In his wonderful book, On Writing, Stephen King says this: If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: write a lot and read a lot … Reading is the creative centre of a writer’s life.
In my years of teaching writing I’ve had only one student who didn’t read, a fact which perplexed me until I discovered he was writing a post-divorce revenge memoir.
Invariably writers are readers. We turn to writing ourselves at some point in our lives because the words and stories of others have inspired us to grapple with our own imaginations and pin them to the page. We turn to writing because we are so enamoured with the lives of the character’s we read about that we are compelled to create our own characters with their own foibles, fears and fantasies.
Once you start writing you will find yourself reading in a slightly different way. You’ll notice the way the author hooks you with those very first words, the way the chapter ends leaving you wanting to know what happens next and desperate to turn the page to find out more. Or, with other books, you’ll notice how the descriptions are clichéd and the characters wooden. Either way you’ll be learning more about writing by analysing the writing of others – even when you don’t know you’re doing it.
We absorb the words and pages and stories we read so that when we pick up our pens we have a deep well of inspiration to draw from. Everything we’ve ever read is stored in our subconscious and even though we may not be able to remember the name of the author of that great book we read in school or recall the wisdom of Atticus Finch in his final address to the court, it’s all there for us to draw from in our own writing.
Reading books of a similar genre to the one we’re writing help us work out where we fit in the pantheon of literature. Whether you’re a Romance writer, a creator of Fantasy worlds, a Crime specialist or a poet,it’s a good idea to become familiar with both those writers who have gone before you and those who are currently out there. Not so you can mimic them but so you get to know the “rules” of your genre, if there are any, and so you can think about how you might make your writing different to or even better than what’s already available.
Reading books outside our own genres helps us broaden our view of the world and shows us other ways of approaching the writing itself. Sometimes even pushing through a book we’re really struggling with can have unexpected rewards. Maybe the page-turner plot can give you some ideas on adding more conflict to your own story or the quirky protagonist might give you a new angle on your own hero.
When you’re writing it’s useful to have a small pile of your favourite books nearby. If you’re stuck and don’t know what to write next pick up a few of them, open them at random and read a few paragraphs or pages. Then try another. After devouring a few pages close them up and start writing, see what comes out. Even if initially it sounds like one of the writers you’ve just spent time with, within a few minutes you’ll be off in your own world and the writing will start to flow. Your writing.
I’ll leave you with another paragraph from the venerable Mr King:
The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.
How does reading support and direct your writing?