Thursday, February 24, 2011

READ! A public service announcement

At least once a week, someone asks me the secret to writing a good book and getting it published.

I'm always tempted to make up something fun, like insisting the key is to send three devastatingly handsome, shirtless men to the home of a romantic comedy author with strict instructions to arrive bearing a full bottle of Chianti and an insatiable urge to wash dishes.

But the truth is, I know the answer to the question. And it's staggering in its simplicity.


Read everything. Read fiction and non-fiction, erotica and sports trivia, blogs and magazines. Read books on writing craft and books on how to repair your carburetor. Read short stories and poetry and the back of the deodorizer can in the bathroom (you know you’ve done it).

I’m always astounded when writers tell me they don't read much. "I don't have time," they might say. "I don't want to be influenced by someone else's writing."

Isn't that a bit like a gourmet chef suggesting he only eats Big Macs or a porn star saying she doesn't put out?

Studying other people’s writing – the good, the bad, and the holy-crap-please-stick-a-fork-in-my-eye – is the best way I know to hone your own skills as a writer.

It’s something I’ve always known, but I allow myself to forget from time to time. This past weekend, I had no pressing book deadlines for the first time in a year. My third contracted book is off my desk, and I don't need to start a new one right away. I gave myself permission to read.

I have to tell you, it was glorious. Toe-curlingly, knuckle-bitingly amazing.

Don't let the fact that I was with my cousin and his wife ruin that poetically orgasmic image.

While we’re on the subject of reading, here's a link to an amazing essay on why you should date an illiterate girl. It's darkly funny and a little crass, but beautifully written. Don't click if you're easily offended (but if that's the case, why are you hanging out on my blog?)

Are you a reader? How does it impact you as a writer? Are there certain books that have influenced your writing more than others? Please share.

And please read. For the good of all mankind.

Or at least the readers among us.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely, but I wish I could do it more. I kind of hit spurts, depending upon where the writing is falling at that moment. I tend to buy alot more than I actually I have quite a bit tbr on my Nook right What's cool about that is I have 4 started on there, totally different genres, depending on my mood when I pick it up. I started Liar last night, and it's intriguing. The inspiration that improved my writing and actually snagged me my agent were books by Sarah Addison Allen.

Amanda Hoving said...

Writing and reading are directly correlated for me; When my writing production is up, my reading time goes down, and vice-versa. And I'm never completely satsified with the time spent on either.

But, I'm always reading something, and agree with you on the HUGE impact it has in helping you become a better writer.

So many books have influenced me --across every genre, good and horrific. Sometimes the, "bad" books are the most helpful, as in "Don't you dare ever do this!"

Linda G. said...

A big whopping YES on the reading. Otherwise, writing is like trying to grow a garden without ever fertilizing. It might work out for a season or two, but eventually the soil is too depleted to grow anything.

Er, not that other writers' books are like...oh, never mind. So the analogy isn't perfect. Work with me here! *grin*

Lori M. Lee said...

Agreed one hundred percent. Reading hones my eye for good craft (and then makes me realize what I just wrote was total crap). There's just no easy way around it. Read.

Heather Hellmann said...

I love to read. When I handed my first manuscript over to beta readers last December, I rewarded myself with a book marathon. I read three books in three days, and I enjoyed every bit of it. Sure, after a while my eyes blurred and my head hurt, but it was worth it. I plan on doing another book marathon when I finish my second manuscript.

lora96 said...

You are so right! (don't you love it when we say that?)

I'm a reader...all the time, every day I read something just because I want to. I'd choose reading over writing, over PRACTICALLY anything.

Amanda Bonilla said...

Reading is key! I read 30 books last year. I learned so much about my craft from reading it really showed in my writing. Read, read, read!!!

Unknown said...

Am I a reader? Hmmm...since the first day of my winter break, last Saturday, I've read 5 books for fun, I'm reading one book for work and I'm finally reading a MS for a friend. Yes, I read and every book helps me understand plot, structure, characterization and conflict a little bit more.

Danica Avet said...

I'm in absolute agreement with you, Tawna! Reading is a great way to learn how to write, how to use words for impact, and it's also a wonderful way to brainstorm. I don't mean taking a photocopy of what you're reading and write something similar, but reading (at least for me) helps me stir up ideas for my stories. I read at least one book a day, sometimes more if I have the time (and I'm not writing or working). It helps me relax and let my imagination take flight. Reading is one of the most essential tools a writer has available to them and they should use it frequently.

