“Read more” is probably one of the most common writing tips out there. There’s Stephen King’s famous advice, and also Ray Bradbury’s famous line, urging writers to “read intensely”. Variations on this writing tip crop up everywhere, and with good reason: I mean, it’s pretty self-evident that reading feeds your imagination and helps you hone your craft.
I recently read a blog post at Jane Friedman’s wonderful website that provided some more specific reasons as to precisely why reading is so important for writers. The post is called: 3 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Chances with an Agent, and it’s written by editor and writing coach Rebecca Faith Heyman. It’s a great read in its entirety (whether you’re currently looking for an agent or not), and here is what she writes about the importance of reading:
Advice-mongers are always telling authors to read more, because that is the single best piece of advice anyone has ever given an author, other than “Write more.” – – –
“Writing is a conversation,” agent Noah Ballard of Curtis Brown told me. “If you aren’t reading books that are being published now, how do you expect to be relevant?”
Familiarizing yourself with current and canon successes in your genre will help you think critically about your own writing. Who are you similar to stylistically? How are you bringing a fresh idea to a popular theme? – – –
You can’t write a convincing antihero if you haven’t read Wuthering Heights and Moby Dick. You can’t—or shouldn’t—write a revenge story without first savoring The Count of Monte Cristo. Writing a space opera? I want to know that you’ve read Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Douglas Adams, Emily St. John Mandel, and the most recent stunner from Michel Faber. Bow to the masters, acknowledge your peers, and blaze a trail for yourself armed with the knowledge of what has come before.
“Bow to the masters, acknowledge your peers, and blaze a trail for yourself armed with the knowledge of what has come before.” This is crucially important, and I really feel that importance on a personal level.
I’ve always read “the masters”: literary classics, science fiction classics, fantasy classics… that has been my lifeblood as a reader and writer since I was a child. But recently I’ve made a conscious effort to read outside my comfort zone. I’ve read more books and short stories by new writers, self-published writers, and emerging writers starting to win awards and accolades than I have before. And it has been an exceptionally rewarding and inspirational experience that has reignited and nourished my own desire to write, and (I believe) made me a better writer.
To illustrate my point, I’ll bring up three books that have really made an impression on me this past year, and that have put a new fire into my own writing efforts:
- Dark Orbit, by Carolyn Ives Gilman
- Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor
- The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Kai Ashante Wilson (and also his story The Devil in America)
Dark Orbit is a riveting and original tale set in a far-away future. One of the things that impressed me as a writer about this book was how Gilman manages to make a story that is rather traditional on the surface (a person on an away-mission disappears, plus mysterious deaths on board a space ship), be so completely original beneath that surface. Gilman’s uniquely imagined future world, the varied cultures inhabiting it, and her uniquely imagined alien world and alien culture was a revelation.
Binti is an amazing novella that swiftly and effortlessly plunges the reader into a future-verse that is rich and alive with people and civilizations, science and mathematics, and all of it seen through the singular lens of Binti herself, the story’s protagonist. One thing I really took away from this book, as a writer, was that it is possible to pull the reader into a rich and complex world without long-winded explanations of that world from the outside. Instead, you can explain everything from the inside: by what your main character experiences and does, by how they see the world, and how they react to it. No long exposition required.
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps was an intoxicating read for me. It’s a story that blends science fiction and fantasy in a way that I found absolutely inspiring as a writer (and a lover of both genres). Another thing I took away from it as a writer had a lot to do with language: Wilson uses language skillfully and masterfully to make his world and the characters come alive. His prose is expressive and original, and his dialogue is a marvel, veering between high and low, courtly and street-wise. Be daring, this book seemed to tell me: go for the jugular, don’t sanitize your ideas and neuter your prose.
So yes, I believe that the advice is true: reading is indeed extremely important for a writer, and let’s face it: the instant availability of ebooks makes it easier than ever to read both widely and intensely.
“Bow to the masters, acknowledge your peers, and blaze a trail for yourself armed with the knowledge of what has come before.”
Or, to quote Bradbury one more time:
“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”