So I have a confession to make. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel for pleasure. The last book I chose to read was nonfiction – a book on the future of education and online courses. [Is this me foreshadowing some long-term projects? Time will tell. ;) ] According to some fiction writers on the internet, I’ve failed at one of the first rules of being a serious writer – reading. Writers are supposed to read a lot. They’re supposed to read constantly. There is no shortcut. Thou shalt read.
I don’t disagree. I admit it. I’m guilty. However, I refuse to stress out about this. If people want to come arrest me for willful neglect of duty, fine. You can probably find my home address if you Google deep enough. (There’s no such thing as privacy anymore, amirite?) But before I’m dragged off to the big house, I’d like to explain why I feel this way.
Whenever reading comes up in these “advice for beginners” articles, it comes with the assumption that whoever is reading the article finds reading easy, quick, and enjoyable. The problem is that this is not always the case. What about people who have trouble reading, like dyslexia? What about slow readers? I fall into this category. I never learned how to skim or scan texts in school, so I always read every single word. It’s a double-edged sword; I’ve gained a great appreciation for word choice and details, but it has caused me problems. All of those books I was supposed to read in college but ended up not reading because I didn’t have the time I needed.
Or how about the true elephant in the room, this thing called “real life” that loves to get in the way? This includes stuff like work and/or school, family life, and being a decent friend. For those in a romantic relationship, you need to set aside time to spend with your partner. For those of faith, there’s also religious obligations and taking part in community service as part of a congregation. This elephant called “real life” is made up of a lot of things – things which can’t easily be ignored. Surely, these experienced fiction writers aren’t telling their audience to neglect their family and friends and go into a life of starvation and poverty just to read enough books to be considered a serious writer.
This blog focuses on the crafts of writing and storytelling. I aim to give pragmatic advice – advice that acknowledges this elephant “real life” and that it takes different shapes for different people. Thus, this post is likely going to be the only time I’ll say that writers should read. I’m not going to say how much or how often you should read; that is for you to figure out. What I will do is go over some of the reasons why suggestions on how you can use other media to accomplish some of these tasks (in addition to reading, of course.)
1. Learn what good writing is like.
Have you ever taken a literature class? Then you’ve been exposed to what is good. If you have the time and money to do so, I highly recommend taking a couple of classes. If you can’t, see if you can find syllabi for these classes. Use them to build your reading list.
Also, you can learn what is good by learning what is bad. Do you critique other writers’ work? This is a great way to learn what doesn’t work in a story. The flaws you pick out will teach you this. Critiquing is also a great way to apply and share the knowledge you’ve gained from reading what is good thus cementing it into your brain.
2. Familiarize yourself with a genre
3. Explore other genres and styles to spice up your own work
Most of the genres we know and love – fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, realistic drama – aren’t limited to fiction. They can be found in other media, and these other media can expose you to many of the same genre elements you’d find in fiction. Movies, television, live theater, video games – any medium that tells a clear story. The reason this is so is because genre itself is not unique to fiction. It is unique to storytelling, and storytelling is not limited by medium. Of course, medium will dictate how certain elements are expressed – the portrayal of a character on screen vs on the page for instance. But once you factor out medium-specific quirks, applying the lessons learned from a movie to your next piece of fiction becomes easier.
4. Gain Inspiration
There are so many other ways to do this. Take a walk. Socialize with people. Travel. Listen to music. In a pinch, use image or word generators. Embrace randomness and you’ll never run out of ideas.
However you get inspiration, I urge you to record it. Writing it down would be great, but you could draw or record yourself talking if those would be quicker or more comfortable. Keeping these records will allow you to refresh your memory later.
5. Support your fellow writers by buying and reading their work.
This is a courtesy, not an obligation. If your budget doesn’t allow it, don’t do it. Join critique groups and give feedback or follow their blog to show your support for free.
Reading is a great and useful thing. But contrary to what other writers might imply, reading won’t guarantee you success. The surest way to get there is to write.
You learn how to swim by swimming. You learn how to swing by singing. You learn how to play a game by playing the game. There are so many verbs that you learn how to verb by doing that verb. Thus, you learn how to write by writing.
Write and get feedback. Write and rewrite based on that feedback. Write often and write for the fun of it. Reading, while important, is secondary. Read when you can and at your own pace.
What do you think? Do any of you struggle to find time to read? Share down in the comments.