To follow up from yesterday’s post about reading, classmate and fellow blogger Melody (from Melody and Words, a seriously great and well written blog) shares her less-thought-of insights into why reading, especially as a writer, is so, so important. If you would like to write a guest post for Literature and Libation, send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
So you want to be a writer? Join the club.
The book club, that is.
If you are serious about writing, start reading. Whether you want to write fiction or nonfiction, articles or trilogies, you need to be aware of what else is out there.
One of the best things about writing is its simplicity. All you need is a pen and paper (and basic literacy) and you’re good to go. You don’t need the fanciest laptop or a highfalutin degree, although those may help. All you need to do is put pen to paper and start writing.
But if you really want to take your work to the next level, hit the library stacks.
Survey the Field
Would an inventor ignore all the new products being released? Would a doctor be able to diagnose a patient’s illness without keeping up to date on modern medicine? Would a scientist forget about atoms just because he didn’t discover them himself?
Writers need to keep current in their field. How else would you know what else is being done in your field? Maybe your fantastic idea about a time-traveling T-Rex who’s really just searching for true love has already been done. Reading is a writer’s market research. It’s how you discover whether an idea is fresh or whether the market for Vampire Angel Viking Sheikh Navy SEALs is oversaturated. (It is.)
If you do have a great new idea in a certain genre, reading others’ work will help you discover how fellow authors have tackled your issue or genre, what angles to take, and what is currently missing from coverage of your favorite topics.
Surveying and learning from what has come before will not only help fine-tune your work. It will help you place your work with publishers. Reading The Atlantic will teach you to pitch big-idea pieces, not deep-sea fishing stories. Reading best-selling memoirs will help you find agents, editors, and publishers who have a proven history of representing books like the one you want to write about your childhood in that cult. Reading Seventeen will show you that no one above the age of ten would be caught dead with a magazine like that. Pitch your stories accordingly.
When you read books, magazines, and newspapers, try to put your finger on what their “signature” story or idea would be. What kind of stories are the publication’s editors on the lookout for? It will help you develop a sense of who publishes what.
Start reading with an eye on book covers and bylines. Following the work of other writers will serve as a frame of reference for yours, so that you can correctly pitch your travel memoir to outer space as “Orson Scott Card meets Elizabeth Gilbert.”
Reading is also the best way to find good examples of great writing. From Cormac McCarthy’s lack of punctuation to Jack Kerouac’s lack of sleep, from Anne Tyler’s empathetic characters to George RR Martin’s fearlessness regarding philandering dwarves and murdered main characters, other writers can teach you a lot. After all, there’s a reason they’re famous, and you get to ride their coattails.
When you see something you like, imitate it in your own work. And when you see something you hate, well, lesson learned!
If you’re experiencing writer’s block, pick up a book. Sometimes, simply giving your mind a rest allows your subconscious to work through issues on its own. You may land upon a creative way to solve a problem that’s been stumping you.
Imitating—but not copying wholesale—the work of others can help you overcome an issue you face in your own story. When your character is stuck between a goblin and Gollum, try inventing some fancy jewelry. When the party runs out of booze, hand your Jesus some water. These solutions may not stick through your revisions (of which there should be many), but they may ease you through a tight spot until you figure out what the hell you want your character to do next. (Unless you’re writing nonfiction; in which case, I suggest sticking to what actually happened next.)
In our graduate writing program, Oliver and I spend much of our time reading. Reading the works of great writers and identifying why they’re so good. Reading the works of less successful writers and discussing what they could have done differently. Reading the work of our classmates and helping them expand the good parts and shore up weaker sections. Reading, reading, reading, oh yeah and more reading.
You may not be in a writing program, but you can form your own writing group or join a local Meetup. Not only will critiquing others’ work make your writing stronger, you’ll also establish connections to other budding writers. These classmates, our instructors tell us, are our future editors and freelancers and the people we will talk about at cocktail parties in the future: “Oh, we knew him when…”
Or, if you’re that guy who makes it big, the possibility exists that you might bump into other writers on the bestseller lists at your own, much better, cocktail parties. You won’t want to be caught with a canapé in one hand and your dick in the other when that hot redhead realizes you haven’t read her mega-bestseller at all.
In addition to sounding erudite, maintaining relationships with other writers is important. You might get a glimpse into their writing life, and one day, you might ask them to blurb your book or help you promote that screenplay. A little networking goes a long way.
Practice Jedi Mind Tricks
Most importantly, reading gets you into the mindset of your target audience: the reader. Figure out what you like and don’t like in books, and then do/never do that. Write the stories you wish you could read, and you can’t go wrong.