Friday, September 3, 2010

On Writers Reading Widely

by Scott Rhoades

Nobody has to tell a writer to read. Most of us started writing because of our love for books and stories. Just about every writing course tells us to read, especially in our genres, but that instruction is usually not necessary because we write what we like to read.

What they don't always tell us is to read widely, to read what we might not usually read.

Do you write romance? You can learn to keep your readers reading until late in the night if you learn the tricks used by suspense and mystery writers. Fantasy/Sci-Fi writers will find they have much in common with westerns, and can benefit from classics. Macho action novel writers can broaden their audience if they learn how to add elements that attract women. Mainstream fiction writers can learn a lot from YA and middle grade.

But don't stop with genre swapping. If you enjoy popular fiction, leave your comfort level and explore literary fiction. Sure, you might not get the fast-moving plots you love, but you might learn to improve your writing and delve deeper into character,

Read the classics. Those same books you found bitter when you had to read them in school have a completely different flavor when you read them on your own. And the classics are a great place to find plot elements. They've been mined by writers since Shakespeare borrowed heavily from them. Oh, and make sure you read Shakespeare too. It never ceases to amaze me how many plots in modern books and movies are taken from Shakespeare. And many titles too. Plus, you'll learn some things about turning phrases and playing with language from the Bard.

Fantasy writers should check out Homer, the medieval Arthurian romances, and the Icelandic sagas. So should action writers. Did you know the classic western novels owe more to the Icelandic sagas than to any other literature? Both are about settlement and feuding, with bigger-than-life heroes. If you don't write fantasy or action, reading those same books will expand your horizons and give you ideas you can borrow or modify.

I can't imagine any writer not learning from our American classics, like Twain, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Humor, biting satire, and brilliant use of the English language in three very different ways. Not to mention just plain good old stories that are still relevant today.

Check out different cultures, books that are translated from other languages. You'll rarely go wrong with great Russian or Latin American authors, and there's a rising tide of Middle Eastern and Indian writers in the U.S.

Setting your story in a particular place or time. Read books written there, in the same period you're writing about. Especially books you might not usually read. They'll give you a richer perspective.

If you're a staunch conservative, read books with Socialist leanings. If you're an atheist, read religious books. If you're religious, read Twain's religious satires or post-modern, non-religious writers. Read what you disagree with. You don't have to like it or change your mind, but it will help you write characters who have different points of view in a way that they become believable, rather than being the kind of one-dimensional caricatures that bog down works by people who don't understand how their less-sympathetic characters think.

Only read fiction? Check out some science, history, or philosophy. They'll make your stories richer and deeper.

Write realistic fiction? Check out some world-building fantasies to help you make your realistic world even more believable.

Some of the books I've read recently that I might not have picked up without suggestions from friends or other connections include the first three books of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, a gift from a friend, and The Chosen One by our own Carol Williams. Loved them all, although I didn't expect to. I learned a lot about characters from the Detective Agency books, as well as more about African cultures. Carol's book, which I really wanted to read because I like Carol, almost scared me away because it has a very feminine cover. But the book is dripping with suspense, has great characters, and includes one of the most horrifying scenes I've ever read. Which reminds me: Write happy, feel-good books? Read horror.

Read true crime. Read biographies, even of people you might not think you're interested in. They'll deepen your stories in obvious ways.

I could go and on. (Some of you probably think I already have.) This is one of the easiest blog posts I've written here. It seems like a no-brainer to me, and yet I know several writers who read a ton, but always within strict genre limits.

Sure. You'll find stuff you don't like. You'll find "great" or "popular" books that you can't finish. (If you're going very far out of your comfort zone, use a library or borrow from a friend so you don't waste money on something you don't like.) But, if you read widely, your writing will benefit.

Perhaps more importantly, you'll benefit too. You'll learn more, become wiser, broaden your horizons (or fortify them by understanding more about the other side), and you never know, you just might find out that you like more kinds of books than you thought, which will open up whole new worlds for your reading pleasure.


Carol said...

Thanks for the nod, Scott. I'm glad you liked The Chosen One. And by the way, I have some writing advice for your wonderful readers. Here goes--I believe someone should be dead and/or naked in every book I write--including my middle grade novels!

Scott said...

I read something once about how nudity heightens suspense by presenting a character at his or her most vulnerable. Do this when there's danger afoot (think about the shower scene in Psycho) and fear and suspense go way up.

Julie Daines said...

Great post Scott. Good advice for all of us!

Susan said...

Thanks for some provocative thoughts. It is so easy to read what we do what we love what we love. It is not so easy to expand our comfort zone. This is an excellent reminder of the importance as well as the ease with which we can do this..

Scott, your inner teacher continues to emerge. Let him out.