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By Chris Hutton
This whole post could be as short as this. You want to write, read. There blog done for the week. No…
Okay, a bit more then.
If you don’t read novels, don’t write them. Don’t read short stories, don’t write them. Don’t watch tv, don’t write television. Or….
To put it in a more positive light:
If you want to write novels, read novels. If you want to write short stories, comics, or for film &/or television, read short stories and comics and watch tv and film (and better yet, read teleplays and scripts).
Because it makes you a better writer. Beyond writing itself, there is no better training ground for the craft. Read great works, read crap works, just read. From the greats you can pick up on what it is you like so much, and what they do so well. Even more, from the not so great work, well, you can pick up on what bothers you. What techniques drive you up the wall? Do you hate adverbs? Does passive voice grate on your nerves. Do cliches, like those littering this paragraph, make you want to scream (see what I did there (twice)). I once had a professor that told me there was never an excuse to starting a sentence with ‘it.’ It’s not advice with which I completely agree, but I imagine that he picked that up from one too many sentences starting with ‘it’ in something that he read.
Of course, the items entailed so far are more grammatical than anything else, but there is so much more to be learned. What stories excite you? What stories bore you? How do you feel about starting in the middle of the action and then flashing back? Personally, with rare exceptions, I prefer the straightforward narrative, What about the types of work you like? Do you want your horror pumping with gore, or exuding dark psychology? Both? What about your science-fiction? Perhaps you prefer slow tales of humanity at its limits, or maybe you want hordes of aliens and laser fights around every corner. Reading will let you know what you love and what you hate. In the end, I hope that we are telling the stories that we love, not the ones that we hope will impress. I could try to write some piece of modern literature, but I don’t read it. I read King and Hill and Cutter and horror and James S A Corey and near-future science-fiction. And if that is what I read, that’s what I write.
But so many reasons…
I get it. For those of us who want to write, it can be hard enough to find time to put pen to paper. Now some nobody with a blog is saying you have to read as well. Jerk.
There are a million reasons why we don’t read enough, although perhaps the crux of the dilemma is the usual culprit for so many of the things we don’t do – time. There just isn’t much of it. Again, I get it. I do. I want to read a lot more than I do, but I can’t make the time; but I do make some time, even if only a few pages a day I make sure to read. Usually I aim a bit higher, but the point is, when you find yourself having no time, exhausted from the stresses of everyday life, try to push through even just for a page or two. Make that effort.
Beyond helping you become a better writer it is a matter of respecting your audience. If you don’t enjoy the medium enough to spend your time on it, how can you expect anyone to spend their time and hard earned money on your stories? You can’t.
Oh but, beyond time, I frequently hear one other excuse – one for which I have far less tolerance: I don’t want to be influenced.
To that I say, “Well, that’s just ridiculous.” If you are going to write, you need to know what has been done and what hasn’t. You need to know what works and what doesn’t. You need to know the craft and you can’t know that if you’re not reading.
Not just words…
And lest you think that I am talking out of my ass, here is a rundown of what I have been reading over the past six months.
- Fatale, Book 4
- Fatale, Book 5
- Kill or Be Killed, Vol. 1
- The Black Monday Murders, Vol. 1
- Locke & Key, Vol. 4
- Locke & Key, Vol. 5
- Locke & Key, Vol. 6
- Descender, Vol. 1
- Descender, Vol. 2
- Descender, Vol. 3
- Roche Limit, Vol. 1
- Roche Limit, Vol. 2
- Black Science, Vol. 1
- Low, Vol. 1
- Low, Vol. 2
- Low, Vol. 3
Michael J. Straczynski
Brian K. Vaughan
- Paper Girls, Vol. 2
- Saga, Vol. 4
*includes only trades that I read during this period
William Peter Blatty
James S.A. Corey
Michael Phillip Cash
Arthur C. Clarke
Scott B. Smith
If for some reason you take pleasure in long lists of what I am reading (like this one), you can follow me at goodreads and keep tabs on my reading progress. Not sure the benefit there, but hey, transparency.
Don’t just trust me
What do I know? Hell, you don’t know me. I could be a gigantic liar. So now that everything I’ve written is called into question, let’s throw some quotes at you from people you might trust (if I’m not making them up).
“If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you. Maybe it’s not quite that easy, but if you want to learn something, go to the source.”
– Natalie Goldberg 1
Over the years, I have read many books on storytelling and writing. Many are forgettable, others like Natalie Goldberg’s (quoted above), not so much, but I take all with the proverbial grain of salt. Yet of all the books I’ve read regarding the craft of writing, Stephen King’s On Writing is my most cherished. King, as always, doesn’t mince words or attempt to fancy up the process to sound more profound. He tells it simple and straight. The book has a few basic sections, CV (his personal journey as a writer), The Toolbox, On Writing, and On Living: A Postscript. In that third portion (On Writing) King delves into the importance of reading to a writer, and every time I glance through those pages I imagine the title Read, Damn You! sitting above the text instead of the simple – 1 – that actually acts as the header. The quotes that follow are taken from that portion of his book and are some of my favorites among many.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
– Stephen King 2
And although King mentions that his reading is done for pleasure, not specifically learning, and entails an incredible 70-80 books a year, he admits that even when reading for the fun of it, we are learning.
“[T]here is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”
– Stephen King 2
Beyond that, he makes a strong point about the encouragement we can feel from reading a bad book.
“What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff? One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose – one [bad] novel… is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.”
– Stephen King 3
And to my earlier point regarding the importance of quality reading, he has this to say:
“Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling… Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing – of being flattened in fact – is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”
– Stephen King 3
I could spend a whole blog quoting just this one section from King’s book, but that seems vastly inappropriate, so I’m going to leave it at this overabundance of quotes and just encourage you to pick up the book yourself (Look, you can find it here). It’s worth the time.
My apparent love affair with King aside, he is not the sole voice on the importance of reading to the writer. A quick Google search will turn up a plethora of quotations.
“Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out.”
– William Faulkner, interviewed by Lavon Rascoe for The Western Review, Summer 1951
Found in Writers on Reading: 12 Quotations on Learning to Write by Reading
“Read. Read anything. Read the things they say are good for you, and the things they claim are junk. You’ll find what you need to find. Just read.”
Quoted in Donalyn’s Miller’s Reading in the Wild
Found in Buzzfeed’s 17 Writers on The Importance of Reading
Or check out yet another blog on the importance of reading to the writer. Try this one:
Sneak Peek at “10 Core Practices for Better Writing” – Read More and Write Better by Melissa Donovan on WritingForward.com.
Wrapping her up
Still don’t take my word for it? That’s probably wise. Don’t. Make your own call. But if you do believe me, then just read already. I have some short stories you can start on. Try my free reads if you’re desperate for some material, but no matter what, if you’re a writer and you want to excel, then read. Read anything. Read everything. Read as much as possible. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Happy Writing (and Reading) All!
1Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986), p54.
2King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), p145.
3King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), p146.
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