And we hear that writers need to read over and over again. If you want to write fiction, you need to read it, “they” say. And I think “they” are right, but I want to look at this closer. You can learn how to write from so many places–acting classes, poetry classes, and just from life, in general–and you can read and learn nothing about the craft from what you read.
Personally, I think there are three types of reading: reading for pleasure, reading for your craft, and reading for business, as part of being an author (as we discussed under “A,” being an author and a writer are not the same thing). And each calls for different books.
Reading for Business. This is where we read in our genre, not so much to “scope out the competition” as to get some idea of where the industry is, currently. What are readers currently reading? What themes are being used, and which are becoming overused (mermaids, time travel, dragons, etc.)? Are readers showing signs of getting tired of certain sorts of plots, plot devices, or characters?
This can help guide you in what to write and when to publish it and help you have reasonable publishing expectation overall. You may still feel you need to write a certain story, but if the market is oversaturated and the readers are ready for something new, you can always shelf it and wait until later (or release it, knowing that agents, publishers, and readers are going to need something amazing to make it sell). Goodreads and book review blogs can be invaluable in this sort of research, as you can read novels in your genre and see what readers thought before ever submitting your own work for a similar criticism.
Reading for Craft. I personally do most of my reading in this category, because I primarily like to read good books, and the books you read for your craft are chosen because the authors know what they’re doing. They’re classics, and I’ve found that the classics are considered such for good reason–the authors behind most of the classics really do have strong writing skills. Even if they frustrate me (as Dickens does on a regular basis, with his chopping plots that leave you hanging in the wrong moments), I can admire the way they create mood, write dialogue, introduce characters or handle suspense.
By reading for your craft, you develop an inner ear for good writing, which can help you spot poorly written sections of your own writing (and can, by extension, turn you into a bit of a literary snob). But just as concert pianist cringe when an amateur pecks their way through a song, missing notes and tempo entirely, so should professional writers cringe when they encounter bad writing. If we want to become good writers, we should know good and bad writing when we see it.
Reading for pleasure. This is where we pick up whatever we feel like and just enjoy it. We aren’t dissecting it, and it doesn’t have to be amazing. We’re just enjoying ourselves and taking a break from the business of being an author to have fun .
However, I would caution against a great deal of reading in this category if your tastes run contrary to your writing goals. If you want to write excellent romance novels and you like “fluffy” or cheesy mysteries, they won’t do much to help develop your taste and hone your craft and might even worsen your “inner ear” over time.
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by Jamierodriguez37, Creative Commons