It is a well established truism that in order to write you must read. You must read.
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.
Read broadly, read widely, read deeply, read frequently. Read within your tiny genre and read well outside your comfort zone. Read, read, read, goddamnit read already.
Personally, I loved getting this advice. Getting told that reading makes you better at writing is like getting told to eat ice-cream because it has calcium and is good for your bones. Lets just say I’m on-board with reading.
And ice-cream. Damn, this diet is hard sometimes…
I’ve been an infrequent binge-reader since starting and leaving university, then starting work, relationships, kids… the combination of workload and social life made reading difficult to fit in, but when I could, I devoured books rapaciously. I dove back into regular (not binge) reading with a passion in late November last year when I sold my car (a 16 year old Honda Prelude – so sad to see it go, but impractical when you have two spawnlings). I started catching the bus, and faced with a twenty-five minute trip in and out of work, dedicated this time to books. Since late November 2013, I’ve chewed through over fifty books pretty much only reading on the bus (I have a list, I really should post it at some stage).
Then of course someone has to go and ruin the ice-cream-dream with logic…
You don’t learn to write through reading anymore than you learn carpentry by sitting on a chair. You learn to write by writing. And, when you do read something, you learn from it by dissecting it — what is the author doing? How are characters and plot drawn together? You must read critically — that is the key. (link)
Fiction does not generally inspire functional creativity. Reading fiction helps you to write fiction, yes, but over time you may find more creative value in gently shuffling your reading habits toward absorbing more non-fiction. Read broadly, widely, weirdly. Reading lots of non-fiction will expose you to a wide variety of those aforementioned “unlike things” and you’ll find this inspires more compelling arrangements than reading only fiction. (link)
Damn. I had thought my days of critically reading a book were long gone with year twelve English, and I’ve never read much non-fiction. But, like all of Chuck’s advice, I figure I better try it before discarding the idea, and I tried both reading critically, and reading non-fiction.
Annoyingly, I think Chuck was right.
Firstly, I figured out reading critically doesn’t mean you need to start writing detailed book reviews, or long essays on the metaphor behind some stupid upside-down turtle on a dusty Oklahoman road* – although you certainly can – whatever floats your boat. Rather, its enough to read and try to notice when things work or don’t work.
I read all the Harry Potters (books I’d never got around to reading until this year) and could see the beautiful job Rowling did in building audience sympathy for Harry, the poor, bullied, orphan boy. From the outset his life is shit, and the reader mentally rallies around him, we are instinctively protective of him because we remember every moment we have been bullied, unlucky, or powerless. Building sympathy with the character, giving the audience some reason to like them, to follow them through the book (and the six books after that)… it’s gold**.
More recently I have finished the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was mightily impressed that within the first five pages, the author had introduced a small but compelling mystery, the delivery of one pressed flower, that hooks a reader pretty much instantly. We are no-where near knowing about the missing girl, the sadism of the Vangers, or even the corrupt Wennerström, yet we want to know more. Who is sending the flowers? Why? Why is one missing? Getting that sort of engagement within the first chapter is exquisite to see, and a pleasure to read.
As for the second point, reading non-fiction… well here I was more dubious, but I am coming around. I started with Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ and I’ll admit it was a bit hard going to start with. Capote is an excellent writer, but the amount of exposition it took to get to the good stuff was a challenge. I understand he was building the picture of the victims family, the father, but I was struggling until we were introduced to Perry and Dick. Once the murderers were on board, the rest was an amazing read. Reading this book a) taught me that I should avoid long exposition and b) inspired (sort of) the flash fiction ‘The Merciful Alleyway’.
I’m currently halfway through the Right Stuff, and this book is a page turner. Wolfe’s insight into the minds of the men of the Mercury missions is amazing, and the way he carries the story forward is testament to how engaging his writing is. But more importantly (to me) is the exploration of the subject of courage or bravery. These men were willing to sacrifice their lives in the pursuit of the unknown. Patriotism, faith, and staggering egos all combined to allow these pilots to strap themselves to the nosecone of a rocket right into history. Now one of the stories I’m working on is a science fiction dealing with colonisation of an unknown place. This book gives me a real feel for the sort of person that might volunteer for that, and how they would deal with the pressure, react to setbacks, how a team would hold together or fall apart. By using a non-fiction example as your guide to writing, I think a writer has the potential to add verisimilitude to any story. Use the truth to bring about a sense of truth in your writing.
Going forward, I’m going to continue with my program of ‘Reading with Intent’. Each book I read should give me something in addition to the simple enjoyment of escape. I’m reading more classics to get understandings of strong themes and characters, particularly those that have the longevity to enthral readers for decades. I’m reading more books by female authors to get a better understanding of how women characters think and act. I’m reading more brand new books and brand new authors to see what is cutting edge out there, what is challenging and what is returning to older, tried and proven approaches.
I’ll be sure to share any epiphanies I have here on the blog.
This post was a little longer than I expected it to be! It has been floating around in my head for a while, and I got carried away.
Let me know in the comments – do you read critically to improve your writing? If so, what’s a book you suggest and why? Are you a non-fiction fan or hater? Got any recommendations for non-fiction reading?
Anyway, thanks for reading!
*When writing this oblique reference to The Grapes of Wrath, I got the book down from the shelf and had a quick look at the ‘turtle bit’. I remember hating this book in highschool, primarily because I was had to read it and had to write essays about it. After reading a few pages of it now, many years later, I may have to go back. It looks pretty good…
**Quite literally gold in the case of J K Rowling.