Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Great Writers Come from Great Readers

By David Sharp

I recently read an article that cited a particular professional's method for screening writers who want to talk to her about their books. Apparently, writers frequently corner her at parties hoping she can help them break into the biz. Hard to imagine, I know. She diverts the conversation by asking them what they're reading. Writers who have no answer or who give a non-answer like, "I'm too focused on my writing to read anything," are politely dismissed.

A chapter a day keeps the doldrums away.

I tried to put myself in the shoes of someone receiving that sort of rejection. I think it would sting more than all of the "I'm so sorry your fantastic book is just not for me," letters and all the "Why don't you give up writing and take up knitting or something?" letters combined! Effectively, she has labelled you something worse than a lousy writer. She has labelled you a phony. Another voice in the world that insists on being heard, but who can't find the time to listen to anyone else. In a word... Ouch!

But it does bring up a valid point. Who would spend hours writing and editing and rewriting who didn't first have a passion for reading? I can't imagine putting in all that work on a project that I didn't aspire to the same greatness I'd experienced from the works of others. For one thing, how would I even know what it should look like? Would I know how to draw people into fictional worlds if I've never been lost in one, myself? Or, perhaps I used to love reading, but haven't really finished a book in several years. Even then, would I be equipped to write one with such stale experience? Would I even understand how to implement the subtleties of theme and nuance?

Too busy for books!
I'll read when I'm dead!
On the other hand, life is busy. It's hard to find time to read when a preschooler is screaming at your feet, you've got to figure out dinner, you've got another kid alternating passive aggression with actual aggression, and something smells like it's burning. It's hard enough to find time to write, and now I have to read something too!? I feel your pain.

Nevertheless, the two go hand-in-hand. Would you pay top dollar for a chef who only ever ate microwave dinners? Or a musician who never listened to music? Or a photographer who never... uh... looked at stuff? In that vein, I think it is a reasonable expectation that writers should be reading. And guess what? It doesn't have to be a chore! It's fun! This is the easy part. And you will be supporting the market to which you contribute.

Do you self-publish? Purchase and read some other self-published works. Do you write magazine articles? Great! You can read a whole bunch of those in one sitting! Are you going for a Big Five contract? Read some Big Five titles, but maybe include a few who aren't on the bestseller list. You never know who might become a new favorite. Why not beta-read for some other local writers out there? After all, what are writers in a world that has no readers?
Interrupt me at your peril!

It is hard to find time. But I earnestly believe that if you're not reading, your writing will suffer for it. If you want to make your writing the best that it can be, reading is not optional. None of us should ever be weeded out because we can't offer the title of our latest literary indulgence. We must make time. And social media totally doesn't count. While that certainly has it's place in a writer's world, our reading experience should be more robust.

Need a good book? Get a Goodreads account. Or consult one of the many degreed professionals who specialize in connecting readers with new favorites. (You can find them in your local library, and the consultation is free!) Some libraries even offer a cool Personalized Reading List service. Try it. I did.

So here's the big question: What are you reading? Let us know in the comments so I can extend my own reading list. And check out some of these articles on the importance of reading:

Neil Gaiman: Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming
 -This one is worth your time. Seriously. Neil Gaiman speaks with more passion and insight on reading than I ever could. And you'll feel good about what you contribute to the world.

The Best Advice for Writers? Read
 -Also uses a chef example. I wrote mine before I read this article, though. So there.

Stephen King's Reading List for Writers
-A list of 96 books Mr. King read in the span of time wherein he wrote 4. That's quite a ratio!

Book Lovers Live Longer - Denver Post
-And then, of course, there's this benefit as well.


JC Lynne said...

As a lifelong and avid reader, I've discovered a love hate relationship with reading. I LOVE It and then I realize there is nothing as self-indulgent as reading.

I can't write while I read and often at the end of a stunning book am filled with crushing self-doubt as a writer.
I can't clean or do anything else while I read so my house lays prey to dust bunnies.
Lately, I've been reading books I've agreed to review, which sucks just a little of the self-indulgent joy.

Note: that hasn't prevented me from nurturing a growing pile of books to read.

David Sharp said...

I must admit I have also had my soul crushed by a great book I couldn't hope to follow with my own writing. But aren't writers used to a little soul-crushing? I think it's one of the occupational hazards.

I will also admit that chores pile up when I'm embroiled in a good book. I like to imagine a little devilish librarian on my shoulder saying, "Just a few more pages. Then you can get to those dishes. Yeeesss. This won't be like last time. I'm sure you'll get to bed on time. You can stop any time you want. Mwa ha ha!"

Indulge away!

Deborah Nielsen said...

Lately I've been reading the books of essays written by Lisa Scottoline (a mystery writer) and her daughter Francesca. The essays are compiled from their weekly Chick Wit columns in The Philadelphia Inquirer. I've laughed out loud, and cried, and been bemused and thoroughly entertained. Good essays. Hopefully I've learned something about writing, too. I've also found another single 50-something woman who sleeps with dogs. I'm not the only one. Makes me feel better. :)

Abbie Taylor said...

I recently finished reading The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steel, and you can read a review of it on my blog at . You can find information about my new memoir, My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds at . I hope you'll add both books to your reading list.

David Sharp said...

Thanks for sharing Deborah and Abbie. Lately, I've been alternating between The Yiddish Policeman's Union and Outlander. Also reading a chapter a night of Roald Dahl's The Witches for bedtime stories. If you have kids, bedtime stories is a great way to get some extra reading in!

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