Reading with intent: Musing on writing

Non-Fiction Books
Non-Fiction Books

It is a well established truism that in order to write you must read. You must read.

Stephen King:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

Ray Bradbury:

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…

Chuck Wendig:

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)

And then

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.

Published by: wildbilbo

My name is Kristian Thoroughgood, alternately known as KT to my friends, or @WildBilbo on twitter. As of August 2015, I am forty years old. Australian. My blog is intended to be both a place for me to polish my creative writing muscles (not a double entendre) and for others to read and comment on my musings. Expect short stories, articles, essays and other brain dumps. My opinions are my own, and whilst I take care to be at least moderately informed about any topic I speak or write about, these opinions are subject to rapid change in the face of passionate arguments and greater evidence. Please note - on my blog, Evidence beats Passion.

Categories Books, Toolbox, WritingTags, , , , , , 18 Comments

18 thoughts on “Reading with intent: Musing on writing”

  1. Hmm…interesting. I must admit, I never really read a lot or maybe I did when I was much younger. Can’t even remember lol. Still, I completed two books and had them recently published. Of course, they’re my life stories told in two different ways, but there you go. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Congratulations on being published – its an achievement to be proud of! 🙂

      And as for the ‘you must read’ line… well I think its good advice, and I think it will benefit or apply to many of us (I certainly think it applies to me) – but like all advice, it cannot be universal in its application. As always, I say take what you need, and discard the rest. 🙂

      Thanks for reading!


  2. Interesting stuff, this. I probably don’t read as critically as I could, although, like you, I think, I do some dissection along the way. In terms of nonfiction, it was all I read at one time, but I’ve skewed heavily toward fiction over the past few years. I still read nonfiction, though; I don’t think a reader’s “diet” is complete without it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually as a book blogger, I think you are more critical in your reading than you might realise. I read book reviews now to see what a reader might get out of a tale, whether I saw the same thing, see what themes they extracted, what characters they liked and why. If a book review doesn’t hit these sort of things, then I don’t think they are doing the job.

      I’m new and fragile around NF at the moment. I’m playing it very close to my specific interests, as I’m still convinced the real world and real people are fundamentally dull – so Im sticking to what I like. My next NF plans are some engaging physics/space books (Hawkings probably) and some ‘real crime’ – maybe hit some serial killer write ups. The serial killers idea is appealing, as the nature and causes of evil is a fascinating theme.

      Cheers and thanks for reading!


    1. Ah yes, the reading binge – falling asleep at 3am with a book You. Must. Finish. Waking up at 7am and rushing to work wondering if you remembered to brush your teeth and why your neck hurts, working like a zombie all day then… doing it again because you bought the whole series in one hit.

      This post was a bit of a binge writing session – I’m normally tragically slow, managing a few hundred words a day.

      Indeed, one of the major points of my blog is to get into the ‘swing’ of writing and creating every day, so I can apply it to longer and longer pieces of fiction. I did a ‘binge’ plotting session last night – 1 hour of scribbling, filled 7 pages of chicken scratching’s that I need to now interpret/translate.

      Thanks for reading!


  3. Do I read critically? Lord, yes. So much so that I have trouble reading for fun anymore. Since joining an online critique group, I’ve started noticing things in popular literature that regularly pop up in the stories I post and critique (like filters, abundant adverbs, cliches, and inauthentic dialogue). I really try to ignore those things and enjoy the story, but sometimes I just can’t get past it and have to abandon the book, which I hate doing. Learning these things have improved my writing skills, no doubt about it, but this is the cost. Consider yourselves warned. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A real concern of mine! I’ve read a few writers saying the same – once you’ve seen the wires and mirrors, you can’t enjoy the magic trick anymore 😦

      These authors tend to say that non fiction is then the only way to go.

      Ah well, looking into the abyss isn’t without risks 🙂


      1. I read a pretty even balance of fiction and non fiction. I will say that when I do find a story I enjoy, I charge through it quickly because I’m so excited to find something good. It does still happen. Just not as much as it used to.

        Liked by 1 person

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