Today’s Guest Post is by Robyn M. Lupo, a writer, slusher, and avid reader. Many thanks to Robyn for her contribution!
I’m going to add to the post that Inkhaven put up a bit ago about reading. She asked us what’s on our bookshelf, and discussed some awesome resources that help us learn to be better writers. You should read the post, don’t worry, I’ll just grab a cinnamon roll and wait.
Ok, so, that’s a lot of books, right? You need to read more. Yup. From the one and only Stephen King: ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot…Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.’ (King, On Writing, 139) He goes on to use stronger language. Essentially, he says that if you don’t think you have the time to read, you are not going to be a writer, period. Another valuable book, ‘Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us’ cites Stephen King, and the author, an editor called Jessica Page Morrell, writes: ‘Reading is your job. If you don’t read the genre you’re writing in, your unconscious will never absorb the techniques and structure needed.’ (Jessica Page Morrell 322)
Page talks about a memoir workshop she ran where she asked would-be memoirists just how many memoirs these folks have read – most people had tapped out at around twenty.
Twenty memoirs is a fine number if you’re a regular citizen. But writers, you are experts of the written word. Here’s where I perhaps get odd on you. There’s a quote by Richard Dawkins I just came across on Wendy Wagner’s blog ‘Science is the poetry of reality.’ Neat quote, but I submit that poetry is the poetry of reality, and mastery of the written word is a science.
A lot goes into the term ‘science’. Let me explain what I mean here. I’m suggesting the methodology of science is perfectly applicable to the art of writing. We’re told that in order to be good at what we do, we must revise, revise, revise. And really, what’s revision but testing hypotheses? When you revise, I bet you look to see what works, and what doesn’t, and if the overall result doesn’t work, it’s back to the drawing board, or onto something new altogether. When we revise, we work out all these nuts and bolts things, like removing the passive voice to improve the narrative impact. We clean up our grammar, and so on. We test different syntax, narrative forms, voices, and we test whether these changes have the effect we want as storytellers. Check it out, it’s SCIENCE.
Well, not exactly, but you see what I did there, right?
There is a level of expertise that has to be there to be a good writer. And that expertise comes into play not only in the revision process, but in our research. Reading is our research (in addition to research being our research…how’s that eyestrain coming?)
The only way to get good with words is to use them, be exposed to them, see them in all their myriad configurations. Reading fiction, non fiction of all shapes and sizes, and I’m going to throw poetry in there for good measure exposes us to realms of wordage that expands our brains and as Page suggested, gives us at least implicit tools to write better. Writing might be the only skill/art/aggravation that can be aided by osmosis.
It’s fairly uncontroversial to say that there’s good writing, and there’s bad writing. Lately, I am discovering that there does seem to be some undue snarling of what’s good writing, what’s bad writing, and personal tastes. It sort of all gets thrown together and what one person means by taste, another might be referring to quality.
I’m going to pick on Lovecraft, because he’s an easy example of bad writing. Purple prose, a tin ear for language, grandiose dialogue attribution, this guy’s writing was sometimes not just bad, but terrible. However, his ideas made horror what it is today, gave us speculative fiction, and depending on your personal taste, he can be enjoyable to read. There are many authors out there who produce enjoyable work that’s not good writing – sometimes it’s merely competent writing. Sometimes it’s bad.
I’m guessing that if you’re reading this blog, you are interested in producing work that’s not just enjoyable to read, but good writing. I’m going to further suggest that an enjoyable read is easier to enjoy when it’s good writing. The language flows, the scenes unfold, and there’s nary an ejaculation of dialogue attribution to jolt you out of your travels to another world.
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ – a phrase coined by Samuel Taylor Colderidge to describe what happens in successful writing to the reader. If you’re successful, your reader comes along with you, but you can shake that reader lose with plot holes, inconsistencies and, well, bad writing. I think it’s a little beyond the scope of this post to really get into what bad writing is, but for this post, let’s say that there are rules in writing, and bad writing does a poor job of breaking these rules. Good writing may run with the rules, or break them. Cormac McCarthy is an excellent example of someone who breaks grammatical rules and produces not just good writing, but beautiful writing.
Ok, so, what does all this have to do with reading? Well, everything. A heuristic is a decision making process people use all the time to make decisions and judgments on things when the circumstances are fluid. We use heuristics all the time, especially when it comes to new experiences to file under. You’ve never bought a house before, say, but you have bought lots of cars. There’s probably experiences you can draw on from your car-purchasing that you can apply to buying a house – not everything, but enough that you’re probably better off than a person who has never purchased a car or a home.
When you read, you’re building up a store of experiences that you can use and apply in your own writing – your heuristic of good/bad writing. What’s more, you develop an ‘ear’ if you will, an expertise that goes directly to judging what good writing is, and what good writing isn’t.
I don’t think this works as well if you stick to your genre, no matter the genre. Even if I’m wrong and all writing is just a matter of taste, you’re going to be more successful if your palate is refined, like a wine-taster, and not as likely to succeed if you’re really just into diet pepsi. If I’m right, and there is objectively good writing and bad writing, reading outside your genre, reading outside fiction, even, open creative doors for you in a way nothing else can, because let’s face it, the facility a writer needs with words is huge, and limiting yourself to what you love to read closes creative doors. I guess that’s why Stephen King and Jessica Page Morell cashed reading out as part of the ‘job’ – some of the books I’ve read as work are malodorous to me, but I’m never going to use the phrase ‘the familiar tang of ozone’ because I saw how ridiculous it was while reading it.
So read, gentle writers. Read because you love it, read because it’s your job, and read because you won’t live long enough to make all the mistakes yourself.