Friday, 11 March 2011

Why Writers Should Also Be Readers

So there I was, thinking about what to blog today and not coming up with anything inspired when someone told me that they wrote poetry, but never read poetry. They must have registered the expression on my face because they then giggled and said they liked poetry, just never read it.

Which did make me wonder, if they never read it, how they knew they liked it? Or did they just like their own? Which is an understandable position to take I suppose. I've had students in the past who say they want to write a novel, but don't have time to read them. I've even once been told by a would-be writer that they don't see the point of novels - not that that was going to stop them from writing their own and making a million (as one does).

But...how do you think Austen, Dickens, Conrad, Tolstoy (add any author whose work you enjoy who was writing pre WWI) learned their craft? There weren't creative writing classes to go to, or creative writing books. They learned from reading. And from the theatre and hearing story tellers, but primarily from their own reading.

You should read extensively in the area that you wish to write. If you read westerns, that's what you should be writing. There's no point in wishfully dreaming about winning the Booker with your novel if your internal compass is pointing to romantic fiction. By reading within your area you get an instinctive grasp on the rules. That way you can choose to break them. You'll also know when you've genuinely got a new idea, or where your idea fits into the market.

Reading hot wires your brain first to recognise good writing, and then to write it yourself. Ask around and you won't find many published novelists who aren't readers. Reading is the breathing in, and writing is the breathing out. The two go together.

And besides, if you don't read other people, how can you expect anyone to read you?

PS I'll write about voice/influence in the next post.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/

4 comments:

Rebecca Bradley said...

I absolutely love reading and generally read the genre I'm writing in. However recently I have started widening my reading experience just to give me a broader view and I'm really enjoying it.

Jim Murdoch said...

In general I agree with you however I’ve written poetry and had it published on an ongoing basis since I was sixteen and yet it’s also true that I don’t read very much poetry and don’t even like much of the poetry I do read. The thing I found was that I read enough to help me find my voice and then I got on with it. I know what you’re saying any why you’re saying it but I’ve always been afraid of copying which – thankfully – I’ve never been prone to. Also I don’t work in a genre which helps. As far as novels go I’d probably read less than 100 books when I sat down and wrote my first two novels but I had watched an awful lot of TV. There was a programme on last week talking about the up-and-coming novelists and the one thing that they all had in common was a shying away from traditional linear storylines told in the first or third person. Instead their books read more like film scripts. Compared to my peers I’m still poorly read but I am widely read which helps. To be fair I wrote a lot of bad poetry when I first started in fact it took me 452 poems to find that voice but, a bit like Glenn Miller with his ‘sound’, as soon as I’d written that 453rd poem I knew it. As regards the novels they really were flukes. I never sat down to write a novel – I was a poet, what was I doing thinking I could write a novel? – and so it was as much a surprise to me as it was to those around me when I did. The third novel, when I actually sat down to see if I really was a novelist, wasn’t so easy. That’s when I decided to try my hand at short stories but what influenced those early ones was Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads not anything I’d read. I know I must come across as a contrary bugger at times and I really don’t mean to be difficult but it does seem to be in my nature to want to do things my own way; as soon as you tell me I can’t or shouldn’t do something one way then I want to try and do it that way. And that’s not always a bad thing. Then again I’m not trying to make a living out of writing.

womagwriter said...

I think you must also read outside the genre in which you're writing. Otherwise there's a danger you write in copycat style, and don't bring anything new to the party. Read widely, read always, read everything that's good and a few things that are bad. It all goes in, all educates you and inspires you.

Sarah Duncan said...

Really interesting comments. And of course Jim is right, how you go about writing (and reading) will depend on lot on if you want to get published (and paid for it).

I agree with you both that reading widely helps with the writing. It's all grist to the old mill.