If there were any advice I wish I’d taken when I was younger, it would be to read more.
It sounds daft to admit that as a wannabe writer I didn’t read much. In my impatient youth, I had convinced myself that if I was reading it meant I wasn’t writing. True, but a scientist doesn’t just make experiments and a thesis based off nothing. They read journals, look at what worked in previous experiments and what went wrong, and then create their own. It’s the starting point of science, and the starting point of art.
Science and writing have a lot of similarities, in that they both start as passions—interests as such—that can easily be nurtured in the reading of contemporaries, or those more experienced, within the same field. Slogging through experiments (and writing is very much an experiment) can become draining; it can feel like monotony tenfold, or a fixation without a bounty at the end, but perseverance can lead to the most rewarding experience—and sometimes the fuel to perseverance is to read.
Feel stuck on a chapter you’re writing? Read a book.
Feel tired of reading your work over and over? Read a book.
Not sure how to develop your character further? Read a book.
Unsure of what direction to take your plot? Read a book.
You may have looked into hundreds of ‘How to Write…’ essays, from creating authentic villains to writing people of colour, through love triangles, to writing fear, but the best lessons can be learnt from those who have succeeded. Those essays may be right; with someone else working out how other writers have managed to make those particular things tick, but it isn’t quite the same as experiencing the writing as a reader.
I’ve been taught hundreds of times about chemicals, and at school we looked at the periodic table with the same enthusiasm one looks at drying socks. I understood the theory: potassium is volatile; it’s in its atomic structure. And then I saw the water experiment. Brilliant! It explodes!
And so does inspiration.
For the broadest, most beneficial inspiration, I recommend reading outside your comfort zone. You may write fantasy, but you may find that the way an author in science fiction does philosophical quandary encapsulates your tastes better than any in the fantasy genre. You may be a horror writer, but you may find John Green’s Turtle All the Way Down a good muse for inter-relationships (because what’s scarier than socialising?). You could just be minding your own business, enjoying a coming of age classic from your youth and BAM! You have an idea for a lesbian love story. Minds are weird things, and it is a great thing that we have the near infinite resource of books to satiate and incite them.
So go on, read. Read outside your genre, and even outside your format. Read journals, flash fiction, short stories, or even comics and manga to get a feel for something new.
After reading a dozen Agatha Cristie short stories I found myself in the rhythm of a good short story. As someone who is perpetually in the middle of an epic, I thought it impossible to write short stories without turning them into novellas, to novels, to huge doorstop tomes—but after getting through a few great pieces (and some not so great) I had a better understanding of how the beasts work. And sure, they’re not novels, but they serve their purpose, being entertaining and deviously so. Being so short, some twists come so hard and fast I’m surprised my neck still sits straight, whereas others, despite their word length, are slow and creepy—creepier at times than novels that spend 50,000 words getting to the whole point.
There were many lessons I learnt at a writing group, or from critique. For too long I felt daunted at the task of writing exposition in a narrative. In fact, exposition is often treated like a dirty word. ‘Too much exposition,’ ‘exposition dump,’ and so on, to the point I felt unsure of when or where to use it, and eventually resolved to just not include any in narrative. Dialogue had it, but it was so filtered that it did not seem too abrupt.
Turns out I was wrong. So very, very wrong. Nicholas Eames’ highly commended debut novel, Kings of the Wyld, is half-exposition, half-plot—I swear—but it is done so beautifully well. It is amusing and, in many ways, feels like a reward. Not only this, I found myself admiring a fantasy novel with a sense of humour to suit my own, something that I intentionally cut from my own work in hopes it would somehow help it.
Since finishing Kings of the Wyld, my writing output has increased. I’ve ignored my fear of exposition and humour and genuinely felt enjoyment in just writing as I imagine Eames enjoyed writing his novel.
V E Schwab’s Vicious and Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns taught me some particularly interesting—and sometimes uncomfortable—lessons in writing villains. Both brilliant in their own executions, not asking for excuses or even redemption, neither apologetic and both earned my respect as I learnt very quickly as to why they were well received. It forced me to look at my characters, their deep-sets and highlights that created the contours of the people they are. Prince of Thorns in particular felt like a lesson to readers and writers. The main character, Jorg, is unapologetically heinous from the start, and this is intentional: he is designed to repel and that made the story much more interesting. What could Lawrence possibly do in 82,000 words to make this character’s story remotely of interest to me? Could we redeem him, even just a little?
Reading has also helped me find out what doesn’t work for me as a reader, and thus a writer. Looking at a piece of work as a reader can help spot issues one feels in rhythm in a book, and this can then be reflected in your own work. It is also good practice, as in the end you will be reading your own work as a reader.
To tune out the writer’s call is an art form in itself. To sit back and remain detached enough to not feel the impulse to critique and scrutinise, but attached enough to appreciate a piece can be core in remaining in love with the art. In the end that is how one’s creations truly stand a chance of being started, being nurtured and being cultivated into a final product, the passion that awoke the initial interest.
So, when writing becomes a chore, read.
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© 2018 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.