Tag Archives: reading for writers

Writers Gotta Write, Writers Gotta Read

Read a quick but great article in the New York Times by Tina Jordan yesterday, “Some Dos and Don’ts From Famous Writers.”  There were tips by Delia Owens and J. K. Rowling, from John Grisham and William Faulkner, the latter who spouted the line that really got to me: “You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader.” This should come as no surprise to anyone that thinks of themselves as a writer, because truly, where would you get the inspiration to write without the very prose (or poetry or play or lyric) that drove you to it? I’ve always had a lust for reading, starting from that very day in first grade when the nun easeled an oversized, laminated book in front of the class. (Yes, I am the product of a Catholic elementary school education. Don’t start with me.) LOOK — was the only dialogue on the page, but when I sounded out the L-O-O-K with my rudimentary phonics knowledge and my agile young brain connected the synapses to form look–well, it was a discovery so profound, I jumped out of my desk to cry I CAN READ THAT! And I’ve been doing it ever since.

As I look around my office I see four tall bookcases, a basket of magazines containing academic and trade periodicals, a couple of New Yorkers on my desk with another journal underneath, and atop the table next to my favorite reading chair, Becoming, by Michelle Obama, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (this month’s Book Discussion pick), a book on back pain (from sitting on my ass at this desk too much), and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. At the top of my TBR pile is Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, and just below it, Something Wonderful, by Todd S. Purdum. If you know anything about these books, you can tell what an eclectic reader I am. Does that say anything about my writing? Maybe it does.

One thing’s for certain. If I don’t read, it definitely affects my writing. It plods along, my characters lose their edge, the dialogue becomes stilted. There are certain schools of thought that say you shouldn’t read and write at the same time, because if you do, you’ll unconsciously steal the style of whomever you’re reading. I don’t happen to buy into that. For me, reading breaks loose my inner competitor, and I find myself wanting to outdo them. If anything, I get inspired–if they can do it, I can do it better, and the more I read, the more I want to write. I remember a time when I was deep into deadlines, that I didn’t even come near a screen outside my laptop for a month. But every day I found the time to read, over breakfast, over lunch, after a writing session, before bed. Now, I must admit I do a fair amount of reading from my laptop and my phone. But there’s still nothing like the visceral touch of the printed page, the pure joy of row upon row of embedded ink slowly unfolding a story. And no such thrill as when that story’s your own.

But enough about reading. Writers got to write, too. Best get back to work. Unless, of course, you’ll be reading.

 

Tips From the MFA Pit, Part 5 – Reading like a Writer

This week it’s another installment from the MFA Pit, where we’re looking at the things we read to write. Sometimes our reading material can take the form of books on craft, the other times on our genre of choice. Sometimes that’s not even the genre we write, but what we simply enjoy reading. But when what-we-write converges with what-we’re-reading, we seem to take on a more critical eye…
You certainly don’t have to like everything you read, and sometimes that’s good. You find out what NOT to do, what works and what doesn’t. And you learn to read like a writer, not so much for the story, which definitely runs in the background, but for craft—what tools and techniques the writer uses to write a compelling story. In my Comp One classes, we do what’s called a Rhetorical Analysis of an essay to accomplish much the same thing. We look at four things: the situation, or what prompted the writer to write, the purpose, what the writer wanted the reader to think or do, the thesis, the main claim, and the audience, who the writing is directed toward. Of course, this analysis is wasted on 90% of most of the students (sadly), as once they get out of my class and/or Comp Two, they’ll more than likely never write anything beyond a text or instant message, or maybe an email when they get into the work world. But we can also apply some if not all of these principles to creative writing too, when we’re directing our story to a particular genre. In the fantasy or romance realm, audience is all important. When you combine the two, even more.
In fantasy, we concentrate on the world the writer’s building. It has to be different and compelling to draw your audience in. They need to leave the ordinary world and venture into something where the rules of of the ordinary world can flex. But that flex has to have its own logic, and after it’s established, you need to stick with it or your readers will call you on it. For example, the perennially logical Dr. Spock of Star Trek could never suddenly turn sentimental. Fans would call foul. Then again, if he did it for a single episode it could be fun, because he’s stepping out of his ordinary world. But his fans would definitely want such a sojourn to be temporary, as what’s the fun in a weepy Spock?

With romance, the “rules” are definitely a bit stricter. There ALWAYS has to be a HEA – a “happily ever after,” or at least a HFN – a “happy for now” if you plan on sending them on some hijinks in the next book. And there are definite stages to their romance—when they first meet, when they first kiss, when they first make love, when they fall in love, when the fall OUT of love, when they face the Dark Moment, when they fall back in love, then when the commit to each other, then lastly, the HEA or HFN.  All romances mostly follow the same progression, and romance fans look for and expect each stage. What keeps them interesting, and keeps the pages turning, is how the couple reaches each stage and goes beyond it. You see, the trick to writing a good romance is the couple is not supposed to fall in love—yet against all odds, they do. It’s this struggle romance fans look for. And as a Romance Writer, it’s up to your to deliver. When it’s too easy, it’s not a romance. When they meet, it’s fate. When they kiss for the first time, it’s mind-blowing. When they finally make love—it’s a nuclear meltdown. It’s that easy!

As we venture more and more into our own writing, we almost subconsciously view other writers’ works through the filter of our own. Sometimes we view it with intimidation, sometimes with awe, sometimes with jealously, sometimes with a smugness when we’re convinced ours is so much better. What we should always do is keep reading though. Just like a chef never stops tasting, a writer can’t ever stop gazing at the worlds around them, in a continual effort to improve their own.