One of the biggest pieces of advice from successful writers to novice writers is to read, read, read.
I assure you, writers aren’t just saying that in the hopes that you’ll pick up their books and read them when they give this advice. When I was younger, much younger, I sincerely thought that was their reasoning for this particular directive.
I’m a Writer First
Growing up, I was an avid reader. If I could get my hands on it, I read it. By the time I was 19, I had read Gone with the Wind a dozen times. I’m not even exaggerating. I would run out of books and that book was so long that I was sure I missed something. So, I would read it again.
But when I hit my 20’s, I stopped reading fiction, and if I read any books, they were usually informational. I had a whole slew of books I would read on the craft, and all the while I was trying to write my masterpieces I was desperately seeking advice for writers. On repeat, I would be told to read.
“I am reading,” I told myself. “I’m just not reading fiction.”
My writing actually suffered during that time. A lot.
Let me amend that: my fiction writing suffered. I actually began writing articles about that time, and had success with them. But articles weren’t what I wanted to write. They were just easier for me to get published, so I published them.
My heart has always been in fiction.
It wasn’t until I started reading fiction again that my writing began to blossom again. I began to pay attention to this once I connected the two. And here is what I found.
6 Reasons Writers Need to Read Fiction
Watch a Pro
One would expect that if someone wants to become a master chef that they would eat the type of food they want not only to be able to replicate, but to improve upon. One would think that surgeons, during their training, would spend time observing surgery in practice. One would consider that to throw the perfect pitch, a player would study the pros.
There are certainly some folks who are just born with a natural gift with words. By natural gift, I mean that they are drawn to the art of words, and as such, they naturally think about words and how they use them. Just like there are people who experience the world in sounds, and thus can create wordless symphonies which portray and entire story.
However, regardless of what talent that might seem born into a person, if they don’t practice then they won’t improve. They studied the greats in their field and learned from them.
But how do you know who the greats are? Everyone has a difference of opinion. I reference Stephen King a lot, and I’ve read a bunch of his work, but other than a select couple of books, I wouldn’t say that I actually like his writing. He’s not great to me. I respect him, but he doesn’t make my favorite authors list (however, I will say that The Shining is exceptional, to say the least).
While there is the public opinion of who is truly amazing overall in the literary world, you need to find who you think is great. Every person who aspires to be something, will look up to someone within that field. My brother was an avid baseball player, and thus looked up to Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. I dated a chef who wanted to be Gordon Ramsay (why not Jamie Oliver is beyond me, but hey ho).
You need to do the same with your writing. However, you can only decipher who is worth looking up to if you find them. Despite what literary theory and criticism might say, only you can determine whose writing is considered canonical in your eyes.
The only way to do that is to read. Lots. In the genre you like and in the genre you don’t like. Go find your literary hero.
Paying a Compliment
The old adage goes that mimicry is the best form of flattery. When you find something you like, pay it a compliment in the best way you can by trying to emulate it.
While studying the greats, a person will get a sense of style from the person they’re studying. Van Gogh has a very distinguishable artistic style, as does Picasso, or Monet. Writers have a very different style between them, which might vary depending on their audience or time in their lives. However, there will be a thread of sameness throughout their writing that links their work back to them. Roald Dahl has a very distinct style of writing when it comes to his children’s novels, and a completely different style when it comes to his novels for more mature audiences. However, he still has a particular way that he writes which does not entirely separate how he writes for each audience.
Likewise, Stephen King, who writes not just horror, but dark fantasy, and paranormal (that is the closest genre I could come up with for Green Mile). While the genres differ, his style of writing is still very similar throughout his works. How he uses description and dialogue is recurrent.
Toni Morrison has a very distinct voice to me, one that I find highly effective and real. Compare her writing to that of Elizabeth Gilbert (though even how she writes varies depending on whether she’s writing fiction or non-fiction), and you’ll have vastly different voices. Of course, they come from vastly different backgrounds and have different reasons for writing the stories they right.
