Peter discusses what he learnt about writing by doing a lot of reading.
In those slightly awful, but also addictively compelling, Buzzfeed-style top ten commandments on how to become a better writer, always around number five is the decree that, writers must read. Upon seeing these I always think, well that’s kinda obvious, isn’t it? But then usually my second thought is, but wait, why is it obvious? Why must writers also be readers? How does reading help to improve your writing? At the end of 2016, I was asking myself this question a lot and so for 2017, I decided to try to read at least one book a week. By the end of the year, I had managed to cram in 75 books, and this is what I learnt in a more compact Buzzfeed-style top five list.
1. Reading is where you discover form. During the Man Booker Prize at Birkbeck 2017 talk given by Julian Barnes and chaired by Russell Ceyln Jones, Julian Barnes stated that many writers have a good idea, but lack form. But what does this really mean? Let’s take the example of two books I read last year, Ian McEwan’s, Saturday and Mike McCormack’s, Solar Bones.
Both have quite similar ideas, middle-aged, middle-class white men looking back on their pasts with a melancholic nostalgia. These books also seem to take on a similar form. The books take place within one day and for the most part, in one particular location. The men go about their domestic duties and it is through these they’re able to discover truths about their pasts. Despite their similarities, however, the works turn out to be very different in their style and execution. McEwan’s book is more clinical and naturalistic in its telling; McCormack’s is far more poetic, bordering on the magical realist by the end of the novel.
An idea then is usually the first thought you have about a novel: a woman surviving a zombie apocalypse; one person coping with metamorphosing into a bug. But where most people are tripped up is how to show that story, in what form works best? This is where reading as a writer becomes vital. The answer to your question is out there. If you want to know how to show an idea, read a book that is similar to your idea and see how your fellow author did it. Or take the form of a completely divergent book and see if you can write your idea into that form. The only way you can discover this treasure trove of forms, however, is to read, read, read.
2. Reading is learning what you can get away with. So you’ve had that idea stuck in your head for ages and you’ve finally found the form that it seems to fit into. But now comes the hard part, the writing. When a writer begins a novel they’re never really writing the beginning of a novel. What they’re doing is finding out that novel’s parameters, they’re introducing themselves to the characters, they’re discovering what the place looks like. This bit is not for the reader, it’s for the writer.
In my own writing, this has become a bit of an issue. I can almost guarantee that when I hand a piece to a trusted editor they’re going to put a big X through the first paragraph, or maybe even the first page. However, this is starting to happen less often and I attribute this to reading more. Your reader doesn’t need to know everything. In fact, the less you can tell them the better because it gives them all that space to fill in the gaps, to write the story themselves. A great example of this came from reading the aforementioned Julian Barnes’, A Sense of an Ending. Somewhere in the middle of the novel, the protagonist lives about 40 years of his life, including a marriage, a child, a divorce and retirement, in one, solitary paragraph. When I read it, I had to read it again because I was so stunned. You can do this? I said aloud. I guess you can, he did win the Man Booker after all.
Reading helps you discover where you can be economical in your descriptions and where you must elaborate. It teaches you that dialogue is at its most enthralling when it doesn’t drag on for half a page. It shows you, as Julia Bell has written, when paragraphs should be sentences and sentences should be paragraphs. Reading helps you edit your work before you’ve even written a word.
3. Reading is all about first impressions. As a creative writing student, something I’m often told is that first impressions matter. From something simple like spelling the name of the agent you’re sending your work to correctly, to the almost impossible — writing the first sentence of your novel. The first sentence, I’m afraid, has to be brilliant. Not only does it have to hook the reader in, but it must encapsulate everything that your novel, or even your writing as an author is about. For the lazier reader, it might be the only sentence they ever read of your work.
One of the best examples I read last year was the first two lines of Joy Nicholson’s, The Tribes of Palos Verdes: “I’m almost fourteen, already in trouble at school, already been kissed. My breasts have formed into tiny peaks, and there they will stay, tiny, for the rest of my life.” Within two sentences Nicholson has told us almost everything there is to know about the protagonist’s character except her name. We know her age; we know that she is a liminal character. We know she struggles with the way she looks. But what is even more striking is that Nicholson has introduced to the reader how to read the book. She wants us to read it in the present tense but with the knowledge that this has all already happened and that the novel is a reflection on the past.
Pick up your favourite novel and reread its first couple of lines. How does it make you feel? Does it urge you to read on? Does it show you how to read the work? Now keep picking up more and more books, go to your local bookstore and skim through every first sentence until you find one that takes your breath away. Now ask yourself why? There is no such thing as the perfect first line, but reading lots and widely will help you get somewhere close.
4. Reading is finding yourself in uncomfortable places. One of the stipulations I set for myself when I decided to read at least one book a week is that I was going to read widely. Before beginning this challenge, I had my favourite authors and genres and I tended to hide within their safe enclave. Speculative fiction and dystopia were what I read most; give me a girl trying to take down an evil authority, or a man with a computer in his head and I was happy. This in turn, however, influenced what I wanted to write about.
My dream was to write a contemporary 1984 or the next YA trilogy that could be turned into four films. The problem with this was, I’m not very good at writing in this genre and all my efforts so far are going to be forever clogging up my hard drive. A genre that I had never enjoyed and didn’t think I ever would, is historical fiction. For me, historical fiction had always been that thing your dad or your gran reads, a hike through the dusty corridors of the aristocracy. That was until I read works like Colson Whitehead’s, The Underground Railroad, Sebastian Barry’s, Days Without End and the triumph that is The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt. Historical fiction is incredible! Who knew? But the genre really came to life when I had to write within it as a part of my degree. I wrote a piece about a drought-stricken village in feudal Japan and received some of the best feedback I’ve ever had, not one big X through the first page.
I find it very troubling now when I hear a writer say they only read one certain genre because that’s all they want to write. I bet my life that Hilary Mantel doesn’t just read historical fiction and David Mitchell doesn’t just read whatever genre his books are written in (literary, sci-fi, historical?). They may have found their territory, where they find themselves most comfortable, but they still read widely. Because doing so expands your literary vocabulary, broadens your perspectives, and teaches you that although you love a genre, as a writer it might not be for you.
5. Reading is Writing. As Zadie Smith has written, “A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal.” I don’t think I fully understood this idea until I finished my challenge and discovered the impact it had on my writing.
Too often when a writer sits with pad and pen, the reader never enters their mind. You can tell when this happens because as you read a story you keep asking yourself questions like, Where are we? Who’s speaking? What year is it now? It’s as if the signposts to guide you through a text just seem to have evaporated. I’m guilty of this, but I’m getting better, and that is because when I sit down to write or edit now, I think of myself as both writer and reader. Your writer-mind has to take the reader-mind by the hand and lead them forward. The reader-mind must have the confidence to speak up and say, ‘I’m lost.’ It’s hard trying to hold these two states in your head at once, but whoever said writing was easy? What does make this process easier though, is reading, reading, reading. It is a skill that must be practiced just as much as writing. Painters study art, musicians listen to music, and writers must read.
Here at MIR we are always interested in recommendations for books, so if you want to share your suggestion, tag us in a tweet or an Instagram post with the hashtag, #writersmustread