I previously mentioned that before the MFA program I wasn’t reading very much. There was one year when I read no more than 10 books, and another in which I think I only reread Harry Potter. By contrast, the MFA program at UCF requires a lot of reading. In addition to literature classes and assigned readings, they require a book list of at least fifty books alongside the creative thesis. These books are meant to inform the content of your thesis and the development of your craft. Ideally I would read books by authors I wanted to emulate, or that had content similar to what I was writing, or that could be used for research or further craft development.
“Sure,” I thought, as I read the requirement, “makes sense.” And I got started putting together a book list. I had no idea the way these books would wind up impacting my novel.
I read The Difference Engine and Nights at the Circus and dared myself to write descriptions as vividly as Gibson and Sterling and Carter.
I read The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey and carefully noted passages related to description of automaton restoration to figure out how to provide enough technical information to show a character’s mastery without boring the reader.
I read Victorian novels and wound up getting obsessed with how the structure differs from contemporary literature.
I read Ready Player One and reconnected with modern plot structure, and understood how to write a story with an escalating menace rather than a Big Bad.
I read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and starting thinking more and more about twists and defying expectations, and nearly ripped apart my novel to add a second narrator (it didn’t need it, but I considered it, and in considering it evaluated the choice for a single narrator).
I read Shanna Swendenson’s Rebel Mechanics and found a novel that was sort of like mine (but not at all), but it made me feel like there was a market for the novel I was writing.
I read steampunk short story collections and K. W. Jeter and Neal Stephenson and Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest. All of it—everything I read—I devoured in a new way. I wasn’t reading for pleasure. I wasn’t reading to consume. I was reading to learn and I was reading to apply what I was learning directly to what I was writing. At the end of every book, I sat back and I asked, “What did I learn from reading this? How can I apply that to my manuscript?”
Reading nonfiction for research always made sense to me, but I’d never thought about how reading fiction can also be research. It’s more than just knowing my genre and being familiar with writers I want to sit beside on a bookshelf. It’s experiencing how they put together their stories, characters, worlds, and even sentences. It requires deliberate reading and self-direction, but it is one of the MFA “tricks” I’ll be continuing. I’m not just a writer who reads, I’m a writer who reads to write.