Unknown said...

I'm so glad you could read this weekend!!! I did too!! So much!! And It was FANTASTIC!! (and another "!" just in case you don't get how excited I get when I have time to read :P)

N.M. Martinez said...

I love that link. It was beautifully written.

I'm definitely a reader, but I've never been content to just read and toss. I read, and then I have to know why I liked something. I may go back and reread passages or scenes. I have questions about characters and how they develop.

Even books I don't like, I have to take apart and figure out what I don't like about them. It's not as bad as it sounds. I don't, like, workshop it. I just trace my experience with the book and figure out what I didn't like.

Figuring out what I do and don't like to see in stories makes me a better writer most definitely. I've heard, twice now this year, that you should just write the fun stuff. So it helps to know what I do find fun ahead of time from reading.

Nick said...

I try and read for 2-3 hours every night. I feel it really helps with inspiration, as well as picking up technique, and it is also just plain old fun!

Unknown said...

I'm jealous! I miss reading just for fun... seems like I'm always beta reading for fellow writers, and I'm grateful for it, but I miss just curling up with a book and losing myself in it without checking for overused adverbs, etc.
I do have one night a week just for pleasure reading, tho, if only for an hour.
I couldn't agree more, tho. If you want to know what works, READ what works.

Sarah W said...

I read constantly. I'm never more than three feet away from a fix--I mean, from reading material.

I love reading so much, I became a librarian so I could push stories and create new addicts. And then I became a writer so I could cook up my own . . .

Sheila Siler said...

I agree with you so much. When I first got serious about writing my reading slid. But then I realized my writing suffered. So now I make time to read. I tend to write in the mornings and read at night. I try to vary my reading selections too. Thanks for the encouragement!

Mark Phialas said...

Why you should date an illiterate girl seems to be the prosaic companion, perhaps an echo, of The Girl With Far Away Eyes.

Much to my surprise, there she was sittin in the corner
A little bleary, worse for wear and tear
Was a girl with far away eyes

So if you're down on your luck
And you can't harmonize
Find a girl with far away eyes
And if you're downright disgusted
And life ain't worth a damn
Get a girl with far away eyes

and she won't poke fun at your sad novel with an obvious ending.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Yes, yes, YES, a thousand times YES! Reading and writing are only slightly less imperative than breathing. If I enjoy a single book by any given author, there's no rest in my body until I read abso-freaking-lutley everything that writer ever wrote. Good books, bad books, mediocre books; it makes no difference. Bring 'em on! Am also addicted to the newspaper and am an unrepentent information junkie.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the linked essay. Thanks!

Still lovinig your blogs, and hope to set up one of my own in the near future. (Who says ya can't teach an old dog new tricks?)


randine said...

YES! Thank you!
Lately I've been feeling guilty about the amount of time I've spent reading. I read almost obsessively, and every surface of my house is covered with books. My husband thinks I have a problem, but I was like "how could reading be a problem?"
Even though, yes, I may have, on occasion, forgot to feed my kids a coupla meals.
Anyways, I feel better about that now. Thanks!

Ricky Bush said...

Shake well before each use...Hold can upright, press button...Spray towards the center of the room. Do not spray towards face...Whew! Glad I took your advice to read, I've been doing it all wrong.

Anonymous said...

I love to read. I'm currently almost exactly half-way (I hope) through a first draft and I find having a book around to read when I'm done writing for the day helps me relax.

It also reminds me why I'm doing this in the first place - you know, the more logical reason, to entertain other people, rather than the because-I-can't-not, ohmigod-you're-a-freak reason.

I do find that since I started really, seriously writing, I can no longer read books without noticing plot holes, grammar slip-ups and typos. All of which inspire me not to do the same in my own writing.

I get paid tomorrow and you can bet I'm going to go and have a field day at the bookshop.

Laina said...

I kinda don't read as much when I'm drafting, but only because I write a lot fast. One of my drafts took 34 days (60 something K). So sometimes other things get nudged out. Like reading... or cleaning... or answering emails...

Well, I don't read as many novels, anyways. I read 450 or more picture books a year for work, so I'm constantly reading those. (And it takes longer than most people give credit for. Seriously.) And magazines... and the back of shampoo bottles... :P

When I'm revising or editing or sick, I read like crazy. I mean, why do you want to write if you don't like to read? :)

Dr. Goose said...

