Reading and Writing

Did you know that Goodreads is running a giveaway for 30 free copies of The Thorn and the Blossom? The contest ends in a couple of days, on November 30th. If you’d like to enter, click on the link below:

Goodreads Giveaway

The contest is only for readers in the United States. I’m sorry about that, but I assume the shipping costs are too high for foreign readers. (I’m not the one running the contest, of course. I actually only found out about it by looking at Goodreads.)

Today I thought I would talk about the importance of reading, when you’re a writer.

One of the nicest aspects of being a writer is that all sorts of things that are entertainment for other people are work, for you. Watching a movie is work. Watching television is work. And of course reading is work. It’s work because when you’re a writer, you can’t help analyzing whatever it is you’re watching or reading. You can’t help paying attention to setting, characterization, style. Your brain is always taking those things in, and when you go to write, they come back to you. They help you think about story.

Right now, I’m reading American Gods, by Neil Gaiman – the author’s preferred version, which I was given for free at the World Fantasy Convention. (I came back with all sorts of books from the World Fantasy Convention.)

I’m fascinated by several things about the book. First, by how well Gaiman has created an American mythology, has captured a sort of American-ness, considering that he grew up in England. It makes me think that I may be able to capture something English in my book, despite having grown up here. It helps that the England I want to write about isn’t the real England, but literary England – the one created for us by Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle. Second, by how easy the book is to read, how you sink into it even though parts of it are unpleasant. The places it describes aren’t places I want to spend time in, and yet I’m enjoying spending time in the book itself. Third, by how he breaks rules that I know aren’t really rules, but that I had nevertheless internalized. For example, his story is digressive – it goes off into other stories. And that’s all right, because I always want to come back to the main story. And the digressions are interesting in themselves. That gives me a sense for how I could write my own novel.

Some writers say that since starting to write professionally, they no longer enjoy reading fiction. That hasn’t happened to me (and how awful if it did happen!). What has happened instead is that I read differently. It’s as though I read with two parts of my brain at the same time: one part is living in the story, and one part is analyzing it. That doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of it – but it changes that enjoyment. I’m like a dancer watching a dance, knowing the names of the steps. I’m glad to be in that position, of an insider as it were.

Being an artist means you get to – have to – live fully and consciously. You can’t be lazy in your approach to life. Everything around you is to be experienced, so you can keep the experience until later, when you write the story. That requirement changes the way you approach life. It means that rather than simply experiencing, you are always also observing the experience, mentally recording it. But I think it leads to a richer and more interesting way to live. It gives life a particular intensity.

So if you’re an artist, say to yourself, I have permission to experience everything, because it’s material. And in particular, make time to watch movies or television, to read. Because those are stories, and you need to experience how other people create stories so you can create stories yourself – so you can think about the art of story-making.  But reading is especially important, because you want to know what other writers are doing with words.  That gives you a sense for what you can do – for your own possibilities.

And if people accuse you of wasting time because you’re watching a police procedural on television, tell them it’s because you’re working. (Sometimes I watch those terrible true crime shows, because I want to write murder mysteries. It’s very useful, learning about different ways to murder someone. We can be somewhat macabre, we writers.)

(When I tweeted a thought about this yesterday, someone responded that using social media also counted as work, for a writer. And I agree with that. But that’s for another post. In the meantime, if you want to follow me on twitter? Click here.)

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2 Responses to Reading and Writing

  1. I find my reading difference is somewhat different, since Clarion.

    Any attempt to set up the twist in something like a TV police procedural is now utterly transparent, so it’s gotten pretty hard to surprise me.

    Worse, when I am surprised, it’s usually because the writers threw in some off-hand mention that potentially set up a much better story than the one they ended up telling, and I imagined I was going to get the better story.

    But I agree that reading is legitimate work for the writer, for many reasons—to see how it’s done well, to see how it’s done poorly, to be part of the conversation, as market research, etc.

  2. Phil, I have the same experience! I can usually see how a plot is going to work out, and I’m disappointed when it’s not as complex or interesting as the plot in my head. Clarion messed with us, didn’t it? 🙂

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