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Top Ten Writing Tips–Tip #4: Reading Ratio 5:1

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Last week, we covered Writing Tips 1 through 3:

1. Finish your first draft.
2. Put your manuscript aside for as long as you possibly can after you finish the first draft.
3. Start something new.

Today and Thursday, we’ll cover the next two on the list.

Writing Tip #4. Read five published novels in your genre for every one craft book you read.
So many writers, especially new writers, get caught up in “learning the craft” and they lose sight of “writing.” You can learn more from critical reading of published novels (breaking them apart, learning how/why they work or don’t work) than you’ll ever learn from reading a how-to book.

What was one of the reasons you started writing? For me, it was the combination of an overactive imagination combined with a love for reading. I didn’t just read novels, I devoured them. And the more I read, the more my imagination expanded. In fact, my first true foray into writing was after I read what would become my favorite book of my teens, Victoria by Willo Davis Roberts. I loved that story, those characters so much that I wasn’t ready to say good-bye to them when the book ended. So I started writing my own sequel to it.

If it hadn’t been for reading, I never would have become a writer!

But more than that, as I grew up and read more and more books, it was a rare book that didn’t spark half a dozen or more story ideas of my own as I was reading it—whether the idea had anything to do with what I was reading or not. I shared this story back in 2007 in a post titled “Interrupted by Inspiration”:

A goal I’ve set for myself recently is to read through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy—whether by listening to them on audio (I have the entire unabridged set of CDs) or by actually reading the books. Well, I’ve had trouble convincing myself to put the CDs back in the car after I got to about disk six of the first book (and they’d barely made it to Bree!), so I picked up the actual book to read before bed last night.

Things were going along swimmingly…. Then, suddenly, I was no longer in Middle Earth, but standing on the deck of a ship, observing the silhouette of an officer looking out into the night.

Yes, that’s right, in the middle of reading Aragorn’s explanation of the Black Riders, I was suddenly visualizing a scene for the second book of my historical trilogy. Needless to say, I tossed the book aside and picked up the notepad and pencil I keep right beside the bed for just such an occasion.

I only got two pages written, not nearly all of what I was picturing, but it’s a great start on a scene (I think poor Julia may have broken a toe or two). And not only was it fun to be writing something for the second book (although I try not to write out of sequence), it gave me some insight into the tension between William and Julia at that point in the story (where exactly it fits, I’m not sure, but I think pretty early on), so that I’ll be able to incorporate the possibility for it as I work on revisions of the first book.

The scene that I started writing that night—and continued over the next couple of days to get the entire idea down before I forgot it—appears in Ransome’s Crossing almost verbatim from what I wrote three years ago. Would I have had that idea anyway? I’m not sure. All I know is that the creativity that’s inspired by the process of reading inspired that scene.

Another reason to read novels is to learn new words and see how other authors use language. It’s hard to develop a unique voice and style if all you’re reading is cut-and-dry nonfiction. That’s not saying that nonfiction authors aren’t creative. They just don’t use language the same way novelists do. My tenth-grade AP English teacher gave us vocabulary lists each week that were words taken from the American literature we studied that year. Most of those words (such as superfluous, tenacity, ubiquitous, ambivalent, tintinnabulation, etc.) have stayed with me as part of my everyday vocabulary. I learned to love it when I run across a word or term in a novel that I’m unfamiliar with but learn what it means through the context of the story—and it’s more likely to stick with me that way.

Though it’s important to read within the genre you’re writing, it’s a good idea to read across genres, too—otherwise, your own writing might become stale. Reading other genres expands your imagination as well as helps you develop your own personal writing voice and style instead of just falling into the patterns of the other authors in your genre. It sharpens your imagination (see the above example of being struck with an idea for Ransome’s Crossing while reading Fellowship of the Ring).

While it’s great to read books from throughout the ages, from classics to dime novels of the late 19th/early 20th century to mid-century pulp novels to 1990s experimental fiction, it’s very important to make sure you’re reading new releases in your genre and from the publishers you’re targeting—it’s called market research (thus, you can write those purchases off come tax time!) and it’s something every writer and published author needs to do. It keeps us abreast of current trends, current styles, and what non-writing readers are out there enjoying.

You should read for enjoyment, but you should read for education as well. I’ll encourage you to review the series on Critical Reading (click on Writing Series Index and scroll down to the Critical Reading topic).

For Discussion . . .
It’s goal time! What are the five novels you’re going to read and the one craft book?

  1. Tuesday, May 18, 2010 9:42 am

    I can definitely understand why reading within your writing genre would be important {and never even thought about it being a tax deduction!}. While I don’t have any books to write up my sleeve…I do have plenty of books on my nightstand that are begging to be read.

    I also know that I need to get a few finished before the start of June, since there will be another one present that will need my undivided attention.

    I wonder what that could be….


  2. Sylvia M. permalink
    Tuesday, May 18, 2010 5:16 pm

    Kaye, do you have a particular place that you store all the writing craft books you buy? I believe it was Deeanne Gist that got this storage/bookcase thing for Christmas this past year just for the purpose of storing all her research books. Her family bought it for her from the SkyMall magazine that airlines carry.


  3. Tuesday, May 18, 2010 6:59 pm

    That happens to me, too. My own imagination just takes off when I’m reading a perfectly good novel, watching a movie, or well, anything at all! I read voraciously and I’ve found that to be one of the best teachers of all.


  4. Friday, May 21, 2010 1:09 pm

    I have a serious case of overactive imagination. I’ve got to get reading again but I’m still undecided as to what my genre is. I’m a fast reader but the garden beckons and keeps me up so late now that the days are longer. I haven’t been reading. 🙂

    I’m reading 1. Exodus, 2. Character Casting-craft by Collins, 3. House- Dekker and Peretti, 4. A Case for Love – You :), just finished Coral Moon – Brandilyn Collins and I’m about to start Guardian of the Flame – T.L. Higley

    Now that I write it I don’t know how it qualifies as “not reading”. Anyhooo

    Don’t stop the craft posts, I love em.

    Now that’s a reason to bank on. Haha!

    I like the other posts too but don’t always comment. After all, I’m a one handed typer with a toddler in tow and three others, like baby birds, begging for attention and food! 🙂

    Oh yeah, and on the subject of continuing stories there is this little old lady in a strange movie that I watched months ago, who is just lingering in my mind, begging for her debut. What a sweet, senile ol’ gal. She just has to resurface but I’m not sure how.


  5. Wednesday, April 25, 2012 2:47 pm

    I’ve got books in my bookcase that haven’t been started – I guess it’s time! I find it hard to read and write at the same time, as I tend to pick up on other author’s styles and characters – and sometimes this sneaks into my work before I realize what I’m doing. I’ve restarted chapters before with the thought of “that wasn’t me!”.

    As for a list – it’s kind of hard as I can’t always afford going out and getting one, and I get carried away at the library 😛 I’ve got “Novel Idea” written by christian writers for craft, though. I stick to Dekker, Perreti, Kingsbury, Rivers, and Oak for christian. I’ve kinda strayed from secular fiction, but did enjoy the Hunger Games trilogy. I might pick up Twilight and Harry Potter to find out what the kids find so interesting in those, but I shudder at the thought!



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