However, as you read various authors, you’ll find stories who touch you in different ways. You’ll discover their way of writing to be effective. You may even try to mimic their voice, and that is more than okay. It’s encouraging. When you try to deconstruct the way a story is told or how the voice is utilized, then you find what works for you, and what doesn’t work for you. You might borrow a technique to incorporate it into your own way of writing.
This is essential to the development and learning process.
If cavemen didn’t see one of their cave artists drawing on the wall and decide they wanted to try it too, we wouldn’t have come very far in our story-telling history.
Most of us know how to tell a story before we actively start studying story structure. This is because story is all around us, from the advertisements we’re blasted with on a daily basis, to the television shows we watch, to that which we pass between each other orally, and, of course, the books we read.
We are surrounded by story. We convey our day through story. When we share an experience with our friends, there’s a reason for sharing it, and the way we tell it revolves around that reason.
Reading fiction helps us to understand how to tell a story.
However, it goes further than that. Once we realize that we want to write our own stories, then we have to figure out how to do it. We begin mentally taking notes and deconstructing what we’re reading so we can get a better idea of how to portray our own works in a pleasing way.
Seeing how story theory is put to the test is an excellent way to learn.
Mini Piece of Homework
To test this out, figure out something complicated that you want to cook or bake. Get your recipes together and get a recipe book from the library that has this particular recipe. Do not go for a recipe on the internet.
Try to follow the recipe and create your creation without looking anywhere else other than your recipe book.
Next, you’re going to make it again, but you’re going to do it using a YouTube video on how to do it. Find a video that walks you through it and gives you the techniques, shows you how to roll the dough, when to add the wine, etc.
Did you fair better when you followed the directions from a book or when you saw it in action?
The purpose of this piece of homework is that you can see how just studying the directions is generally not enough to know how something is done. Sometimes you have to see it actually done in order to get the full weight of it.
Share in the comments what you picked and how it turned out. If you found a good recipe, share it with me! I’m always looking for delicious new ideas.
Many studies have been done which show that people who read are likely to be more empathetic than those who don’t read.
While this is something that of course is needed for humanity (we are nothing if we cannot be empathetic and compassionate toward each other), it can be essential for writers. Part of story telling is not just moving a character about through a plot. It’s understanding the depth of them so that they can create their own character arc.
When we read stories, especially ones which have deep characters, we begin to look at people differently, and also begin to examine our characters differently. This is a wonderful tool for character development, just as much as observing the people around you.
Here are some articles if you’d like to explore this topic, arguing both sides further:
- Scientific American | Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy
- Cognition Today | The Effect of Reading Fiction on the Brain: Do Books Increase Empathy?
- Brain Connectivity | Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain
- Science Mag | Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind
- Journal of European Psychological Students | The Relationship Between Empathy and Reading Fiction: Separate Roles for Cognitive and Affective Components
- BBC Future | Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People?
- The Washington Post | Does Reading Fiction Make You a Better Person?
As I mentioned earlier, when I started to read fiction, my writing changed drastically. Aside from looking at the stylistic elements, I found that I was suddenly teaming with ideas.
When you read fiction, you’re of course being told a story, but you’re also trying to figure out the story along the way. If you’re anything like me, you’re trying to guess what’s going to happen next.
Characters are put in interesting situations and can trigger ideas for your own writing. For example, I was struck by a story idea while I was reading my friend’s fantasy short story. She was planning on basing her Dungeons and Dragons campaign on the story. There was one situation, where two lovers were separated into two worlds. When I read this, my mind went into an entirely different direction, and I came up with a sci-fi western trilogy which I’m nearly finished writing.
I have countless story ideas which have come from trying to guess what came next in the story and my mind going into its own direction, or from a sentence or concept that was mentioned in a novel I was reading that developed into a story. The entire Star Wars universe – the books written before Disney came along—are because authors liked a concept that was presented that wasn’t fully developed and they went with it (I tried to count them on the Wikipedia page. Before 2013, there were well over 200 books and stories set in the Star Wars universe. This number doesn’t count the comic books, nor does it count the gaming books based in that universe).
