by Linda Rodriguez
A serious writer should be reading all the time. Buy books so you can reread and mark them up, figuring out how they do the incredible things they do and how they made the mistakes they made that you want to avoid. Read the first time the way any reader does—for enjoyment and delight, to find out what happens next. Then, read over and over—very slowly. Read and ponder. Read like a writer reads—for technique. These writers are your teachers—for the cheap cost of a book, $40 at the max for a big hardback. Learn everything you can from them. Learn from the best. Then go practice some of those good techniques in your own work. You can do this quietly in bits and pieces of time without having to go away anywhere. You’re a writer. Think on paper.
There are lots of areas in our life where we need to step out of our comfort zones in order to grow and achieve our goals. It can be difficult to do this because it feels so weird outside of the spaces where we’re accustomed to spending time, and that leads to discomfort. Most of us, however, have learned that we have to stretch ourselves at times. But we seldom do this in our reading. Teachers may have made us read things we didn’t care for, but on our own—if we read at all!—we read only what we’re comfortable with.
Writers must read. We must read for enjoyment and delight and relaxation. We must read to stay up with what’s going on in our field. Above all, we must read to learn—and that involves sometimes leaving the warm cocoon of blankets and stepping out onto the cold floor of books and authors we might never choose for enjoyment.
We tend to read people who write like we do, who believe what we believe, who have the same style. It’s natural and normal—like looking in the mirror. I write accessible poetry with a narrative behind it. When I turn to poetry, won’t I read the same thing? I did. I still do. Reading Mary Oliver is like looking in the mirror at myself—years younger, many pounds thinner, and much more beautiful, it’s true—but an idealized self. My favorite kind of crime novels tends to be novels that focus on character, complex plots, and fine writing. I could recognize the artistry of good comic, pulp hardboiled, and puzzle crime novels, but I tended not to read those except when I had to because they weren’t “my” crime novels. But there were things for me to learn from these writers who didn’t write “my” books—exactly because they wrote a different style of book that required different skills. I could learn things from them that I couldn’t learn from someone just like me.
This is not just applicable to novels, either. You may only want to write fiction or narrative nonfiction, so why would you read poetry? As a matter of fact, many acclaimed writers of fiction, including some bestselling authors of commercial fiction, start or end their days reading poetry because they want to learn the skills of precise word choice, compression, verbal musicality, and many others they can learn from poets who’ve worked for years to be masters of those skills. The prose writers believe they can use those skills profitably in their own novels, stories, and narrative nonfiction.
Will all writers offer examples of all of these skills? Of course not. You must search out the best in each style or school. You always want to learn from the best. Where else can you as a writer turn to learn from your reading? Well, what do you want to learn?
Is narrative structure and plot your weakness? Do you never have any conflict in your stories or books? Look to the best of mystery fiction. These are the masters of narrative structure and plot. A good mystery has to have the plot of what really happened and then the plot of the unraveling and discovery of what really happened. Good mysteries have to have dramatic structures that are tied into strong characterization, motivation, lots of conflict, and suspense. Good examples can be found in authors like Nancy Pickard, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Margaret Maron, and Louise Penny.
Are you unable to build a believable, engrossing background for your characters? Do your characters wander in a void? The best writers in science fiction and fantasy excel in world-building—making a fictional world so believable in its details that it will draw the reader in as if it were a real place. They must make worlds that never existed outside their heads into places that readers can see and believe in. Game of Thrones, anyone? Good places to start here are C.J. Cherryh, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kate Elliott, Octavia Butler, and N.K. Jemison.
Reading as a writer can help you with any writing problem you have (except the constants of procrastination and lack of confidence). If your current problem is transitions, find writers who write fabulous transitions, even if you don’t like the rest of their work. They may be literary writers or writers in some commercial genre, but they write transitions that really work. Learn from them. Take apart the way they write transitions. Identify their techniques. Then practice them. This kind of reading to identify and break down skill and technique is a valuable tool for any writer. Good writers have books that are underlined, highlighted, and have notes scribbled in them.
A second kind of reading as a writer is reading to learn other ways of thinking and seeing the world. If we keep to our circumscribed lives, how can we realistically create characters who are different from ourselves? I am a screening judge for several national literary contests and see way too many book manuscripts where everyone in the whole book is the same—a twenty-to-thirty-something graduate student (even if they’re not in school). A Native American grandmother is written from the perspective of a twenty-to-thirty-something graduate student and lies dead on the page.
Does this mean a twenty-to-thirty-something graduate student can’t/shouldn’t try to write a Native American grandmother? No, but she or he might try reading things written by Native Americans and grandmothers from the perspective of real Native Americans and real grandmothers first. Otherwise, this character will be built from his/her preconceived notions—stereotypes and prejudices—of what a Native American grandmother is and will never rise up alive on the page.
How can we learn if we only read people who think and write the same way we do? As writers, we need to use our reading to add breadth to our experiences. To do that, we must read people who are different from us—people who write differently and think differently, people who have had different experiences in life from ours. There is a whole world of books out there by people whose whole experience of life has been different from yours. At one time, the only books to be found were written by wealthy educated European white men. Now, we can read and learn from the experiences of working-class Irish plumbers, overachieving Chinese law professor mothers, Filipino cab drivers, and African American choreographers. Biographies and autobiographies and memoirs are a wonderful resource for this broadening of experience, as are poetry and fiction by these diverse authors. Your characters will thank you, as will your readers.
But what if you don’t know where to look to find the books that will help you learn new techniques and new worlds? Ask your librarian. Most of them have their jobs because they love books. All of them are knowledgeable about books.
Don’t always read only the people who look like you, sound like you, and write like you, whose skills, backgrounds and experiences are just like your own. You won’t find anything to stretch your understanding or increase your skills there. Do everything you can to widen your perspective on the world. It will all make you a better writer. You’ll know you’re a real writer when all your mirrors turn into windows.