Essential Reading List: Must-Read Books for Your Writing Library

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

One of the most important parts of a DIY MFA is putting together a reading list that represents the area of writing that you want to focus on.  That’s the beauty of DIY MFA: you don’t have to read something that doesn’t resonate with you.

I learned this concept from a professor in my MFA program who told us on the first day of class: “If you can’t get past  page 10 of a book, put it away.  Life’s too short and there are too many great books to read for you to spend time struggling through a book that doesn’t resonate with you.”  Unlike in a traditional MFA where your professors select which books you must read, in DIY MFA, you don’t have to fight your way through a book that doesn’t interest you.

Why?  Because you get to set the reading list.

Reading is a central component to DIY MFA.  If you don’t read, you won’t know what books are out there and how your own book fits within the body of literature.  Reading gives your work context, allowing you to learn from writers who came before helping you figure out what makes your book unique.  A writer who doesn’t read is working in a vacuum.  That said, one of the first things you need to do in the literature study component of DIY MFA is create a reading list and commit to reading the books on it in a timely fashion.

Four Essential Types of Books

There are four types of books that should go on your list.  Two of the categories revolve around and will help inform your current writing project, while the other two categories are broader and reach beyond your work-in-progress (WIP).

1) Competitive Books

In this category are books that will be your WIP’s closest competition.  The goal in reading books in this category is to know what’s out there and figure out how your WIP can stand out.

2) Contextual Books

This category contains books that are similar in theme as your WIP but not necessarily in the same genre or age group.  The books in this category might not necessarily impact your WIP directly, but they should help inform your writing and expand your vision.  This is also where you put any books of research you need to read for your WIP.

3) Contemporary Books

This category fluctuates more than any other because there’s always something new out in your chosen genre that will rush to the top of your To Be Read list.  The point here is to be aware of what’s new in your genre and read a selection so that you know what’s out there and where the genre is going.  Not sure where to start looking?  Go to a library or bookstore and ask: What’s new?  What’s selling?

4) Classics

This category is different for each reader.  Personally, I like to focus on short fiction because it allows me to get a taste of a writer’s style without committing to a long book.  Also, I love reading short fiction because you get the whole story at a glance.  It’s a great way to study story structure and character development.

Why This Reading List Works

As you can probably already tell, there’s a lot of overlap between the four categories, and that’s OK.  The point is, in order to maximize your productivity don’t just read books at random, choose books that serve a concrete function for your goals.  After all, the best way to learn to write is by reading.  The thing is, to really get the most out of your reading, you have to be strategic about it.

It’s also important to reevaluate your list every few months, adjusting it as your writing projects develop and grow.  I like to update my list every three months, that way it gives me enough time to make actual progress in my reading, but isn’t such a long stretch that I end up reading books that don’t serve my current project.  How frequently you update your reading list is up to you, just remember that you’re not carving this in stone and it’s OK to change things around.

Suggested Reading

As a special bonus, here is a list of books we recommend to help get you started:

  • Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio
  • Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (Illustrations by Maira Kalman)
  • Now Write! edited by Sherry Ellis
  • The 3AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley
  • The 4AM Breakthrough by Brian Kiteley
  • The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • The Art of the Short Story edited by Gioia & Gwynn

Create Your Essential Reading List

You can snag a helpful reading list worksheet in the DIY MFA Starter Kit that will help you organize all these wonderful books you want to read. Once you’ve created your reading list, you’ll want to set a reading schedule. Maybe you can get through a book or more per week.  That’s great!  Or maybe one-two books a month is more your pace.  That’s fine too. 

If you’re into gadgets, use the Evernote app to make notes on each book. (You can even synch your notes between your computer and various devices.) Open a profile on Goodreads. Choose a method that works for you. Just be realistic as to how quickly you can get through these books; set a reasonable goal and stick to it.  Check books off the list as you read them and in a couple of months, go back to your list, evaluate your progress and update it if necessary.

Once you’ve done all that, there’s only one thing left for you to do: start reading.

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