One Hundred Allies for Your Book-In-Progress

It's easy to imagine that we know our genre and niche better than we actually do. Here's some stellar advice on how to *not* fall into that trap. |

There's an extraordinary bit of advice in Heather Sellers' fantastic book Chapter After Chapter, where she recommends reading 100 books like the book you want to write.

No, my fingers didn't slip. 100 books. She calls it "The Book 100." 

... As in one hundred books. 

Sellers says:

The point is to read many, many examples of what you're trying to do. ...
Surround yourself with books. A hundred well-chosen books act as your base camp,
your buffer, your personalized M.F.A. writing program. ...
Notice what you like and what you love.
Writers learn more from reading than from all the how-to-plot books in the world. 

-- Heather Sellers

For someone like me who loves to read, this is a wonderful assignment. Super exciting.

For a recovering-perfectionist like me, this also seems fraught with problems. One hundred books?! I need to have them all read by, like, tomorrow!! I'm never going to be finished...!! 

If that's you, I promise you can relax. Sellers says you can take as long as you need to. Novelists are allowed to skim their 100 books. Or to split their list in half and share it with a friend--fifty for you, fifty for me, and we chat about them.

That said, it's still a pretty big project, so what's the point? Why do it? Isn't it a little ... overkill?

Here's what really convinced me about The Book 100: Coffeeshops.

Specifically, new coffeeshops that are also terrible coffeeshops. Created by people who, I suspect, have never been inside a good coffeeshop before.

Have you had this experience? A place that's trying to be a coffeeshop (or a café, or a bookstore) but it's just kind of--off.

Where they miss the mark on the most basic elements of a coffeeshop. And the customer is presented with mediocre coffee, crappy baked goods, apathetic baristas, and blaring music so that no one can talk, think, or work.

I stumble out of those places wondering--how did they get it so wrong? And when they go out of business, I'm not surprised. They make me wonder if the owners even liked coffee all that much, or if they liked coffeeshops, or if they'd ever actually been inside a great one?

I'm pretty sure of one thing, though. They probably didn't create that place thinking, "Let's make the suckiest coffeeshop that we can." I'm guessing that quality was part of their goal, somehow. 

And yet--they missed the mark. By a lot. 

I wonder what would have happened if they made a point to visit 100 coffeeshops before opening their store.

And to note in each place they visited: what does that particular shop do well, and where does it fail? What do they, as customers, respond to? What's off-putting? What does it look like when the basics are done really well? What innovations are delightful?

ALL those things. All elements of a good coffeeshop experience.

... Or a good novel.

You see what I'm getting at? 

As I worked on the Book 100 for my first novel, I discovered all kinds of things that I might not have realized any other way.

Like, shocking things. And really, really embarrassing things.

I saw that some of my plot moves had been done to death already in other books. I realized that my villain could be spotted miles off--and he was so covered in clichés! I realized that my protagonist's voice sounded like too many other protagonist's voices. 

Again and again, I saw what had been done too much, and where I had room to write something new. 

My Book 100 was a true education, in the very field where I wanted to be an expert. 

It is just too easy to have a mild familiarity with a genre. To know a few books, to trick yourself into coasting along with that little bit of knowledge. To think that you're writing something new.

It pays--it really pays--to know your genre much better than that. To be familiar with the very books that your fans will also have read. 

There's enough insecurity in this field already, right? Why not really learn our stuff, and to learn it by reading? 

As far as the number 100 goes: I think there's a lot to be said for going that big (and Sellers makes a really good case). ... But even if you just read and analyzed thirty of the best examples of your niche--think how much you'd learn!

It's one of the best educations, one of the best tools, we can have.

( ... As is Sellers' book Chapter After Chapter. If you're trying to write a full-length book, this is required reading for you! It has taught me the survival skills for living a book-maker's life like none other. ... I love it even more than Page After Page! Yes, really!)

Give Yourself a Master Class

Writers are always learning. |

There's a time to focus on the small, micro-movements that help us grow. And then there's a time to go big. To invest in splashy, obvious growth.

A master class.

The educational big guns.

Now, you can absolutely pay to join a class, or take a course, or something like that. Having a live teacher is brilliant and oh-so helpful. 

But you can also design a course yourself.

1. Start with a bit of self-reflection. 

Where is your writing weakest? Where do you flinch? What do you shy away from? What do you apologize for? What glares the most when you reread your work, or when others read it?

Or, to take it a different way, consider one of my last assignments at college. The professor of my senior seminar class (the final class in the English major curriculum) told us to do the project that we hadn't done yet. To tackle the thing that was still missing in our education.

Where had we slipped through the cracks, what topic had we not fully explored, what still needed to be dealt with before we graduated?

We made up our own assignment. And while the openendedness of it stymied me at first, I created one of my favorite assignments ever. (I interviewed half-a-dozen writing professors and designed my first year of full-time writing. It was exactly what I needed to do.)

So: what is the project that you haven't done yet? What's missing in your writerly education?

2. Set your calendar.

How long of a class do you want? Any length will be helpful, so don't worry about wrong answers.

You can have a one-day workshop, a weekend retreat, a week-long intensive, or a semester-long course: it's up to you.

(Even one day of focusing on a problem area can change your writing for the better, so don't rule it out!)

3. Get yourself a teacher.

I love finding a writing book that deals with the specific thing I'm trying to tackle in-depth. Or, there are fantastic books that cover a variety of topics: which is good news for your next self-designed course! 

Try to find a book (or blog, or manual, or website) that has a kindly attitude, if you can. And one with exercises is especially helpful. The more exercises you do--the more we immerse ourselves in this new way of working!--the better. Be your best student self, and practice practice practice.

4. Investigate novels that practice this skill well.

Dive into your bookshelves and scout around. Rifle through your favorite novels. How do those authors tackle your chosen topic? Find examples. Pick your favorites. 

And then: Copy them out. Better yet, copy them by hand.

Why? Because there's something about writing someone else's prose that helps you zero in on how they accomplished it. How they strung it together.

I don't know why, but this works, and works well. It gets the rhythms into your fingers, into your brain.

5. The extracurriculars: Who else can you learn from?

I love the idea of learning tactics and ways of thinking from non-writers. 

So, if you're studying description, go learn a bit from painters and photographers. How do they see the world? How do they make the creative choices they make?

If it's dialogue, eavesdrop your heart out. (In a restaurant, in a coffee shop. Get close to people who are talking loud enough for you to hear. And jot it all down, exact quotes whenever you can. Get the pace of how real people talk. The way a conversation can turn on a dime. How they misunderstand each other.)

If you're working on adding sensory detail, go to a zoo. Find a place to sit, and then close your eyes. Listen. And if you're really brave, smell. Take a few deep breaths, and then write down how that goes for you.


Self-education is one of those things that we'll always be doing. We're never done as writers. 

And right now, that sounds like a good thing. After all, we love this job, right? There are a million opportunities for us to lean in, to keep practicing, to get better. And to feel the thrill of growing in our craft.

What will you be learning next?