Examining Your Why
If you’re writing fiction but you don’t enjoy reading fiction, there might be a little bit of a disconnect. Returning to the chef example, it would be like a chef trying to make the perfect cheeseburger but not actually liking burgers at all. How do you know it’s good if you don’t like to consume it in the first place?
It’s important to learn story structure, to learn how to develop your character, how to outline your novel—all of that. But reading about writing shouldn’t replace reading writing. If you love your genre and it inspires you to write, then your readers will feel that. It’s that wonderful quote from Robert Frost:
Follow that up with that other wonderful quote from Hemingway:
“There is nothing to writing at all. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”Ernest Hemingway
You are sharing of yourself when you write. There is a part of you who goes into what you write, and if there isn’t something that you enjoy, your readers won’t enjoy it, either.
I was once hired to take on a novel with a plotline I didn’t like, in a genre I didn’t like to read, but the money was good, so I took the ghostwriting job. I even read a few books in that genre before I started writing so I would be able to get the tone right, and I hated every book I read. It just wasn’t my genre.
I submitted the book, and it was not well received. They couldn’t tell what they didn’t like about it, but I knew. I hated the genre, I hated the book, I hated the plot, and despite my best efforts, it came through in my writing. That was the one bad experience I have had to date as a ghostwriter, and I have since then refrained from taking jobs in genres that aren’t my cup of tea.
So, if you’re writing fiction, but don’t like fiction, ask yourself why you’re doing it. You might have a story in you waiting to get out, and that’s a good start. But until you find a style of fiction or one piece of fiction you like to read, you are going to have a very hard time writing your book.
Select three fiction books in your genre. You can have already read them and loved them or hated them, or they can be something you’ve never heard of but has great reviews, or something that you’ve always wanted to read. The requirement for these books is that they are generally received well and on a large scale. Or, the author needs to be well known. Think Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Elizabeth Gilbert, Toni Morrison, Dan Brown, Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, Douglas Adams, etc.
Also, while all of these books can be written by the same person, they can’t be a part of the same series. If, for example, you chose Janet Evanovich (famous for the Plum books), one of your books would be from the Plum series while another would be from the Fox and O’Hare series, and your third might be from her Full series.
Read each book. Even if you’ve already read it. Read it again.
As you read the books, keep a journal, or somewhere that you can keep notes.
While you’re reading the book, keep a look out for these things and pause occasionally to consider the follow:
- When you catch yourself asking what’s going to happen next, put the book down and write out everything you think will happen next, and why. Then consider what you would do if you were writing the book, and why you would do it.
- If you find yourself shocked or disappointed by an event or lack of an event, journal about it. Why did you feel that way? Really delve into this idea.
- What phrase or descriptions work well for you? Write them down and journal on why you like the so much.
After you’ve finished a book, journal and answer the following questions:
- Did you like of dislike the book? Why?
- What parts made your feel the most?
- What parts dragged?
- Which characters moved you? What did the author do to elicit that reaction from you?
- If you were to write a spin off of this book, what concept/character/setting would you use and why? What would this spin off look like?
- What kind of technique did the author have? Were they very descriptive? How would you describe the type of descriptions they used? Cold? Warm? Flowery? Dark? Detailed? Vague? Fluffy?
- If you were to describe the author’s writing style, what would it be?
- What aspects of their writing style and/or technique would you like to try? How would you employ it?
- What question do you think the author was trying to answer when they wrote this book?
This is a big homework assignment. But it is designed to help you look at how to read like a writer, but still try to enjoy the story. Remember to read like a reader, but when you reflect, reflect like a writer. What are some of your favorite books?
What books have influenced you and/or your writing the most? Talk to me about it in the comments!
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