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Why Writers Should Read, by Alison Booth

Should you read if you want to write? Maybe someone has told you that reading someone else’s work will stifle your unique voice. If they have, don’t you believe it. It’s that much more difficult to write better novels if you don’t read fiction.

Once you’re a writer, you realise how much more you have to learn. Reading a book – any book – becomes more than an escape. You read not to copy but to absorb, and to become more analytical about the craft.

Read good books, ordinary books – and perhaps even a few bad books – and see what you gain from the experience. Inevitably the way a writer reads a novel will differ from the way a non-writer reads a novel. Of course as a writer you’ll still be looking for distraction and a journey into another world, but you’ll also be refining your technical skills. Does this spoil the reading experience? No. It deepens it as you become more alert to the tricks that other writers use, and sometimes to their sheer brilliance.

Be tempted outside your usual sphere of interest and you might have some wonderful surprises. I love being lent or given books by friends I trust. That way you’re introduced to novelists whom you mightn’t have come across before. Recently I’ve been lent books by Jose Saramago, Orhan Pamuk, and Haruki Murakami, none of whom I’d read. This week I finished reading Saramago’s Seeing. It broke many rules, but it told an original story in a powerfully gripping and original way. What more could I want?

Before I became a writer, I used to feel really annoyed if I bought a book and found I couldn’t finish it. Now I’m rather less bothered. When you’re about to chuck a book into the recycling bin, stop for a moment and consider. Was it poor characterisation that made you want to hurl the book away? Was it because there was no tension and no narrative drive? Was it all tell (Joe did this, then he did that…) and no show? Was the clunky dialogue a turnoff, or the trite descriptions? Did a shifting point of view irritate or confuse you? Did you buy the book because of a review? Remember reviewers and discount their future reviews if your tastes differ.

Sometimes I reread books that I’ve enjoyed in the past, and find I’ve become more alert as to why I love them. Do you find you’re pulled in by the original use of language? The plotting? The characters? The framing incidents? The humour? Is the structure of the book linear or is it shifting about in time, and which do you prefer? Or perhaps it’s the variation in sentence length or rhythm that appeals. Or a combination of all of these factors.

Here’s a confession: I sometimes read the ending of the book first, so I can read more slowly. If I don’t do this, I find I’m reading way too fast and miss out on the subtleties. At other times I read a book twice and at the second attempt note technical aspects. If the books are my own copies I bend over the tops of my favourite bits, or put in post-it notes. On my Kindle e-reader, I highlight the passages that I think are particularly clever, so I can find them later if I wish to.

You also need to read to see if the type of novel you’re planning has been recently published. Maybe you’re thinking of writing erotica… But look around – perhaps it’s a bit late for that: you can bet that publishers’ slush piles will be groaning with Fifty Shades lookalikes. So you certainly need to read works in your genre to see if someone else has written what you’re planning.

If you’re driven to write, enjoy it – and the related reading – to the full. One of the joys of being a writer is that you can tell people that you’re working when you’re lying on the sofa reading a novel.

And you are, aren’t you?

***Write with novelist Alison Booth near Hobart, Tasmania with Novel Writing Retreats Australia in April 2014

Alison Booth’s author website: www.alisonbooth.net

Alison Booth’s bio page

***

Stillwater CreekThe Indigo SkyA Distant Land     House for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Book of LoveWings of FearThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is a great article, Alison! I’m currently reading a book that is quite awful, and it’s teaching me a lot; I’m discovering exactly what ticks me off as a reader and thus what to avoid as a writer.

    March 6, 2013
  2. Jenn J McLeod | Come home to the country... #

    I totally agree. I was told many years ago that to be a good writer you must be a great reader. But as a debut author I do find myself falling into that dark place where you compare yourself to others and whine a lot …”I’m not this good.” It’s a dangerous place for an author’s head to go amd when it happens it can shake your confidence. But you get over it, learn from it and start writing again – with a renewed energey to be THAT GOOD one day.

    March 10, 2013
  3. Loved this post, Alison!

    March 10, 2013
  4. Thanks for your comments, lovely to hear from you. (Would be fun to compare book tastes over a bottle of wine and an actual rather than virtual conversation some time!)

    March 19, 2013
    • Jenn J McLeod | Come home to the country... #

      If any of you find your way to the NSW mid north, let me know. I just spent the best weekend on panels at the Bellingen Writers Festival. Nice to be surrounded by your tribe.

      March 24, 2013

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