My mom had a radical idea when I was a struggling student who couldn’t stand English, had little use for Math, and really didn’t understand Science . . .or, looking back as an adult . . . refused to apply herself to any of these fields. Once I got into college, I kept a 3.8 GPA and had no problems in my English, Math, or Science courses. But high school seemed to be a point in my life when I just didn’t care. So, my super awesome Mom did what she could to try to prepare me for my life as an adult. She encouraged the one thing I did love – reading. She figured I’d learn a fair amount of the English I needed just from seeing it over and over again. I guess she also figured that as long as I could read I could learn the other stuff when it became important to me. Funny enough, she was right.
I love to read. I love books. Libraries and Half-Price Bookstore are like walking into a room with all your favorite people just sitting around waiting for you. My smart phone lets me take books with me when I go workout without needing to lug a volume with me. And, there are so many good audio books out there that I can work and ‘read’ at the same time. I must live in reader heaven!
Somewhere along the way, I was inspired to take that love of reading and start writing. I fought this gift for quite a while, but God kept nudging me and pushing me towards it. I have now been writing for over ten years. I’m going to give you the same advice every writer gets. If you want to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. (This is not one of those rules you can squeeze out of I promise you.)
You need to read. You need to read many things. You need to read in your genre, and you need to read outside it, especially outside it. You need to read classics and weekend reads. You need to explore new writers, new worlds, and new stories.
But! Don’t just read. Don’t just lay there like a limp noodle and let the words pass before your eyes without letting them affect you. Read as a writer. Do you think a sculptor goes and just looks at Michelangelo’s David with a passing glance? Do you think a composer listens to Beethoven’s 9th symphony with a casual enjoyment of the combination of notes? No! Of course not! They figuratively sit at the feet of these masters and learn. They take what they know already and see how the masters applied it. They bring their amateur expertise and use that to guide them as they study what the masters did. You can’t read the symphony unless you can already read music. See, they’ve moved past the basics, but that doesn’t mean they stop learning.
As writers, we must do the same. We must saturate ourselves with masters, old and new. How do we do this? What are we looking for?
1) Read with An Eye: Train your mind to pay attention to what you’re reading. Don’t let yourself just read. Watch sentence structure, timing, plot development, world building, beginning, and ends. Pay attention to what you read. How did the author use grammar to communicate ideas? How did they handle the pacing? How did they catch your attention? What was their first sentence? When did you realize you were hooked on the story? Did they choose 3rd person of 1st person POV? Why?
2) Rule Breaking: Watch for places the author breaks all the rules. When did they tell instead of show? When did they use an –ly, -ing, or past tense words? When did they use flashbacks? Think of all the rules you’ve ever been told as a writer and then read someone who has effectively broken them.
3) Plot, Dialogue, and Character Growth: Watch the dialogue of master story tellers. Look for ways they make each character unique. Pay attention to how they ratchet up the tension and reveal the plot. Watch the character development. Did the characters change all at once or slowly over time? How did they keep them differentiated? How many characters do they have? Can you keep them separate?
4) Think and Talk About It: After you’ve read a book, analyze it. Think through it. Find a trustworthy friend, share the book with them, discuss. Don’t just read it and go on. What touched you? What bored you? What brought you to tears, made you angry, or frustrated you? What scared you? What made you want to name your first-born child after a character? What side characters did you like or hate? What sticks with you for days afterwards? What do other people say about it? (Hint: read both positive and negative reviews!)
5) You Write what you Read: What you feed your brain will pour out your pen. Do you want to write something good? Well, read something good. If you enjoy horror read King, Koontz, Poe, James, and Lovecraft. If you want to write urban fantasy, read Gaiman, Butcher, and Rowling. If you want to write about war, read about war from men and women who’ve been there. Read about WWII, Vietnam, Korea, and the Iraqi war. Look for master wordsmithers. Look for writers with deep descriptions, well-developed characters, and places you want to stay . . .or run far far away from.
6) Research and Something Different: If you learned something, it counts as research. You may be writing a fairytale and reading Correia. That’s fine. His action scenes and gun knowledge can help you tighten up your own action scenes. You can learn more about guns than you ever needed to know reading one of his books. It’s okay, in fact, it’s recommended that you read things far outside your genre. It will make your work richer if you pay attention.
7) Bad can be Educational: Sometimes we learn by seeing other people’s’ mistakes. Pay attention. If you’re bored, figure out why. If something doesn’t sit right with you, analyze it, and learn from the mistakes of others. It’s amazing how much you can improve your writing by recognizing bad writing. Just make sure you apply it to your work. As you do this, keep in mind genre differences. You may not be the writers target market. Don’t be offended if you’re not.
There are times to read just for the sake of reading, but as a writer, you must always remember you’re honing your craft. Reading is how you do that. All the list of rules in the world won’t make you a better writer. Reading will, if you read with purpose. Keep your eyes open, monitor your reactions, think!, and apply. If you don’t do that as you read, you’re never going to improve your writing.