Tuesday, February 21
Why Writers Should Read
Part of the How They Do It Series
JH: One of the best ways for a writer to improve their writing is to read--even if we hardly ever have time for it in today's busy world. Betsy Dornbusch visits the lecture hall today to share some thoughts on writers, reading, and why it matters.
Betsy writes epic fantasy, and has dabbled in science fiction, thrillers, and erotica. Her short fiction has appeared in over a dozen magazines and anthologies, and she's the author of three novellas. Her first fantasy novel came out in 2012 and her latest trilogy, Books Of The Seven Eyes, wraps up with Enemy in 2017. Silver Scar, a standalone future fantasy thriller, also drops in 2017.
In her free time, she herds her teenagers (like cats, only they talk back), snowboards, air jams at punk rock concerts, and follows Denver sports teams. She's just a quick Google away by her name or Sex Scenes at Starbucks.
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Take it away Betsy...
Nearly every writer started out as a reader and fell in love with story through other people’s writing. But it’s common, once you get into writing, to focus only on writing. Sometimes it’s lack of time, or because we’re so enamored with our own work, or because writing is just plain old more fun. The only reading we do might be research (yay, 14th century war machines!) others’ work (yay, critique!), online stuff (boo, promotion!), occasional non-fiction works about writing (I recommend Write Away by Elizabeth George), and now, of course, politics and news and fake news and tweets (okay, avoiding that rat hole).
But I recommend dedicating regular reading time to fiction—stories and novels.Every day is best, even if it’s just fifteen minutes while you blow dry your hair or drink your morning coffee.It could matter less whether you read paper or eBooks. I read on my phone frequently. Listening to audio books while commuting or exercising is excellent too, with the caveat that it’s helpful to often see words on the page in published books. The physical layouts of words and phrases and paragraphs on the page create patterns and rhythms and evoke feelings. White spaces are often as much a part of writing as the words.
That brings me to another takeaway from other people’s books: the rhythm of story and plot and scene. I have read enough that I can instinctively write a book in which the turning points, crises, and obstacles fit a three act structure almost down to the page. It worked out the same for my 40,000 word novella as it in my 140,000 word epic fantasy: the primary structure ends up the same proportionally without much planning. Sure, study Socrates, but there really is no substitute for seeing it in action over and over again.
I tend to read first thing in the morning, for varying lengths of time depending on how settled I’m feeling and how into the story I am. It’s fun and usually pretty zen. If it’s not, it gives me a chance to examine why. Is it my own mood, some external stimulus, or the book itself? This is worthwhile exercise because you should ask yourself the same questions in regard to your own stories. When you’re writing or revising and it just suddenly seems too slow and agonizing to continue, consider carefully why.
These questions also helps us keep in mind where the line lays between reader and writer. Truly excellent writers let their readers take a big part in their stories. Great writers give readers a lot of room for their own interpretation, their own thoughts and themes. No two people have the same experience and so no two people read a story the same way. Reading reminds us of the ownership of fandom.When you are constantly reminded that you feel ownership over a story as a reader, you’re reminded as a writer not to be too frantic for control. Always remember, when a story is laid in the hands of a reader, you cease having 100% ownership over it. I’d argue you cease having even 50%.
As for genre, read often and widely is how the expression goes. Of course read in your genre, but read mostly what you love. I write epic fantasy, and I think my work will always have aspects of the fantastical, but I’m mixing mystery into my fantasy with my next series. This is, of course, because I love to read mystery. I cut my adult reading teeth (as a kid about a thousand years ago, but who’s counting) on Lord of the Rings but mostly on Agatha Christie and PD James. For some time, as an epic fantasy novelist, I decided I must only read epic fantasy. I love it and it really did give me the feel for how epic fantasy is done. But now I’m reading mostly mystery, to remind myself how mysteries work. And honestly, I unapologetically love reading mysteries the best, even while I do love writing fantasy best.Read what you love and let it inform your work. That’s what it’s supposed to do.
Life is too short for bad books, by which I mean, if a book isn’t holding your interest, move on to another. That said, writers must develop the patience for the unfolding of story. Such patience is in short supply with our world of constant, instant media. There are times when books are pointedly slow, times when a story plants an idea early in the story but doesn’t reveal it for what seems like forever. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving comes to mind. But even the books you hate teach you how to be a better writer. What drives you crazy as a reader? Don’t do that.
An exercise: next time you can’t work out how to proceed with a scene, think of a book that has a similar scene. Pick it up and read it. See how other authors have handled it. Writing is never 100% reinventing the wheel, but on the other hand, if it’s been done a thousand times before you have some thinking to do. Is it worth doing again in this case, or is it better to find another way?
Another exercise: next time you’re stuck for a word or phrase, pick up a book, any random book, maybe with a story completely different than what you’re writing, and read for a little while. No, you won’t copy the words. But you may find it’s a useful way to help the unconscious and conscious minds work together.
Unsure about the start of your story? Read the first scene in five books and think of those beginnings in terms of your own.
Other writers give you words and phrases and themes and meaning. They’re right there on the page, on billions of pages, little gifts for readers and big gifts for writers.
Finally, reading helps you discover your personal themes. Every writer has them: the themes they revisit in every work. Mine are family and belonging. When stories really resonate, especially when they feel familiar, like your own work, consider why. This isn’t a bad thing. There really are a finite number of easily expressed themes. But no one is going to explore your personal themes in just the same way you will. Every writer has something new to add, and nothing teaches us that more than reading.
About Enemy, the Third Book of the Seven Eyes trilogy
The last time Draken traveled Akrasia, he was the highest lord in the land. His journey before that was eased by royal favor and the grace of the gods. This time is different. His adopted country buckling under attack from religious fanatics and his Queen presumed dead, Draken must flee a deadly coup by an upstart lord. Bitter from fighting an insurmountable war and losing the life he’s built, he lets the ghosts of past mistakes drive him into vigilante revenge. But Draken is about to learn gods and wars have a way of catching up to a man.
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