A Writer Reads

…but what does reading have to do with writing?

For most of us, we learned to write around the same time we learned to read.  It is likely our ability to read developed more quickly than our ability to write and if we liked reading, we did a lot of it.

I was such a child.  I read everything I could find that interested me, from story books, fairy tales, and fables, to Time-Life books about the planets, dinosaurs, Time, or the Earth.  I even read every word of those Publishers Clearing House envelopes stuffed with prizes and magazines to order.

What I most loved to read, though, were stories.  The Bookmobile stopped across the street from our house every Friday after school for years.  I found the selection limited, though, and began haunting my elementary school library and later the middle and high school libraries.  Once I could drive, I spent many Saturday afternoons browsing the racks at the city library.

Somewhere along the way, after reading the dozens of novels and hundreds of stories, all that reading flipped a switch inside me that illuminated my writer self.  I distinctly remember wanting to write a story for the first time in my early teens.  The story was about an evil janitor with occult powers to punish any kids who played hide and seek in the medical and dental offices near where I lived.  The story concept had some merit, but the writing itself was terrible.

Ever since I finished that short story, though, I’ve thought of myself as a writer.

But what does reading have to do with writing?

The act of writing is putting a story to words so that another reader can experience that story as you intended to tell it.

The more stories and novels an aspiring writer has read, the more proper story structure, format, characterization, description, plot, and theme permeate the subconscious almost like osmosis.

There is a rhythm to storytelling that is not always innate, but can be learned through reading and studying how other writers tell stories.  How do they evoke emotion?  How do they paint images in the reader’s mind?  How often do they address all five senses?  Are characters revealed through thought, dialog, action, or all three?  What word choices to they use?  How is action paced and balanced with reflection?  Are scenes long or short?  How are the best stories begun?  How are the best stories ended?

Much can be learned by simply reading, taking no thought to how the writer did it, but just enjoying the story.  Even more can be gained by actually studying how the writer wrote a passage that resonates with you or impresses you in some way.

By reading a variety of authors, genres, and both new and old stories, you can learn from the example of others.

If you did nothing else but read avidly and write, you would have a head start over those who attempt to write, but don’t read and thus haven’t saturated their minds and souls with the rhythms of story.

As an example, I’m currently reading Brotherhood of the Wolf the second in the Runelords series by David Farland.  I subscribe to his Daily Kick newsletters on writing and publishing topics and find his advice is generally outstanding.  I like the Runelords world and like to see how he writes epic fantasy, especially his earlier books in the late 90s.

I’m also re-reading Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.  I’m trying to deepen my understanding of characterization to improve my current novel in progress, The Lost Tower.

Remember that a writer reads.  Stephen King said in his book On Writing that you really can’t be a writer unless you read a lot.  Good advice from one of the masters.

And with that, what are you currently reading and why?

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4 responses to “A Writer Reads

  • Mom

    Do you remember reading the dictionary? I’m reading “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” by Jamie Ford. He said he survived Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp.

  • Mark J. Taylor

    Ah, the dictionary. Not much on plot, but full of great vocabulary.

    I’ve read Card’s boot camp is very serious stuff.

  • Stephen A. Watkins

    Well… I’m sort of in the middle of Lev Grossmans’ The Magicians (sort of meaning I was about halfway through when I had to return it to the library, and now I’m waiting on the library’s wait list until it’s my turn again). And I’m halfway through A Feast for Crows. Other than that, short fiction, mostly.

  • Mark J. Taylor

    You’ll have to give a review of the “The Magicians” when you finish. I see it in the bookstore all the time and am curious if it is good story.

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