An editor of mine once told me that you cannot write well if you don’t read. This tidbit of information is echoed in quotes attributed to great writers as well, so it must be true. In fact, I have found it to be true in my day-to-day life. As a journalist, reading the paper or the magazine in which I edit creates an intuitive voice and style that I reach for when writing and editing for that publication. And through reading great works of fiction, I’ll be better capable and able to write good fiction.
As I work my way through my to-be-read list, I’m able to identify what I like about my own writing style, what I like about other’s writing styles and good use of language. In those moments of a novel when you are in the race with your main character, you can feel your feet pounding the pavement, feel the sweat bead up on your brow, feeling the oxygen struggling to get to your own lungs and your heartbeat is actually moving faster as your brain responds to all of these cues, you know that’s good language. In that paragraph that you had to re-read three times or that you skimmed over because it was unbearably long and you could see, down the page, that the next piece of dialogue is going to answer that burning question you have, you know, perhaps what not to put in your own writing.
Read with an analytical mind
I now read with an eye more focused on the nuts and bolts that go into writing. For example, I was discussing The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo with B. My overall thoughts on the novel are spectacular, I couldn’t have read it in 48 hours if I did not feel like this, however, I felt as though the reader was being spoon-fed the information the writer wanted her to know, specifically as it relates to character development. In my opinion, there are some areas where a writer should leave that low-hanging fruit dangling for her reader to reach up and grab on her own, rather than place it in a bowl in front of her. This wasn’t something that B noticed. Perhaps it’s simply because I’m reading with a focus on these things as I also spend time writing my own novel, making these tools of the trade something that I’m honing in on.
Read books outside of your niche
It goes without saying that if you continue to read the same types of books over and over again, your ideas about what a book is and should be are reinforced and you’re going to end up writing one exactly like it. Romance novels are a great example of this. And don’t get me wrong I love a good romance novel, but they are very formulaic: Girl stumbles on guy, guy is unbelievably rich and smoldering, guy chases girl, girl buys in, something tragic happens to threaten their happy ending and then the happy ending. Great beach reads, great pallet cleansers between really heavy books and entertaining, but there are other storylines out there. Look for them!
Discuss books with others
My work book club has been great for this. Sometimes it isn’t until we are 45 minutes into a discussion and I hear someone else’s point of view that I may be able to identify symmetry between two characters’ storylines or think back to how the author foreshadowed a key moment in the story. I have had moments where it’s as the words are leaving my mouth that I’m thinking to myself, that’s such a cool thing the author did there. I remember this happening with The Glass Castle.
Moral of the story
So, you see, all of this reading is really what makes good writing. (Someone tell my editor that, please!) Whether you’re about to write or read, get to it.