and 1960s. (Yes, that’s in there too!)

Contemporary Books: I’m currently reading a lot of short stories, including some pulp classics, as well as those from great recent anthologies of horror and weird writers that I admire, including The Grimscribe’s Puppets and Aickman’s Heirs. It is always instructive to see what successful current writers are doing. I also regularly listen to podcasts from Nightmare and Pseudopod on my long car commute.

Classics: While it’s not exactly pulpy action, I have long been meaning to read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and it’s sitting on my shelf right now. I am usually working on ideas for weird fiction or quiet horror, and I am sure this novel by a wonderful writer will be a master class in how it’s done.

The writing prompt also asks how we get our reading done, where do we fit it in, etc. The aforementioned podcasts allow me to “read” while driving, although I certainly prefer the printed (or electronic) page. In addition, I find some time late in the day and when I lie down for bed to read fiction. I also will occasionally get in a chapter or two or a short story on my lunch hour, depending on how my work day is playing out. Like most writers and readers, I really do wish I could devote even more time to reading. There’s so much great stuff out there.

It’s been a valuable exercise to think about my reading through the lens of the DIY MFA reading list approach. In general, my greatest challenge as a writer is to be organized and focused, not just chasing bright shiny objects at hyper speed until I get out of breath, collapse, recover and move on to the next tantalizing distraction.

I’m hopeful that taking a more methodical approach to my writing will help me take a more methodical approach to my reading as well.

And that’s it for now. Thanks for reading!