In On Writing Stephen King said, “if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” Clearly, Stephen King wasn’t nursing a baby twice a night and taking a toddler to the ER for stitches. These days, our responsibilities are endless. Most days, I don’t have the luxury for both reading and writing, and for a girl who has dreams of publishing one day, the writing has to get done.
Even so, I have been reading a lot more lately and I’m glad for that. I’ve discovered some incredible authors, many of which are in the genre I write, so not only does it help me relax after a long day, I feel like I’m learning a lot from those who have already successfully done what I hope to do one day. So I understand what King is trying to say. Reading is the quickest way to teach us how a story should be told.
A Lesson in Writing
For instance, last week I finished reading the book The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue by Barbara Samuel-O’Neal. (If you like Women’s Fiction, this is a must read.) It was one of those books I never wanted to end because I was so entranced with her writing style and the characters and the story. I felt completely comfortable in her world and I wanted to wrap myself up in it for just a little while longer.
Facing reality, I started working on my novel again. After reading the work of a clearly seasoned author, I was jarred because in my head my story had that same smooth tone, that same mature voice, the same character development, but somewhere on the journey from my mind to my fingers it had gotten lost in translation. Clearly, Barbara has a few more books under her belt than I do so this was a great opportunity to learn something.
Concerns: I was still getting comments that my main character was immature. She often felt snarky when she was supposed to be kind. I didn’t feel as rooted in the story as I would have liked. The beautiful setting in my head wasn’t landing on the page. In general, something wasn’t quite connecting.
So, what was it about The Goddesses that connected the reader (me) to the character? What could I implement in my own novel to bring it to life the way it is in my head?
Are you seeing the red flashing light I finally did? Point-of-View!
Up until recently, I used to always write in 1st person, but after reading lots of books in my genre, it seemed like everyone else wrote in 3rd person. For a while, I liked it too because it kept me from getting too wordy. But after a while, it kept me from saying much at all so that most of the time, it was impossible to know how my character was reacting and what had happened to her in the past to make her react that way. The Goddesses is written in 1st person and it gave a sense of being the character instead of just watching her. The story is also written in present tense–something I had never tried and I thought might help me sort out the past perfect tense I kept stumbling on.
Over the last week, I picked up chapter one (again!) and started from scratch, taking the same scene, but changing the POV, tense, and adding in thoughts, background, and opinions of my character. Going over this chapter again for about the tenth time in the last few months almost killed me, but I was happy about the new feel and I sent it off to my writing partners tired but satisfied.
And they were floored by the improvement. Mission accomplished.
Lessons You May Not Know You’ve Learned
It isn’t always easy to make time for reading when writing is so time consuming, but books are the blueprints for building a great story–especially a publishable story. And in this case, I think it saved mine.
Here are some other thoughts about how reading helps you become a better writer:
- Do you ever read a book and about 50 pages in, think, it feels like it’s about time for a plot point? That’s because years of reading has taught our subconscious mind the natural beats of a story.
- Do you ever use a word while you’re writing that you didn’t know you knew, or if you’re using it correctly, only to look it up and find out you are? That’s because reading expands our vocabulary every time we pick up a book by a new author who writes with words we’ve never heard before. Context clues implants these new words in our minds, almost without our knowledge.
- Do you ever finish a book and feel that fluttering in your chest, that excitement? That’s because reading is what made all of us want to be storytellers in the first place. Reading books in your genre reminds you of what inspired you to write this story.
What books do you feel you’ve learned from? What are you reading now?