Out of all the advice available for writers, one bit manages to both stand out from the rest and get bogged down by the rest: Reading.
I’m always surprised to hear that some writers don’t read a whole hell of a lot. One of the easiest ways I improve my own fiction is by reading good fiction. Each book lends its own set of lessons, and I’ve found pretty instantaneous results.
While reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, my writing went bonkers for a while. I had been struggling with short, choppy sentences and holy good lord did reading that book beat the ever-living brevity out of them. So much so I had to reel them in! I started writing outrageously long sentences THAT STILL MADE SENSE, and that’s no easy feat. So I learned a new skill. From reading.
The Corrections also dramatically increased my sensitivity to the characters in my manuscript, and characters that had once been flat suddenly had these rich, complicated, very-real-persony lives, their needs and thoughts and goals injected with energy, their suspicions and superstitions screaming off the page. Even now if I feel my work is getting stale, I’ll bust out The Corrections and read a while.
I love that book, by the way, and if you haven’t read it, I recommend you do. If you have, I recommend you read it again. And if you’ve never re-read a book, you really should! If not for pleasure, then do it to improve your own story-telling even further. Re-reading gives you this amazing opportunity to look at things with a writer’s eye, to better understand the way the author unfolded certain aspects of his or her story, to see how that first sentence became the last. It’s a way of studying the craft. And what can it hurt? Yeah, it takes up precious time but if you’re writing you really should be reading anyway…
So maybe try it, okay? I mean, you only live once. So read a book twice!
Maybe you’ve heard of Chuck Wendig. He’s recently gotten a teeny-tiny bit famous from writing Star Wars: Aftermath, which I liked a lot, as well as two more in the series (currently in my queue). If you heard about Wendig before Star Wars, you probably did so the way I did, by stumbling upon his ever-helpful and ever-hilarious blog over at TerribleMinds.com.
Check out his blog. Search for 25. He has these ridiculously helpful lists of 25 things on various aspects of writing. You could also search Outline or Plot or Character and find delicious results, or just browse the whole thing. I could do a massive post on how useful and entertaining I’ve found his blog over the last few years, but I won’t talk about that here. What I want to talk about is his first published novel, Blackbirds.
I adore this book. Addictive and loads of fun. The main character, Miriam Black, is that friend that’s too brash to love but I sort of love her anyway, and if I met her in real life I’m not sure how I’d feel. Wendig’s writing is just bam-flash-bang, this colorful, visceral style that sucks you in and spits you out, and seriously-no-joke, reading this one Chuck Wendig book made my writing instantly punchier. He says he tinkered around with Blackbirds for five years or so, getting nowhere, when a mentor persuaded him to create an outline, and this mentor just happened to be a Screenplay Guy, so the Blackbird’s outline Wendig created was either a full-on screenplay or a screenplay-esque regular outline. I can’t remember. Either way, it worked, and the book uses all five senses, flows beautifully, and reads a lot like watching a movie. I’ve since read the other books in this series, and love them all. He just released the fourth installment, Thunderbird, which I’m super excited about and need to order right now.
And holy shit is he prolific. The man is an inspiration. Just look at his catalog of books and the timeline in which he’s written them… blows my mind. He’ll be like Stephen King or John Sanford in a few years. Endless, endless books of great quality. And then he’s got an impressive blog to top it off! And a wife! And a kid! I’m barely getting by with three projects and I just added this blog and I’m like, where the fuck did all my time go?
Most Stephen King books have a positive effect on my writing. His writing style is effortless and often poetic, he knows how to weave a tale, and he’s extra talented at making characters seem like real people you might really know.
I had never read Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, so when I found a hardcover copy at a used book store for like 2 bucks (score!) of course I snatched it up. This book is insane. I won’t spoil it for you (all this info can be found in the description of the book), but basically a woman (Jessie) and her husband (Gerald) get a little Fifty Shades at their summer home and she ends up handcuffed to the bed. But when something happens to Gerald, she is left alone and naked and attached to the bed, and even though they are at their summer house, it’s autumn in Maine so there’s no one around to hear her cries for help. The book is basically Jessie playing a real-life Room Escape Game, and it’s a wild ride. Even now, I’m not totally sure how King managed to keep my attention with one woman in one room for hundreds of pages. Sure, there are a few flashbacks, but the time he spends focusing simply on Jessie in the room blew my mind. I was constantly like, okay any minute, she’ll get free and then other stuff will happen. Nope. A zillion pages later, she’s still stuck to the bed. And I was still interested.
