Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Reading outside your comfort zone

Author David Hewson says, “There are an astonishing number of people who think they can write books without reading books. Everything you need to know about writing can be found in books – and I don’t mean how-to-write books either.”

The best way to improve your writing is by reading. If you want to create words of beauty, you first need to foster the ability to recognise and appreciate beauty in the writing of others. It’s almost a process of osmosis. The word choices, the patterns of expression, the flavor of artful writing will get under your skin, and you’ll find it becomes less of a reach to create the same effects in your own prose.

The problem here is that many people resist reading outside “their” genre. It’s a safe-zone. You write romantic comedy, so you only read romantic comedy. You write Amish zombie thrillers, so you won’t read anything that doesn’t contain dead people in bonnets.

It’s important to stretch yourself if you genuinely wish to grow.

I love the story Gina Holmes shares, about how reading outside her comfort zone led to her first book contract. In an article for Christian Fiction Online Magazine, she explains:

“I grew up reading Stephen King, and so naturally when I decided to write a novel, I figured suspense was what I liked to read so it was what I should write. My first four novels were suspense. But then something happened . . . I started reading books like The Kite Runner, Memoirs of a Geisha, To Kill a Mockingbird, Watership Down, and authors like Charles Martin and Lisa Samson. I couldn’t get enough.”

You’ll notice these aren’t “genre” books. They’re either classics, or what we’d describe as “commercial literary” novels and authors.

Holmes describes this process of discovery as one of falling in love with words all over again. After four unpublished suspense novels, her newly expanding reading horizons inspired her to try her hand at something different. The result was “Crossing Oceans”, a quieter, more character-driven work of women’s fiction. The book was snatched up by Tyndale House and went on to win awards and become a CBA and ECPA bestseller.

Reading more widely is the best way I know to break out of a writing rut, stimulate new ideas and ways of looking at the world, and birth fresh inspiration.

Here’s my top three tips for reading outside your comfort zone:

1. Read commercial literary books, both CBA and ABA.

I’ve used this term once already – but what do I mean by “commercial literary”? I’m talking about books that hit the sweet spot between saleability – which, let’s face it, is usually driven by plot, or an engaging premise – and aesthetic/ emotional value, in which character development, emotional complexity, and the beauty of the words themselves are all supremely important.

If you haven’t read much commercial literary fiction, and don’t know exactly where to begin, let me suggest a “starter” list of books to check out. Here are some personal favourites, in no particular order:

1. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
2. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
3. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
4. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
5. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
6. March by Geraldine Brooks
7. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
8. The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

  1. The Passion of Mary-Margaret by Lisa Samson
  2. Blue Hole back Home by Joy Jordan-Lake
  3. Feeling for Bones by Bethany Pierce
  4. The Dead don’t Dance by Charles Martin
  5. The Queen of Sleepy Eye by Patti Hill
  6. Chasing Lilacs by Carla Stewart
  7. The Moment Between by Nicole Baart
  8. Daisy Chain by Mary deMuth

I could go on and on and on. (Can you tell these are the sort of books I love to read?)

2. Read prize-winning books.
Start with CBA prize-winning books, particularly Christy award-winners. You can find a list here.

But don’t discount secular prize-winning books, either. Exercise discernment – secular content can be gritty – but don’t let that stop you from dipping your toes into the remarkable pool of global talent. Try titles that have won or been short-listed for the Man Booker prize, the Orange prize, the National Book Award, and of course the Pulitzer.

Set the bar so high it makes you dizzy. If you always read books written at your level, you’ll never grow beyond that level.

3. Read classics.
There’s a reason some books stand the test of time. I’m first to admit that there are many classics I “should” have read, but haven’t. The good news is, most of these books are now in the public domain, so I’ve been collecting classics on my Kindle for free. No excuses now!

And lastly, just for fun…

How well-read are you?

The BBC released this list of 100 influential novels. They state that the average person will have only read 6 books out of the 100. How do you stack up?

The rules: it only counts if you’ve read it all the way through. (Sigh… my score would be quite a bit higher if I could only count the ones I’ve abandoned before the end!) And no, watching the movie does NOT qualify. (Darn it!)

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Alborn
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adam
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

So, what’s your score? Let us know in the comments! (Mine is 37. Hmmmm. Better than average, but well below halfway. I need to get reading! Who'll join me?)

