Tuesday, March 16, 2010

You Are What You Eat: Reading For Writers


In order to be a writer, or at least a good writer, you must read. It's a simple fact. Obsession with the written word cannot be limited simply to production, but must also include digestion. Just as with the rest of our body, we must be selective in what we feed our brain, because our book diet influences its performance. Quantity, quality, and balance, all of these things must be attended or we're really cheating ourselves and starving that wrinkly melon rattling around between the ears.

Quantity

How much should you read? Few of us have hours every day to devote to the practice; if you have the time to read for an hour or two every day, I greatly envy you. In this writer's opinion, the main thing is that it's important to read something every day, and by "read something" I mean read in a way that stimulates the mind. Clearly this blog does not qualify. However long you can spend reading is certainly time well spent.

My reading time is before bed. I'm not alone in this, I'm sure. I generally spend half an hour in my pajamas and under the covers, which can cover three pages or three chapters, depending on what is sitting on my bedside table. Even this is not enough, and I certainly don't make enough time to bury my nose in the musty pages of Lewis or Bradbury or whoever. I supplement where I can, usually setting aside a few hours of that rare lazy weekend to turn some pages, often involving a certain webslinger or a caped crusader. That still counts.

Quality

Quality is subjective when it comes to literature, but while specifics vary from person to person, you'll always know when you're getting it. Quality stimulates. Read something that challenges you with its language or complexity. Pick up a book with complex and detailed imagery. Run through a chapter of a novel that puts you on the edge or your seat or breaks your heart, making you really feel something. Explore pages that biograph the life of some great individual, or someone decidedly ordinary. 

One of the hardest things to do as a reader is to recognize quality outside of your normal realm of interest. It's something of which I've become very conscious in the past few years. To cite a specific example, anyone that knows me can probably tell you that I hate Charles Dickens. I've held lesser contempt for the kickers of innocent puppies. If I met him on the street today, and that would be really weird, I'd punch him right in his throat. I can't begin to recall the pain and suffering that he has put me through in my life. I'm glad he's dead and therefore unable to continue to put pen to such great numbers of sheets of paper.

That might be a little bit overboard, maybe, but I can't stand to read his writing. He was the ultimate serialized writer, paid by the word, and really got his money's worth. He delighted in taking his readers on side trips of questionable relevance to any sort of story. I don't care about the man who cut down the tree that would someday become the leg of a table in Pip's house. Get to the point, old man!

Despite all of that, and as much as I hate to admit it, I'm fighting through A Tale of Two Cities right now. Why? Because I recognize that his work has merit. Much of the things I hate about his work simply involves the methods of the time. He puts together very interesting and compelling stories, even if he does it in twice the number of words necessary to accomplish the task. His work definitely has quality, even if I have to take a deep breath and a step back to be able to admit it. Ultimately, I think that reading him makes me a better writer.

Balance

I read many different things. I love comic books and science fiction and thrillers and histories and classics. What I choose to pull off my shelf, however, often depends on what project occupies my writing time. For a writer, finding a good balance between reading for "fun" and for "work" is particularly important. As much as I may enjoy watching Batman crack skulls, I need to spend time reading things that will more directly enhance my current project, which at this time does not involve Batman cracking skulls. Maybe someday.

In pulling titles for research, I try to find a balance within that set to satisfy my need for some fun with a need for hard knowledge. I'm researching right now for my American Frontier/ Medieval Fantasy mash-up setting for both fiction and gaming. For this purpose I've acquired novels, histories, and technical documents on a number of different subjects. Some are for inspiration and others for reference, but each spends a little bit of time with me as I noodle on exactly what might happen if William the Conqueror had sailed the Atlantic to find and colonize a New World far more fantastic than the Americas. As you might imagine, my book list is varied, indeed.

The End

So, if you take nothing else from this little lecture, remember just two things.

1. Read something of consequence every day, and 
2. This blog does not count.

Addendum

Just for fun, here's a list of what's on my reading research list. Check them out.

6 comments:

Ee Leen Lee said...

too rightly put. A good writer= a good reader

Jason Richards said...

I get it right, sometimes. :)

misfit said...

"...Write in his throat?" Writer, sure. But I'd fire my editor if I were you. (-=

And your medieval selection seems a touch war-heavy. Of course, I'd have to dig up most of my books to recommend something else.

Jason Richards said...

Well played, misfit. You get 100 theoretical editing dollars. :) It's what I get for writing in the middle of the night.

It was suggested to me that I add Canterbury Tales to the list, which I shall do. I also should include A Connecticut Yankee on that list, as I just recently read it and it gave me a number of things to turn over in my head.

misfit said...

Sweet. I'm an editor now. Sort of...

My recommendations would be more academic in nature. But then, I've loved studying the middle ages. If you like, I can dig up some suggestions for different topics. I kept everything from Medieval Europe, Medieval Apocalypticism, the Crusades, and Medieval Schooling.

Frederick II is the best medieval emperor.

Eric J. Krause said...

It's good advice. I make reading part of my writing goal each day. 30 pages a day. I've usually discovered that amount is a good balance. Of course, if time permits--and if I'm in the middle of a good read--I try to blow that goal out of the water.

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