Reading to Write & Vice Versa

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

Stephen King, On Writing

Reading is to writing as nourishment is to the human body, as coal is to a steam engine, and vice versa. If you read a lot, and make a habit of interrogating what you read (what the writer does through their use of semantics, syntax, narrative tension, etc. to hold your attention; the implications of these same authorial decisions on the wider text; and how you can learn from their successes and/or mistakes) you will be far better equipped to write fiction.

Ideally, we should make time to read and write for several hours a day. Stephen King argues for a strenuous four-to-six-hour regime, although this is not possible for most of us. Succeeding in writing a book or even a short story is as much about having the time as it is about making the time, and sometimes you have to be brutal about it.

In the first place, you have to be privileged enough to have the time necessary to writing in order to succeed. Life and work both get in the way of writing, and a long series of sacrifices and compromises tends to inform the life of the average writer, this being a sweeping generalisation. No matter how you make, find or pillage your free time, here are a handful of ideas on reading to write, and the lessons to take away from all the books you’ll read: stories good, bad and everything in-between.

How to Read to Write & How to Write to Read

Variety in your reading habits is also essential. Nobody writes like Jane Austen, Tobias Smollett or George Elliot anymore. Their extremely mannered styles of writing are far out-of-date, so contemporary authors are the best ones to sniff out. Even if you end up hating the book, or you give up half-way through, it’s still a learning exercise in what works for you and how not to write. The simplest advice to follow would be, if you don’t like what you read, write something better.

Wide reading allows you to zero in on the important stuff, i.e. the stuff readers want to read about and experience in a story, that you want to read about and experience in a story. When we read a good book, there’s a definite learning process that takes effect. Each new novel, short story or flash fiction broadens your understanding of the possibilities of literature.

50ShadesofGreyCoverArt.jpg
Fifty Shades of Grey

We learn the best lessons from the worst books with the worst prose (Twilight, Fifty Shades, Mein Kampf), so it can pay to frustrate yourself from time to time, just as reading good books encourages us to press on and write our own best-sellers. Inspiration is everywhere, and there’s no shame in stealing ideas, but be sure to do something different with your gains. Write the book you yourself want to read, and make it interesting enough for readers to give you their time and hard-earned cash. There’s nothing worse that derivative fiction, except perhaps dull and badly written fiction.

But don’t read purely to edify yourself. Read for pleasure, for the joy of reading. Writing is entertainment, plain and simple. You should certainly regard it as a fine art (one that demands regular practice and a desire to learn — not only from your own failures but from other writers and readers too), but if the reader feels like their time has been wasted, it’s game over. One more bad review.

Make it new.

Ezra Pound

A Few Possibilities

How come so few writers write in the second person? Go ahead and read Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and decide for yourself. Can you do better?

The same goes for the epistolary novel. Lionel Shriver is widely regarded as the modern master of this particular narrative genre, and We need to Talk about Kevin will show you why. Then again, maybe you’ll hate it, and say to yourself, no-no-no, this is not how to write a book. It’s up to you to decide.

Does The Exorcist really deserve the title Most Terrifying Novel Ever Written? Read it, and be your own judge. Maybe it’s an overwritten potboiler, or maybe there’s more nuance to it than meets the eye. See how it compares to Stephen King’s The Shining, and come to your own conclusions.

The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon, #2) by Dan Brown
The Da Vinci Code

And what about The Da Vinci Code? If so many readers loved it, can it really be that bad? There’s a kind of science to writing page-turning thrillers, and reading Dan Brown, Ian Fleming, Lee Child and Patricia Highsmith (to name a few) will shed light on how to keep readers hooked from chapter to chapter.

Furthermore, is Hemingway all he’s cracked up to be? The Old Man and the Sea is undeniably a great work of literature — perhaps due in part to its brevity and its fable-like nature — but his longer works, e.g. A Farewell to Arms may come across as dull and lacking any kind of stylistic verve, whereas For Whom the Bell Tolls, despite some horrendous usages of repetition, lingers in the memory as a work of terrible genius.

The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.

Stephen King

Written by Michael Conroy

Copyright © 2020 Sirius Editorial | All Rights Reserved

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