Reading to Write

Read 1000 books before you start to write and submit.

Picture book authors, mystery writers, and middle grade fiction writers have all heard similar advice. Sometimes the number changes. Read 500 books or 5000. Read four books a month.

So how many should you read? I don’t know. I know excellent writers who never read more than 2 books a month. Me? I read about 200 books a year, including picture books and graphic novels.

I suspect the number of books needed is going to vary somewhat from person to person. All I know is that by reading so much, I’ve internalized a lot about what makes for an amazing book. I discovered this when I started writing fiction during the pandemic.

I’m not going to say that my work was so amazing that it required no rewrites because that wouldn’t be true. But I will say that my first chapter came together fairly quickly. I needed an ominous tone and, because of my reading and, admittedly also my movie viewing habits, I knew how to set an ominous scene.

I hadn’t learned everything that I needed to know simply be reading. Working on my craft has required reading how-tos, taking classes, and having my work critiqued. Still there is an awful lot that you can learn by reading, or listening to, vast quantities of books.

Picture Books and Poetry

Picture books and poetry are both meant to be read aloud. Reading piles of picture books and pads of poetry helps you develop a feel for the sounds of words and word play.


I may not read a lot but I do read some and horror is a great way to develop a sense for how to build tension and also how to create an ominous tone. You can find horror that isn’t all about blood, guts and gore.


Mysteries help you learn how to weave together complex plots full of dead ends, red herrings, and characters who aren’t what they seem to be. Cozies are an especially good lesson in creating quirky characters.

Middle Grade Fiction

Middle graders can be oh so serious but they also love to laugh. Reading middle grade books can help you see how you can work humor into even the most serious story.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Speculative fiction as a whole is a great way to learn to build bridges for your reader. How do you make a story work that is incredibly unlike the “real world” accessible to readers from the here and now? Read speculative fiction to learn how.

What about you? How does your favorite reading inform your writing? Consider this the next time you are paging through your favorite book.


3 Reasons to Type Out Your Mentor Text

Retype your mentor text.
Photo by Caryn on

A friend of mine has been studying early readers to get a feel for how to shape her own story. “But I just can’t get it right! My story is still way too long.” My advice for her was to type out her mentor text.

Her: But I read it.

Me: Now you need to type it.

Her: But I studied it.

Me: Now you need to type it and this is why . . .

Feel for the Structure

Whether you are writing a picture book, an early reader or a chapter book, retyping all or part of your mentor text is a great way to get a feel for the structure of the writing. You’ll come away from it with a better idea of how long your sentences should be, how many sentences go into a paragraph and more.

Feel for the Details

When you retype your mentor text, you also get a good feel for the types and numbers of details that the author included. Detail makes a story sing. It’s what makes Mrs. Putter’s good dog Zeke vs Mudge. But if you include too much detail or the wrong detail you just weigh the story down and understanding this is vital. Which is great because retyping the text will help you . . .

See What Has Been Left Out

One of my favorite authors for strong characterization is Sharon Shinn. But it wasn’t until I really studied her work that I realized how much of what I learn about the characters comes through action. There’s no mooning in front of a mirror or while staring into a pond. Physical details are few and far between but delivered in such a way that they carry weight. Type out the mentor text to see what the author leaves out.

I don’t entirely understand why, but I never get as much out of reading a mentor text as I get out of retyping it. Why not give it a try?


Essay Writing: The Hermit Crab

Most of the writing that I do at this point in my career is children’s nonfiction.  But I’ve also written book reviews, done test writing, and created how-tos for both children and adults.  I read all types of writing and like to learn new techniques.  After all, you never know when something will come in handy.

Yesterday, I was reading an interview with Jessica Pace who won third place in the Women on Writing Q3 2019 Creative Nonfiction Contest.  Her piece is a hermit crab essay.  You can check out the interview here and the essay here.  I had never heard of a hermit crab essay and looked it up.

The term hermit crab essay was first used by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola.  They use this name for essays that take the form of something other than an essay.  It could be a how-to or some kind of written document.

In “Essays in Strange Forms and Peculiar Places,” Vivian Wagner explains that the hermit crab essay is a modern form that celebrates our distractibility. By using a wide variety of forms, these essays help us see that the form information takes shapes what we perceive as much as does the information itself.

Think about the many forms such an essay could take for writers — an acceptance letter, an agent’s profile on Manuscript Wish List, an online submission, a series of computer errors and more.  I have to admit that I have an idea but I’m not sure that mine is actually a hermit crab essay.  My plan is to combine a definition with narrative nonfiction.  Hermit crab essay?  I don’t know and probably won’t know even after I draft it.

I suspect it is more important for me to draft it than it is to worry about what it should be called.  Of course, isn’t that what you would expect someone to say who can’t quite figure out how to label it?