Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What are You Reading?

Rhonda Browning White
I know you’ve heard it said before, “Good writers must read good books.” For most of us, this is a no-brainer. But do you realize how much what you read affects how you write? It’s true; the books and novels you read will directly impact your writing. Thus, it’s important for each of us, as writers, to read constantly and closely with the intention of improving our own writing. Author Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer is an excellent text on how to read with fresh eyes, to receive not only inspiration, but also instruction and technical assistance, from a great story.

What? But won’t reading with such concentration take the pleasure out of a story?

Of course not! In fact, with a little bit of effort, close reading (reading with attention to cunning plots, breathtaking sentences, suggestive detail, and other building blocks of writing) can make your reading experience more enjoyable than it has ever been. When we read a story with a keen eye on the way in which it was crafted, we learn how to apply those tricks to our own stories. Reading a powerful story in which we’ve examined every sentence—every word—seeking to understand why the author chose to use in the way she did, we can experience revelations, both about the story we are reading and about the way in which we chose our own words and phrases. We can discover new pleasures in selecting words for our own stories as we dive into the beautiful, bottomless pool of language discovery. Books and novels become our own private classrooms in which we study lessons in the art of writing. So, then, which classes shall we take?

I highly recommend starting at the top. No, this doesn’t mean we should forgo contemporary stories for Homer, Ovid and Shakespeare (though there’s much to be learned about plot and storytelling from classic literature). 

Begin with the bestseller lists. What makes those stories so popular and powerful within their genre? Read a few recent bestsellers similar to the story (or at least in the same genre that) you are writing. Find an author in your genre whose work moves you, and read everything they’ve written. Pay attention to what it is in their work that captures your attention, and try to mimic that style in your own writing. If you write mysteries, pick up this year’s edition of Best American Mysteries. (You can’t go wrong with any of the Best American series in your genre, whether it’s Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Sports Stories, or any of their other excellent collections.) We often learn best from the books we most admire.

Study books on the craft of writing. You’ll hear our editors often tell you how important it is to continually study the craft—professional writers make a career out of studying writing and applying what they’ve learned to their own work. Personally, I read at least five or six books a year on writing craft. This week, I’m reading Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Building Fiction. Next on my list is John Truby’s The Anatomy of a Story. Other texts I’ve read and to which I frequently return for advice and inspiration include The Art & Craft of the Short Story (good advice for many forms) by Rick DeMarinis, and what may be my all-time favorite, The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne.  

Medical students watch surgeons and copy their skills and techniques in the operating room. Dancers study the moves of famous choreographers and practice until their bodies ache from effort. Professional writers study the best authors, conscious of style, diction and sentence structure, and apply those construction details to their own work. 

Reading is what real writers do. What are you reading?

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