It’s Sunday evening and time for me to write my 14th blog post in a row! Let’s see what topic I set myself up for night. Surely I planned ahead, realizing that fatigue would be settling in at this point. I must have given myself something light and easy to write about, right? Right?
[brief pause for laughter-crying]
Okay, fine. Let’s talk about the necessity of continuous reading as a writer. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?
First of all, is the underlying implication true? Is it necessary for a writer to perpetually read the works of other writers?
Technically, a writer only needs an idea and some ability to form sentences using a written language. As soon as we are able to put words on a page, we are capable of creating stories.
Those stories probably aren’t going to be very good. At that point in our development, we simply don’t know enough about what we’re doing to create a good story. If we want to be good in an artistic medium, we generally need to immerse ourselves in the work of others in order to even know what “good” means.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s assume that tonight’s topic is about transcending in skill as a writer. Without that assumption… yeah, you don’t need to read anything. Throw words on the page in ignorance. Use crayons, if you want. I don’t care.
Here are a few reasons why it is necessary to continuously read the work of other writers:
- Learning what Works
- Learning what Doesn’t Work
This is where it starts for most of us. Before we ever consider the possibility that we might be able to write a novel, we fall in love with a book. We’re swept away on currents of metaphor and simile to a place of wonder in our imaginations. Tales of noble heroes and wicked villains thrill us, epic romances and daring fights wow us, and the rich poetry of a well constructed world touches our soul. The joy of a written story is what inspires us to start in the first place. That same joy can keep us going.
Artists immerse themselves in art. Musicians buy records and go to concerts. Painters and sculptors visit museums. Landscape artists… I don’t know. Visit other people’s yards? Actors go to the theater. We were inspired before we set out to create work of our own, and we can be inspired again by the beautiful work of others.
It’s true that an artist’s enjoyment of the art is impacted once that person develops their own skill. I’m rarely surprised by writing anymore. I see the scaffolding beneath the painted scene, and I recognize the tricks the writer is using to guide the narrative. I see right through the writer’s sleight of hand, and I’m not quite as entertained as I used to be.
On the other hand, the entertainment I derive from stories now is on a different level. I can appreciate the craft. Maybe I’m not surprised as often by the turning or the shape of a story. Instead, I can appreciate a writer’s cunning as they create the setup and the delivery. I’m even starting to read through the different lenses of literary theory, though I’m far from an expert on that subject.
Learn what Works
N. K. Jemisin won three Hugos in a row for best novel. That’s remarkable.
How did she do it? It was probably a combination of strong characters, intricate world building, unique voices, and an occasional use of 2nd person.
People weren’t really using 2nd person that much before Nora Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Now writers are experimenting with it and creating really interesting stories using 2nd person.
Writer’s read novels and discover what can work. Sometimes when something works well enough, it expands an entire genre with imitators. Do you think we’d have as much Young Adult fiction these days if it weren’t for J. K. Rowling? Harry Potter inspired a generation to read, and a lot of those kids that grew up with dreams of going to Hogwarts became writers themselves.
[pauses to get Scotch]
What am I saying in this section that isn’t obvious? A good writer doesn’t read another writer’s work in order to steal their ideas. That’s not what this is about. A good writer isn’t looking in someone else’s book to lift techniques, either. A good writer reads to see how someone else might have experimented, and if the experiment paid off. A good writer reads to be entertained and inspired.
We had a surge of urban fantasy for a while. It was all written in the first person and it usually featured a talented main character in a role very similar to that of a private investigator. Why did we get that surge? Because that’s how Jim Butcher wrote The Dresden Files and other writers picked up the superficial details and tried applying those details to their own work. What I think they failed to realize is that it’s not the setting that makes The Dresden Files so special, nor is it the format. What makes The Dresden Files special is Butcher’s amazing ability to make all of his characters fully realized and interesting.
Learn what Doesn’t Work
After the previous section, this one should be obvious.
Sometimes, fiction makes it onto the shelves that includes less successful deviations from the norm. There’s a lot buried in those pages for a writer to learn from. They just have to be careful not to take away the wrong lesson.
Stephen King is an amazing writer and many of his stories have become ingrained in our culture. Unfortunately, some of his endings suck. That’s just how it goes. What can writer’s learn to avoid when looking at Stephen King’s endings? A big one… avoid the deus ex machina. The Dark Half and The Stand have a bit of that going on. Also, maybe don’t have an underage orgy scene like towards the end of It? Some of these things are probably obvious even before reading Stephen King’s work.
Twilight is super popular. Stephanie Meyer played with the mythos of vampires, and even if you hate their sparkle, what Stephanie Meyer did with changing the rules and subverting expectations is actually a good thing. The real lesson writers can learn not to do in Twilight has more to do with her world building. Also, maybe we don’t need some of the creepiness of having someone as old as Edward date a girl still in high school? Or maybe avoid having a young adult man “imprint” on a newborn baby? I’m just spit-balling here.
I’m not trying to bash popular books. On the contrary, I have a great respect for any author that has persevered and reached the point in their career where I’m trying to go. Maybe someday, I’ll have some books out that people can read, and also learn things that don’t work. I humbly hope to reach that point.
Writers go into their cave, hunker down over their computers or notebooks or concrete slabs, and they write alone. They type/write/carve their words, extracting images from their head and making them take shape in a permanent form. It’s a solitary act, but once you’ve started, you’ve joined a large and diverse community whether you realize it or not.
Writers are everywhere. Writing wisdom can be found anywhere. There are more people out there offering advice on how things can be done or should be done than there are writers publishing books.
[pauses to sip Scotch and let those words sink in]
Though writing is a solitary activity, you will want and need people to join you as you make progress on your books. This could be writer’s groups, editors, agents, long-suffering spouses that are either thrilled or horrified by your books, friends wishing you success and jealous rivals poking voodoo dolls hoping you won’t get too far ahead of them. There are online communities, offline communities, seasonal communities, regional communities, and communities that you only see occasionally when you go to conventions.
The writing world is big and if you want to be a good citizen in it, you should read the works of other people sharing that community with you. It’s fair, because you’re going to ask them to read your work. So just do it.
As has already been established, you’re going to be entertained and/or educated when you read someone else’s work. It’s good for you in all of the other ways we’ve talked about. That it makes you a good citizen of the larger writing community is just a side benefit.
At one point in your career (the point where I’m currently sitting, in fact) there will be more writers reading your work than non-writers. So be a good sport and buy their work, too. Promote it when you can. Be gracious and lift them up.
Final Thoughts and Confessions
All of the things I’ve said in this post are ideals to work towards. I have work to do in everything I’ve talked about. I read for entertainment and to learn, but I don’t spend as much time reading as I should.
I mentioned The Fifth Season earlier. The truth is, I didn’t finish that book. I was listening to it on audio and the experience frustrated me to the point I couldn’t continue. Eventually I’m going to get it written form and read it just so that I can talk about it more intelligently.
The necessity of continuous reading as a writer is an ideal. It’s something to work on. On this matter, maybe we all have a bit of work to do.
Pingback: Pithy Writing Advice | Brian C. E. Buhl