I wish I had the chops to manage a feat like that. Holy hell.
He has Jessie talk to herself a lot, in her head, so it doesn’t feel like she’s the only person in the room. I mean, she’s not just staring at the walls and her feet for the whole book. She manages to remain active on the page, and it’s impressive. I feel like King just wrote it as a kind of test for himself, like hmm I wonder if I can write a whole novel with essentially one character in one room stuck to the bed and still have it be good. And the answer is yes. Reading Gerald’s Game showed me just what you can do with so little, an exercise in digging deeper, a veritable lesson in character development.
And Netflix has made a movie starring Carla Gugino that’s due out this year! EEEEEPPP!
I’m quite curious as to how this movie will work, though, seeing as the majority of the book takes place pretty much inside Jessie’s head. If possible, read it now before you see the movie and you’ll understand what I mean.
I could go on and on about various books and the ways they have helped me become a better writer and gotten me out of a writing funk, but this post would be super-duper long and I should really be editing my novel right now. So basically I’m just saying read read and read some more!
But here’s a word of caution: I have found that reading a book with not-so-impressive prose or structure has negatively affected my writing. I won’t name anything here, but I’m just finishing a novel that, while the story itself is good, the technical writing isn’t so hot, and I was none too keen when suddenly half my creative output showed up in a bland, passive voice. I’m finding it difficult to craft rich sentences with layered emotion and color. I already have a few books in the queue, ones that I’ve sort of paged through and vetted so I know the prose and style and structure is what I’m looking for at the moment. And what I mean by that is they are the kind of books I know will improve my writing as soon as I start reading. And as a relatively new writer, I’ll take all the help I can get.
And the part about reading maybe making you a better human:
I listened to a podcast the other day where the guest spoke about how some scientific studies have shown that reading fiction can make you a more empathetic person. I could post links to a bunch of studies, but I think most avid fiction readers already know this. We don’t need no stinkin sciencey studies to prove it. What irked me was the response of the podcast host. He literally goes, “What. Why?” Like it was absolutely ridiculous.
And something inside me died.
It was his tone that got to me, I think. He seemed so ready to dismiss the idea that reading fiction could even come close to changing you, to make you more adept at reading people, or better at understanding where people are coming from. As they talked about this, I became very… bitey. I guess I’m sensitive about it? But it’s something I’ve thought about for years. I waited for the guy being interviewed to touch a little more on how and maybe why reading fiction can help us out, and he never really did, not to any satisfying degree, anyway. They basically just fell back on the fact that science has proven it, and that was that. So, here I will briefly explain my POV on the matter…
Think about it like this: not only are you reading about interesting people and confusing feelings and peculiar social interactions, not only are you delving deep into the tensions between sworn enemies, or the complicated emotions surrounding guilt, not only are you witnessing a woman pressing bloody crescents into her palms as she smiles and says of course, dear, you are sort of becoming all those things. You are suddenly that interesting person. You are magically experiencing an awkward situation. You are the enemy of someone else, and you are also your own enemy. You are conflicted over your own guilt. You are mutilating your own hand while smiling at your significant other. You are living it, your brain believes you’re living it, and your body reacts as a result of it. But the most incredible part of it all, the view from the top you might say, is that YOU ARE WALKING AROUND IN ANOTHER PERSON’S MIND. Whose mind? The author’s. When you read fiction, you are reading the direct creative thoughts of another person. You have been invited to party in forbidden territory, you have suddenly gained precious access to ANOTHER HUMAN BEING’S IMAGINATION. To me, that is a bizarre sort of miracle.
And if taking a stroll in someone else’s imagination doesn’t help you understand other people, well fuck me, I don’t know what will.
So what do you think? Has reading helped you in writing…or life…or both?