Images courtesy of

Karen Schravemade lives Downunder and likes to confuse her American friends by using weird Australian figures of speech. When she's not chasing after two small boys or cuddling her baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website and Twitter.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oh goodness, I've only read 16. I guess I better get busy. ;)

I am one of those who doesn't read outside her genre much, but your reasons for doing so have sold me! I am going to take my lunch hour and see if I can check out something on my kindle from the list. :)

Thanks, Karen!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Yay, Sherrinda! I'm excited! I hope you discover some wonderful writing that will make you fall in love all over again. :-)

Unknown said...

Karen, thanks for the shout out. Great post. And I won't even share my score, it's pitiful. I'm trying to sneak in one classic between writing books and have at least covered some. Great lists!

Patti Hill said...

As an English Major, I thought my score would be higher, but it's only 22. Another list I read from is the Newberry Award list, books for middle readers. They're excellent.

Inspiring post, Karen. And thanks for listing The Queen of Sleepy Eye. I think it's on special as a Kindle book.

We read many of the same books. Thanks for the reading list.

Julia M. Reffner said...

41, better than I thought, but I think it is mainly due to being an English major in college. This reminds me though that I haven't read a "classic" in years. Love book lists! What a fun post!

Brittany Westerberg said...

I've seen this list before. I'm at 25, though there's several more on this list that are in my ereader apps at this moment, waiting for me to have some spare time to break them open. I do agree that every once in a while, you should broaden your horizons and read books you might not normally read. I love Memoirs of a Geisha and The Language of Flowers, and I'm going to be looking up a few more of the ones you listed. Thanks!

Patricia said...

Wonderful post! I have read 23 out 100. I see some I want to add to my to be read list.

Jessica R. Patch said...

I've read 44. I love reading different genres, but my favorites are still mysteries and romance! :) I did love Crossing Oceans.

Joanne Sher said...

We're TWINS, Karen! Also 37 (thought I'm sure they're not the same ones :D)

Great post. I also need to get busy.

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Oh good Lord, my number is so embarrassing I'm not even going to comment on that. Yikes! Looks like I've got a lot of work to do :)

Great post today!

Angie Dicken said...

Wow...I am not going to mention my score! Ha!! But I will say that I am glad to see two of my favorites of all time: Jane Eyre and The Faraway Tree Collection by Enid Blyton. Seriously, those children's stories gave me the love of storycrafting. And Jane Eyre...well, that's where I got my love for historicals! British literature is AMAZING. Great post, Karen!

carla stewart said...

Karen, what a great post! Thanks so much for including Chasing Lilacs on the list - such great company.

My score was embarrassingly low, and I thought I was a prolific reader - apparently not of the classics. I have read 6 of the ABA books on your list and 4 of the CBA ones.

Now, off to see where that copy of Great Expectations is hiding!

Ashley Clark said...

Karen, this post is GREAT! I absolutely think one of the best ways to grow was writer is to learn from other brilliant writing and to stretch ourselves outside of what we might be comfortable with. I loved your list-- I'm definitely going to have to order some of those this week!

Unknown said...

Mmm, I can only count a hand full of them, and sadly those were in high school. Although lately I've been meaning to tackle more of the classics, procrastination takes a hold. But great post and so so true.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Thank you all so much for commenting and sharing! Looks like Jessica wins the title of most well-read among us! Woohoo, Jessica!! A very impressive score. And Julia is hot on your heels!

All you friends of the Alley are such a smart and literate bunch - if the average score is 6, you're all miles ahead of the pack.

Angie, so ecstatic to discover that you're a fan of Enid Blyton. I grew up devouring her books. You're right, there's just something about English literature! (Have you read any of Kate Morton's books? She writes blockbuster Gothic historicals set in England. Beautifully written. I have a feeling you would love her!)

HUGE thanks to Gina, Patti and Carla for stopping by. So much fun to have you here!! I'm sorry I was late to the party today!

Mary Curry said...

I'm late posting this, Karen, but my daughter and I just went through the list together. She beat me with 44, but I had 42. Most of the credit goes to those college days when I indulged myself with Thomas Hardy, the Russians, Dickens, etc.

Great post.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

What a great score, Mary! Looks like your daughter's followed in your footsteps with your love of reading. I love that!