If you want to be a writer you must love to read. We’ve all heard that, right? No problem – I’ve never heard of an author that doesn’t enjoy reading. I’ve also never heard anybody talk about strategic reading.

Let me explain. I’m not referring to some grand, intricate, esoteric plan that will raise your I.Q. by twenty points or turn you into a Pulitzer Prize winner. It’s just a systematic approach to reading that, I believe, leads to better writing. Here’s what I do:

1. I read extensively within my genre to see how my work compares to other mystery/suspense/thriller authors.

2. I make an effort to read authors that are better than I. These authors may or may not be well known. The point is they are more skilled at their craft than I am. It can be a little hard on the ego, but it’s important for me to read their work if I want to improve my own writing.

3. I occasionally read outside my preferred genre – usually horror, sci-fi, romance, YA, or a cross-genre work. The exposure to other genres is helpful, particularly if I come up with a great story idea that works better, for example, as a YA novel than a thriller.

4. I read critically. I become engrossed in a good story just like anyone else, but I also pay attention to syntax and structure, plot elements, narrative arc, and how well the story flows. I also love a well-turned phrase, sentence, or paragraph. I will read it over and over again. While we’re on the subject let me just say that the opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s, The Haunting of Hill House, is the best opening paragraph I’ve ever read.

5. I don’t read the classics. Bet you didn’t see that one coming! Listen, I’ve read Faulkner, Poe, Conrad, Hemingway, Joyce, et al, when I was in high school and college, and as a younger adult. We can even have a discussion of Pliny the Elder if you do almost all of the talking. I write commercial fiction and I’m trying to become better and more successful as a writer of commercial fiction. It would be different if I wrote so-called literary fiction.

6. I don’t limit my reading to novels or fiction. I enjoy biographies, Southern history, creative non-fiction, short stories, and a little verse, particularly Haiku. It expands my thinking and body of knowledge, and has the potential to inform my writing.

Anyway, this is what I read and why I read it. I’m not just reading for pleasure. I’m reading for a purpose.