Well said.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

Because I'm a grad student, I have to read a lot of academic nonfiction books that only other scholars read; some of it's interesting but a lot of it makes me fall asleep while I'm reading. Books like that make me grateful for "fun" books, and so it's always a nice break to read them. I especially like memoirs and people who write funny essays, like Steve Almond. Authors like him are interesting to read because they show how being neurotic can actually be a good thing (or at least entertaining).

Kristina said...

Love it, like usual. :) Although, shouldn't those shirtless men show up with a bottle of Sangiovese? :)

Kim Mullican said...

My problem seems to be that I'm completely obsessive about both. If I'm reading - I can't put it down until it's done. If I'm writing, I don't want to stop.

I'm sure there's a lecture in there somewhere about balance. But I say balance schmalance...I like being obsessive. :)

Another great post!

Laurel N said...

Reading and writing are daily requirements for me. I firmly believe that reading fills the reservoir of my soul, feeds my imagination, and makes me a better person - certainly it makes me a better wife and mother.
The further I get into writing my own stories the more I appreciate a well crafted, or at least well told, tale. A good story can make me ignore a great many sins as long as it engages the imagination and heart.
Books have been a daily part of my life, always. My mother and grandmother read to us before we could talk and I carried on the tradition with my own children.
I love your blog!

Abby Minard said...

I am a huge reader. My time to read has dwindled with kids, a house, work, writing and whatnot, but I always have a book that I'm reading at the moment. I think it's great to be influenced by other books. Thats how you learn, its how you know what you like and what you don't like. Seeing someone else do it so good you want to be just like that. It's very odd to me that a writer wouldn't read. I think it's just embarrassing. I know we're strapped for time and family and all that, and maybe I don't get reading in every day, but if i don't read for a certain period of time, I get really bummed.

Gabriela Lessa said...

I'm sitting here and thinking "whoever said I don't want to be influenced by someone great?" Not in the creepy meaning of the word, of course. But I do long for those books that make an impression on me, that make me go "I want to be like that, only my way". And how on earth am I going to find those if I don't read? I'm influenced by a whole bunch of authors, from Emily Bronte (ah... Wuthering Heights...) to Jane Austen, from Jeniffer Weiner to Emily Giffin, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Ayaan Hirsi Ali... And, more recently, I'm inspired by writers I just discovered, writers I met online, writers whose debut just came out... I've recently felt inspired by Isabel Wolff, Wendy Nelson Tokunaga and Jonathan Tropper. And I'm constantly inspired by you, Tawna! So, yeah, huge reader! And when I find that one book or that one author that makes me go through the book wondering "how does she so it"? Well, that's jackpot! Enjoy!

Raven Corinn Carluk said...

This advice cannot be repeated enough. It's so very true.

Because I focus so much on self-editing, I can actually tell when I'm reading a really good book now. When it's a gripping compelling book, I do no editing at all in my head. If it's no good, I find myself correcting as I go along. I change phrases, or find all the incorrect punctuations, or notice when the same word gets used close together.

Tatum Flynn said...

Excellent post. I've learned so much since I started reading books from a writer's point of view.

PS I read that 'Why you should date an illiterate girl' piece a while back and loved it. I was shocked by how many people didn't 'get' it.

Trisha Leigh said...

I love this post. It totally floors me when this happens. I recently had this discussion with someone who thought they could just write a YA because they "have their own teenagers" but hasn't read a single of the YA novels that have exploded in the market recently (or any others, for that matter.)

It's hard to know what to say. I love reading :)

Mary said...

I've heard the "I don't read much" (or at all) comment from multiple people who wish to be authors and am always flabbergasted. Really? So, how do you grow as a writer then? How do you learn your craft? READ!!! no time? Make the time!!! (can you tell I really just want to strangle people like that?)

Love your comparison of a writer not reading to a porn star not putting out. Made me spew my diet Coke.

Have a great weekend and happy reading!

Jason said...

I love reading too - always have. I got away from it a bit during college - well, for fun reading - but every summer I'd go back and I try to hit at least one book every two weeks (which, with my sched, is sometimes optimistic). I try to read at least a half hour a day...

Totally agree on the advice. Read, read, read!

lahn said...

In high school, I decided to start in the A's and go through every fiction shelf in the library until I finished. I didn't quite make it, but I do read widely, and I love that you emphasize reading everything (even deodorant cans!). Sometimes I feel guilty that I am not just reading in my genre, but I find that I learn from everything. Thanks for the post