How to Read 100 Books in a Year

Some of you may recall that last year I had a New Year’s resolution to read at least 50 books, which half-way through the year I amended to 100 books. How did I do? Well, I had a bit of a shaky autumn, but with a concerted late-December push, I got myself over the finish line, and read exactly 100. And yes, I was sufficiently nerdy to keep a spreadsheet recording the details every single book I read. And I can remember enough about pivot tables from my time working in an office so that I can now play around with my own reading statistics, and tell you that, for example, my preferred format (with 58% of total titles) was the paperback, that my favourite genres were fantasy and science fiction, and that, as a result of making a concerted effort to catch up with contemporary writing, I read 68 books from the 2010s but a mere 8 from the entire 20th century (and 6 from the 19th century).

When I tell people about my reading achievement, I get reactions ranging from dismissal (’only 100 books? Easy!’) to disbelief. One common response is a slightly awestruck wistfulness: an ‘I wish I could read more books but…’
Well, if that applies to you, fear not! I am here to share with you my secrets, and get you past that but.

1) ‘I wish I could read more books, but I don’t know where to start.’

I confess this one is a novel (see what I did there?) problem for me, because I always have dozens of books I want to read. However, help is at hand. The simplest approach is just to ask friends and family for their recommendations, and there’s always the good old-fashioned try-asking-in-your-local-bookshop method, but these days there are all kinds of electronic resources as well, from Goodreads to Amazon algorithms to countless book bloggers. The main thing, I think, is to accept that tastes differ and you’re not always going to enjoy something, however highly it comes recommended. If that happens, don’t give up: try the next thing. Sooner or later you’ll find the book for you, and then you can read everything by that author, seek out things in that ‘if you like x, you’ll love y!’ category, and delve into the fanfic. Discovering stuff you might want to read has never been easier.

2) ‘I wish I could read more books, but they’re expensive!’

They can be. But if you want to read, there’s no need to shell out on a load of brand-new hardbacks. I’m consistently astonished by how few people make use of libraries – they have hundreds of books! And you can borrow any of them for free! It’s amazing! And I can’t speak for all library systems, but the one in Derbyshire is pretty good (for now, at least) at keeping stock up-to-date and arranging inter-library loans for the princely sum of 45p if the title you want isn’t available locally.
If e-books are your thing, I’ve heard about (but not tried myself) something called Bookbub, which sends you emails recommending cheap or free books. There’s also Kindle Unlimited, although I personally found their selection of titles didn’t match up to my reading interests. And, while genuine second-hand bookshops are a rarity these days, there are charity shops a-plenty, not to mention millions of second-hand books being sold online, many for 1p+p+p. Getting hold of cheap books has never been easier.

3) ‘I wish I could read more books, but I don’t have the time!’

This is by far the commonest reason I hear why people can’t read more. My invariable answer is: audiobooks. Listen on long drives. Listen while you cook dinner. Listen while you exercise. Audiobooks let you read while you do that other stuff that keeps you busy. They’re great, and these days thousands of them are available via your phone (I use Audible and I swear by it). It’s never been easier to find books to listen to. Another idea: if you can’t find the time to commit to a full novel, try short stories. You can get a complete narrative in just twenty minutes or so. Perfect for the time-strapped.

In summary, it’s never been easier to find books you’ll want to read, in the format you want, at a price you can afford. In theory, it’s never been easier to read. So why do so many people seem to struggle to consume as many books as they say they’d like to? Well, the answer is obvious: because it’s also never been easier to get distracted. Just as thousands upon thousands of great books are now readily available, so are games and movies and TV shows and YouTube videos and web forums and blogs and cute cat pictures and every other thing you can possibly think of (and an awful lot more you can’t think of and probably don’t want to). And I feel like, behind 90% of those ‘buts’, the real reason is that the person would rather spend their spare time watching Netflix or playing World of Warcraft. Which is fine – I’m not going to get snobby about different forms of entertainment – but I have to say, if you really really want to read more, there’s ultimately only one way to do it: you need to put down the Internet and pick up a book.

Motivation and Procrastin – ooh, shiny!

I gave a version of this blog post as a presentation at my writing class on Monday. You should have seen their little faces. I’m not sure if they were expecting something a bit more ‘inspirational’ and a bit less ‘unvarnished truth’ but they all looked a bit shell-shocked by the end of it. So here we go.
Let’s start with a couple of classical quotations to get us in the mood.
Ancient Chinese Proverb:
“A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Then the next step. Then the next one. Then all the other steps. What were you expecting, a travelator? This is ancient China, not Heathrow Airport. Put your back into it.”
Latin motivational motto:
“Memento mori” (remember you will die)

Are you a procrastinator?
Well, you’re reading my blog post rather than getting on with achieving your life goals, so I’m going to say yes. Unless your life goal is to read my blog post, in which case, yay!

What causes procrastination?
It’s easy to say procrastination is a result of laziness, or a lack of clarity around goals, or an absence of motivation. But in fact, the most common reason, among writers at least, is this: fear of failure.

What are you afraid of?
That your writing will suck and people will judge you harshly for it? Well, here’s a little secret for you. Everyone’s writing sucks at first. Tolstoy sucked. Jane Austen sucked. Stephen King sucked. EL James sucked. Oh wait… so, ok, some people’s writing still sucks, but there’s only one way to get better. Guess what it is? Yep, that’s right, write. Write write write. Try to get feedback so you can improve. If you’re too scared to show your writing to people you know, try the Internet: Wattpad allows to you to post your work pseudonymously and get feedback from complete strangers. I’ve also heard WriteOn recommended, although it is part of the evil Amazonian empire. If you’re into fan fic, there’s An Archive of Our Own. Even if you don’t get any feedback, you’ll still improve just by practising your writing. ‘How to write’ books, workshops, classes etc will also help, but aren’t a get-of-jail-free card: you still need to write. Think of it this way: if you write enough, you might, eventually, not suck at it. If you don’t write, you’ll definitely always suck at it.
But I’m just not feeling in quite the right frame of mind…
Neither am I. But I’m writing this anyway. If you wait until the right mood takes you, you might be waiting a long time. I’m sorry to have to break this to you, but writing is not always easy. If you want to have written something, you need to write something. So grit your teeth and get on with it.

But how…?
If I’d give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, based on my personal experience, it’s this: set yourself a daily word target. And then hit it. Having a quantitative target provides clarity and encourages you to work quickly. It’s great to have a n-year plan, but plans need to be achieved day by day. And if you break your aims into chunks, they seem easier. Let’s say you want to write the first draft of a 90k-word novel in a year. 90/12=7.5. So that’s 7,500 words a month. 7,500/30=250. So that’s 250 words a day. That’s not so much, is it? You can do that in half an hour before breakfast, or on your lunch break, or when you get home from work. Now get on with it.
I’ll finish off with some general tips and tricks…
– Abstinence can be easier than moderation: try swearing off the Internet (or daytime TV, or housework, or whatever is your particular crack) altogether for a day, a week, a month, a year, or forever
– Scheduled time for writing is good if you’re busy. Make sure it’s focused time though – short bursts of eg 10 mins can be better for this than longer stretches
– Having two or more writing projects on the go at any one time can help since you can procrastinate from one by working on the other…
– Although working on only one thing at once makes it more likely you’ll get it finished
– Beware of ‘fake productivity’ ie spending lots of time on research, planning etc – sooner or later, you’ve got to get down to business
– And finally, when in doubt, write something. Anything. Doesn’t matter if it’s crap. You can always improve it later. Words on a page are always better than a void.