Reading and Writing

No, this isn’t a rant about the importance of the three R’s–reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic–but a chat about the connection between writing and reading. They go hand in hand, and some of the most helpful advice any writer can hear is, “If you want to write, read.” I’ll add, “Read. A lot.”

Of course, you say, my shelves are lined with writing self-help books, and I’ve read them all.

I’m not knocking any of these books. In fact, one of my bookshelves groans with the weight of them. What I mean is, if you write fiction, read fiction. Let’s go a little deeper. If you want to write romance, read romance; if you want to write science fiction, read science fiction, etc.

In an on-line forum I belong to, someone recently posted, “I’ve decided I want to write science fiction!!! How do I go about that?” I responded that the aspiring writer should read Asimov, Pohl, Dick, Bester, LeGuin, Butler, Atwood, and so on. “No, no. I don’t want to read science fiction! I want to write it.”

I washed my hands of it.

You get your best writing instruction on technique, mechanics, and what people want to read by reading what you want to write. And I have to caveat that–read good, established writers of the fiction you want to write. I’ll suggest, for now, in the fledgling state of your writing in a genre, read traditionally published writers. There are exceptions to this, of course, but if all you read is unedited indie fiction, it will only reinforce negative writing habits. I’ve posted about this before, so I won’t repeat my indie-writers-must-proofread-and-get-an-editor riff.

Reading what you want to write can be instructive in another way. You can learn the valuable lesson that a particular genre is not for you. For example, I love mysteries of all kinds–from Agatha Christie to Janet Evanovich–but I’m not sure I could write one that wouldn’t be a re-hash of something a better mystery writer than I has already done. The same with sci-fi. That was what I wanted to write when I first set pen to notebook to write stories about Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk when I was a freshman in high school.

The sad truth was, and is, sci-fi is not my forte. Granted, my short story published in eFiction Magazine last year had a sci-fi background. “Without Form or Substance” is about a young professor who finds her dream job, only to discover it involves time travel. I found, because this was a character piece, I didn’t need to go into the scientific details of time travel, which I doubt I could pull off. I learned that from reading Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin, among others.

Of all the reading I’ve done in my life, it was the characters who stood out most for me or, rather, the way the particular writer developed and wrote a character. Most of what I read is character-driven, and as a result, my strength is in the characters I’ve developed. I wouldn’t have learned how to make them “real” people if I hadn’t read great, character-driven works by authors across many genres.

Balancing reading and writing can be a chore, though. If I want to devote the time I need to writing, I can’t read all day long, which I can do at the drop of a hat. I’ve shifted the brunt of my reading to the weekends, though I still read a little in the evenings or when I need a break from staring at the blank computer screen. When I’m reading something I enjoy, which engrosses me, it’s the hardest thing to set it aside. I’m currently reading And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields. Not only is this a book about a writer, it’s a page-turner, and I regret every time I have to close the book and move on to something else I’m supposed to do.

Shields’ biography of Vonnegut is instructive on many levels. Not only do you see the mechanics of how to construct and research a biography, but you also get a glimpse into the life of a writer and how he wrote, what inspired him, and his struggle both to be published and to be accepted by other writers. I’ll give no more details than that because I want to review this book later.

I’ve found, for me, that when I hit a brick wall with something I’m writing, the best thing I can do is put it away. Then, I pick up a book and read.

What about you? What writers and what books have taught you how to write?

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