Flashback: To Be a Writer, Be a Reader

August 7, 2014

Since I’m migrating my blog from my old livejournal account to my new website, I thought I would repost a few of my favorite entries here. The old blog will remain up, but I’ll be posting all new material here from now on.

Originally posted on November 5th, 2012

I was once part of a conference where we were hosting one-on-one editing sessions: blocks of time where the editors had done critiques on short stories and novel sections and then sat down to talk to the writers about them. As one of the editors, I was talking to a woman about the manuscript she had turned in. Sadly, her story wasn’t great—tons of clichés, poor writing, etc. To try to get a handle on what she was going for with it, I asked her what she liked to read. Her answer: “I don’t read very much.”

I was completely flummoxed by this. Because for me, wanting to be a writer without first being a reader is like someone who hates eating wanting to be a food critic for Bon Appetit. Just as someone who doesn’t like food probably won’t be able to tell a good recipe from a bad one, a writer who doesn’t read the work of other writers won’t have the tools to tell good stories.

So here are a few pieces of advice I give everyone who wants to be a writer:

Read. To start with, just read, because any reading that you’re doing is ultimately going to make you more sensitive to style, pacing, character development, and all the other tools you’ll need in your own writing.

Read widely in your genre. Want to write a YA science fiction novel? Read other YA science fiction novels. Same goes for mystery, romance, fantasy—whatever you’re writing. When you read in your own genre, you learn a lot of useful things. How long do these sorts of books tend to be? Does the age of the narrator matter? What are the general rules and tropes of this genre? (Because you can’t break the rules until you know what they are.) What’s already been done here—and what’s been done to death? In short, really know the genre you’re writing in. Believe me, readers can tell when a writer doesn’t have much familiarity with their genre.

Read in genres that you’re not writing. While it makes sense to read in your genre, reading outside it might sound counterintuitive. But it isn’t. Different genres have different strengths and reading outside your own genre will let you tap into those. Also, reading outside your genre can get you thinking about your book or stories in new ways. When writing The False Princess, for instance, I read mystery novels to see how they balanced between parsing out clues to their mysteries and holding them back—how they gave readers enough information to make their big reveals make sense without giving them away too early.

Didn’t like a book? Figure out why. So you’re reading a book and not liking it, maybe enough to put it down right now. Or you read a book to the end and thought, Wow, I won’t be recommending that to anyone. This might seem like a waste of your reading time but, as a writer, it actually isn’t. Whenever you dislike a book, take a moment to figure out why. Was the style clunky? Did the characters act out of character? Was the end too easy or neat? Was the villain unmotivated? If you can figure out what turned you off to a book, you can make sure to avoid those same pitfalls in your own writing.

Short version, for me reading is the first step to becoming a writer (and possibly the most important after “actually write something.”) If you’re already a big reader, you’re on the right track; just make sure that you’re reading critically, and thinking about your own writing a little while you’re enjoying yourself. If you aren’t a reader, but want to write, head down to your library or bookstore. You’ll be amazed at how it changes your writing—for the better.