Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why writers should read. A lot.

I have a confession to make. When I first started writing, I wasn't much of a reader. I had read and loved Harry Potter. Beyond that, though, I hadn't done much reading. I had fallen prey to the myth so many schools feed our children: reading is boring. Not a deliberate myth, but a persistent one. I read all these books I was supposed to like, and I found them mind-numbingly boring.

That, in part, was why I wanted to write. I wanted to do for other kids what J.K. Rowling did for me. That is, I wanted to write something exciting for kids to read instead of the boring stuff they had to read for school. Beyond Rowling, I had also read The Hobbit. So, with this limited amount of reading, I set out to write my first novel. It was pretty much a mish-mash of The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and Super Nintendo RPGs. Not only that, but the writing was bad. Really bad. This is something I've since reworked numerous times, finally arriving at something I can feel proud of.

For years, I continued as a writer. I improved, but not as much as I would have liked. My second project was a middle grade fantasy in which the Harry Potter influence was very apparent. I do plan to rework this, as there's a great story in there, but it still needs a lot of work.

Why were these stories not as good as I would have liked? Why was my writing not as smooth and polished as I would have liked? Because I wasn't reading enough. Too frequently, I sought my entertainment in video games. There's nothing wrong with that, even as a writer, but I should have found the time to read. Then, of course, I was so busy being a straight-A student through high school and college. I did a ton of reading for my classes. I didn't want to do more during my free time.

It wasn't until my senior year of college, after a failed attempt at querying one of my novels, that I realized I needed to change something. Looking back, I shudder to think that I queried something at that stage. It was no wonder I got nothing but no responses and form rejections. It simply wasn't ready. When I realized this, I set myself a task. I was going to read a lot. A difficult task, I thought at first, realizing how much I'd hated most of what I read for school.

There were few exceptions to this. The Hobbit. 1984. Brave New World. Most of the books I read for my science fiction class first-semester my senior year of college. That class, in part, gave me the belief that I did enjoy reading. I just had to choose carefully what I read. All my writing ideas fell within science fiction and fantasy (mostly fantasy), so I decided that was what I would read.

In my college library, I found authors like Terry Brooks and Jim Butcher. They were my real introductions to epic and urban fantasy, respectively. It was then that I realized how much I loved these stories, especially the epic fantasy. Soon I moved on to Robert Jordan and Tad Williams--stories that were similar to Brooks, but deeper and more complex. Then I found Brandon Sanderson. When I read Elantris, my love of fantasy was official.

Once I graduated and joined the ranks of unemployed college grads, I dedicated myself even more to reading. The authors I've discovered since then are so numerous there's no point mentioning them all (that would be a very long post). Through all this reading (I usually read well over 100 books a year), I've noticed another great thing. My writing has improved so much. The flow. The dialogue. The description. And especially the ideas. By reading so much more within the fantasy genre, I discovered the wide variety of stories out there, and I had a much greater well to draw from for my own ideas.

One of the key things I've discovered about reading is this. Don't get stuck reading too much of any one author at once. When I did this, I found too often that their writing styles were influencing my own. I've since made it a point to have multiple books going at once so that I never allow myself to be influenced too much by any one author. Through this, I've simply developed a feel for good writing, and my style has evolved. I'm sure there's still something of my original style in there, but it's much cleaner, much easier to read.

Today, I also realized an unexpected benefit of reading, which is what inspired this post.

I'm getting close to the querying stage for Lightweaver (though I might change its title to Sunweaver). I started researching agents today, and I realized something great when I was looking through their clients. I'm familiar with many of the books they represent. This gives me the ability to personalize my query, stating why my book fits in well with what they represent. Before I read widely, I had no idea who any of these authors were. I was completely unprepared to enter the publishing arena.

Yet another reason I shudder when I look back at the project I queried a few years ago.

Through this all, I've discovered that I really enjoy reading. In fact, if I were forced to give up either reading or writing, I would give up writing in a heartbeat. I wouldn't like it, but I could deal with it. However, there are simply too many great books out there to read.

Now, you might be asking what you should do if you don't find you love reading this much. You might find you're like me--that you only like a few types of books (fantasy, science fiction, and horror in my case). Maybe you just haven't discovered those books yet.

And don't be alarmed if you don't like some of the "great" stuff in whatever genre you read. You don't have to like it. You just have to find what you like within your genre, and that might even be the cheesy pulp you're not supposed to like. Don't feel ashamed if you like that kind of stuff. Everyone has different tastes. For example, I still like Terry Brooks. I know he isn't regarded all that highly in many fantasy circles, but I think his books are fun reads. On the other hand, I've found authors like George RR Martin, Steven Erikson, and Joe Abercrombie are more of a struggle for me. In the end, I like their books, but they're not my go-to fantasy. And that's okay.

This has probably rambled on long enough. In short, reading is the single most important thing you can do as an author. If you don't read a lot, you won't develop that feel for good prose, and you won't have as many ideas to draw from. Also, you won't know what's already been done to death in your genre. And, finally, you'll feel a lot better about things come querying time.

Good luck out there, fellow writers. Now get reading.

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