I’ve been writing for a long time. Probably just about as long as I’ve been reading. The two always seemed to be one in my experience. When I could read, I knew I wanted to write. There was no other choice. That’s not to say I didn’t have a day job. There is no glory in being a starving artist. There isn’t. But that said, writing professionally has always been the goal.
I’m often asked what I think the key is to becoming a writer. A few things immediately come to mind, but above all a writer must be a reader. Not just a pleasure reader. But a critical reader. A reader that looks beyond the surface of the story and doesn’t take the text at face value. Any writer worth the ink and paper will give a story more than one layer. Find that layer as a reader and you’ve discovered the real treasure in the book. Otherwise, you might end up reading a book and wonder why the heck everyone thinks it’s so great.
The best example I can think of for a book that is often read incorrectly is Catcher in the Rye. The story alone is good enough, but based purely on the narrative it’s a bit blah. So why do critical theorists love it? Why do high school English teachers that really got it when they were in college want to teach it? So students who don’t have the life experience to understand what is really going on can’t imagine what’s so great about Catcher in the Rye.
To understand the whole the reader must understand the individual words in the context of the whole. Read to understand the whole and its component parts. Sounds easy enough. So why are so many writers neglecting to do this very simple (and presumably enjoyable) task? How can a person that would like to write for a purpose beyond the pure pleasure (which is a wholly understandable undertaking in and of itself) of self-expression neglect such a trove of examples? How can a writer hope to be the best at what they do, if they don’t have a basic understanding of how other writers do it?
My advice is to read. Before you respond with the reason why you can’t/won’t/ shouldn’t read, I’ve probably already heard it.
Here are some of my favorites:
New writer: I want to do something different.
Snarky veteran: Fair enough – we all want to do something different. But not reading earlier writers would be like a surgeon pushing away the entire breadth of medical history and experimentation because she didn’t want to do what anyone else has done before her. So she was going to start from scratch with a shovel and a fresh grave. That’s bananas.
New writer: I want to write about vampires (or star ships, or cowboys, or boy wizards). If I read books about vampires then I’ll be accused of copying Stephanie Meyer (Orson Scott Card or Larry McMurty or J.K. Rowling).
Snarky veteran: I hear this so often it makes me despair. Write what you want to write. Read what other people are writing. Develop and understanding of what’s popular in the genre and find your own niche.
(n.b. Vampires. I love vampires. I wanted to write a book about vampires when I was an impressionable young teenage writer. I loved Anne Rice. I wanted to be like Anne Rice. Well… someone who supposedly knew everything about writing told me vampires were dead (no I’m not kidding) and that only a fool would write about vampires. I would instantly be accused of mimicking Anne Rice. Find my own idea. So I gave up on the vampire dream. Don’t let anyone do this to you. You want to write about vampires? Go right ahead!)
New writer: I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism.
Snarky veteran: Plagiarism sticks out because the natural flow of the writers voice is suddenly and abruptly different. It sticks out. Unless you’re really plagiarizing no one is going to accuse you of it because you want to write another painfully inaccurate book about Anne Boleyn and you read one of those pack of lies and marginal truths packaged as a novel by Philippa Gregory.
New writer: I don’t have time to read.
Snarky veteran: Neither do I. Which is why I’ve made it a part of my work. I read books the same way an accountant reads tax code – or whatever it is they do – I don’t know – I’m not an accountant so I don’t need to know what they do – but I am a writer so I need to know what other writers are doing.
New writer: What if someone else’s book inspires me?
Snarky veteran: Really? It’s a wonder I don’t drink. I’ve read Gone with the Wind a whole bunch of times. What did I get out of this other than a love for tenacious women and scoundrels? A young man that would do practically anything to hold on to his home and what it symbolizes for him. That’s inspiration. Thank you Margaret Mitchell.