I’ve always made up stories, even as a child. When I was six years old my parents bought me an empty notebook so I could write them them down. I didn’t, because I was lazy, but I’d tell them to my stuffed animals, and on car journeys I’d tell them to myself.
The other thing I’ve always dedicated a lot of time to was reading. I am an only child therefore books were often my sole companions and I’d read 1-2 a day. There was no Internet. No Twitter. No Reddit. I had no games console and wasn’t allowed to watch TV. I had books. Hours of uninterrupted reading. Every day.
I’m convinced reading so much has helped me develop my fiction writing skills.
Writers are readers and should be readers.
“Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.” William Faulkner
Sometimes I read without paying attention to individual words and sentences. I simply curl up with my dogs and a cup of coffee and dive into a different world. However, I frequntly sit down with a notebook in my hands and pay close attention. It’s a way for me to learn and improve.
I look at how many points of view a book has and whether it’s told in the past or present tense. Is the narrator omniscient? I make notes of what strikes me as well-written and what jars me out of the narrative. I make notes of memorable descriptions and character flaws. I study the way the sentences are constructed and the way the book is set-up (linear vs. jumping around in time for example.) If the book is witty, I try and figure out what makes it funny. If the sentences are choppy, I dissect them to learn why they work.
How does the author finish chapters? What keeps the reader reading? If I think I know what’s going to happen, I write that down along with the things that tipped me off. Am I right? How did the author foreshadow the event? Are there red herrings? How are they introduced?
Mostly my notes are littered with ways to describe smells and feelings in English, because I’m not a native speaker and I regularly suffer from characters always nodding and scratching their heads and not doing much else while talking.
We can learn from good writing as well as from bad writing. If you read something you don’t enjoy, ask yourself: why am I not enjoying this? What isn’t working? What could be done differently that would make it more gripping? Where did the author lose me?
I’d like to end this post with my five favourite novels of all time and what I think you can learn from them. This list often changes based on my current mood, but for now this is it:
Read Flowers for Algernon if you want to learn how to deliver an emotional punch in speculative fiction. It’s the story of a young man whose IQ is 68. He’s always been an outsider. He wishes to be smart and jumps at the opportunity to participate in an experiment that is supposed to increase his IQ. Despite this being a very short book the author manages to gut the reader at the end. Or maybe it’s just me.
Read the Count of Monte Cristo if you want to follow a perfectly plotted story. Alexandre Dumas starts with a simple tale of a young man who is good at his job and has a pretty fiancée. Four men bring him down for various reasons and he ends up rotting in prison where he plans his revenge. Dumas ties all loose ends together and shows his skill at plotting by letting the protagonist execute his plan in a meticulous manner.
Read Pride and Prejudice because… just do it. I’ve read this book 25 times. I’m not even kidding, nor am I exaggerating.
Read Foucault’s Pendulum for another perfectly executed plot. Eco rewrites history based on a conspiracy theory and the best part? It’s believable.
Read It if you want to learn how to scare people. This book (or the film) is many people’s worst nightmare. Including mine. I was eight years old when I read it. Maybe nine. I’d read a fairytale about a man who wanted to learn fear. And I decided, I too wanted to learn fear. I asked my father to buy me a scary book. He brought me scary tales for children. I laughed and told him those were for babies. I wanted to learn true fear. The next day It was sitting on my plate at dinnertime. That night the light on my bedside table stayed on. Stephen King’s strength might not be endings, but character creation and fear are two things you can learn from him.
Think of your favourite books and why you think they’re worth reading and what you can learn from them when it comes to your own writing. Don’t be shy and share your thoughts in the comments.
See you next week,