Read, read, read.
– William Faulkner
I love reading books and I love writing books (of dubious sizes and completion rates). I’m going to be honest right now: I think reading is integral to writing. I’ve heard writers say they don’t have time to read, or that they don’t “need” to read, and while I like to think that I’m open to new things and willing to debate and discuss and listen to the opinions of others, I have a deep-rooted belief that writers need to read, and it’s a belief that has been challenged many times yet has not wavered. Here’s why I think all writers need to read …
Read to understand
The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.
– Stephen King
I don’t always like to read books that are similar to what I write because sometimes I discover my ideas already there on the page (dammit, must write faster), or my ideas pale in comparison (pass the wine, I’m not writing tonight or EVER AGAIN). On the odd occasion, however, I read something and think This? THIS?!
When we read to understand we are reading to understand the books we want to write. Reading books helps us understand:
- What is currently working in the market – what is popular and what is going on the discount pile, and what is (and isn’t) working for different audiences.
- Changes that are taking place in what is being published and by who – you’re not doing to send a picture book to a cookbook publisher, are you?
- How writers are using and manipulating traditional genres and styles of writing, and what it means for your writing (what was obscure ten years ago might be flourishing now).
Even better than reading in the style and genre that matches your own is reading in a style and genre that sit beyond your “comfort zone”. If you’ve got a passion for Fantasy and have never read anything else, how will you come up with a unique voice if your brain is completely awash with the intimidating voices of Tolkien and Eddings and Feist?
We can analyse what we’re reading on a deeper level. Why am I interested in this and will readers, in turn, be interested in my book? What did I hate about this character that made me want to stop reading halfway and how do I prevent these flaws in my characters? Who is this book suitable for and how will that change my target audience?
We can generate great ideas if we challenge the boundaries of tropes and “writing rules”. Read to understand what works and what doesn’t work. It’s really quite simple.
Read to research
If you steal from one author it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research.
– Wilson Mizner
In 2002 I finished high school. It was pretty cool, especially as I had to write a short story as a major work for one of my English subjects. It was a year-long writing extravaganza during which I had to produce a short story of 6-8000 words. I mucked around with mindless Googling of fantasy tropes (yes, we had the internet back then – it was slow and I had to use the school computers because we didn’t have it at home) and then I finally sat down and wrote a 7000 word draft.
“It’s a good story,” my teacher shrugged and I breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s a good, standard fantasy story.”
Uh-oh. It’s not good in the way I want it to be good.
“Now go and make it yours. Make it unique.”
I researched the bejeesus out of that story. Every aspect I had mentioned in the draft of the story was subjected to brutal revision. Hey, I mentioned a mountain, let’s research mountains. And, oh look! A generalisation: “Every mountain has a dragon.” That’d be cool – I want a dragon in my story. Oh, according to Christopher Vogler I should have a gatekeeper. Bingo.
See the connections that took place? Whether you need to check the historical accuracy of the Civil War (whichever one that may be) or remind yourself exactly what a troll typically looks like, we need to read to research. Research gives our writing backing and makes it more than a flippant remark – what was a simple mountain in my story became a core part of the narrative because the research I did led me to transform elements of the story. I’m still very proud of that piece because it represents a significant lesson in my writing life – research, revise, and write it again.
And I got a damn good mark, by the way.
Read to enjoy
It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.
– Oscar Wilde
In 2009 I put down yet another book I was reading for university and sighed. Then I realised I was sighing because it was yet another YA book and I was kind of over the angst and anguish of the teenage experience – I’d been through it myself and was at a point where yelling at the characters to get over themselves and grow up was more indicative of my age than my love of YA fiction. It was also indicative of the fact that all I had done was read a very narrow selection of books from the massive assortment that exists in the literary world … I had stopped reading for my own enjoyment and hadn’t done so in years.
Fortunately, I’ve overcome that dry spell. I still read a lot of YA fiction yet now it is interspersed with “grown up” books and books that I wouldn’t normally read but have seen a review for or had it recommended by a friend. Reading for enjoyment also means that where I once persevered and slogged through books just to finish them, I now read a book and persue enjoyment and entertainment rather than knowledge and enlightenment (or decent quotes for my essay due in two hours).
There is excitement that happens when you open the first page, delight when something lovely happens to your favourite character, sorrow when things don’t go the way you want them to, and an ardent wish to jump into the pages and sort everything out with the arrogance that can only be had by a reader who has watched everyone stuff everything up through miscommunication and inaction.
As a writer, I want my readers to read my work and enjoy it. Some might take away profound lessons or new understanding, others might float around on a cloud before coming back to earth … ultimately, my test of a good book is enjoyment. Enjoy reading – it’s not a chore, it’s a thrill.