Wednesday, January 15, 2014

This is Basically How You Do the Whole Writing Thing

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”—Stephen King, On Writing.
Ask any author for their rock bottom advice on how to do what they do, and they will give you some version of the same answer. You have to invest in your art. Read a lot and write a lot.

Reading a lot isn't actually enough, though. A friend of mine reads all the time, probably more than I do. She definitely gets through more books in a year than me (I guess I'm a slow reader), but she also doesn't have very good taste. That's no slight at my friend. She likes some very good books, but she also likes a whole lot of bad books with equal enthusiasm. She isn't a discerning reader, but she doesn't have to be. She likes the books she likes because of the cool things they do to her head, regardless of any bad writing or other awkwardness along the way.

Essentially, my friend is a passive reader. She lays back and watches the story roll by, and when it's over, she reaches for the next paper-bound, positive experience. I used to be the same myself, but if you want to be a writer, you can't read this way—not all the time. You can't just measure your reading by how much you enjoy each book, you have to focus on why.

Read actively. Pay attention to what you read and how you respond to it. Note when a scene is really exciting or engaging to you, and try to understand what the author is doing to achieve that result. How do they set up effective tension, for instance? Start where your novel of choice starts, at the most basic level of craft. How does your author begin? How do they set a scene? Which details do they share, and which do they leave out? Why? What do they actually tell you, and how much do you infer? How do they introduce characters? How do those characters take shape as the story continues? What problems, goals, or events drive the narrative? And so on.

The bad is often easier to diagnose. If you find the opening of a given novel long winded, figure out why the opening bores you, and what shift in the writing or action eventually captures your attention. If a character is annoying, why? What do you think the author was trying to do with that character, and how could they have been more successful? What do you wish they had done instead?

Don't think you have to keep all these questions in your head at the same time. Pick some aspects of your own work you would like to improve, and monitor your reading for those elements. Otherwise, pay attention to what stands out, for better or worse.

Now, in your own writing, avoid all the bad stuff and exploit all the good stuff. That's basically it. You have all you will ever need lining your shelves at home, and at the bookstore and the library. Invest in your art. Read good books and try to understand what makes them good, if they are. Use these works as the models for your own writing. The key is to really dig in to what you are reading. Test it. Question it. Understand it. Don't just watch it go by.

No comments:

Post a Comment