Reading is Fundamental


Vision 9

Reading is Fundamental


Valerie Serdy

Copyright © 2002, Valerie Serdy, All Rights Reserved

Holly Lisle recently ran a survey on her site asking folks to pick the most important non-writing skill a writer could have.  The list included such obvious choices as editing and critiquing, but the listing for reading baffled me.  How is reading a skill writers need, I wondered?  What does reading even mean to a writer?  Critically analyzing every sentence and paragraph, or simply enjoying a good yarn?

After giving it some thought and a good conversation in chat, I realized that all of my reading affects how and what I write.  Non-fiction teaches me new things and gives me new ideas.  That was obvious, but  less obvious was how reading fiction changed my writing.  I don't read critically; I read to enjoy a story.  However, every once in a while a writer does something truly wonderful (or truly stupid) and I am thrown out of the story in an attempt to understand what they have done. These are the times I've learned something about the way I write, the way I want to write, or the way I don't want to write.

For example, one of my favorite fantasy writers today is Barbara Hambly.  I love her lyrical, almost-casual descriptions.  Her color vocabulary is astonishing.  Light is apricot; a black and yellow dress is jet and jonquil.  Scents are placed so precisely I've never felt they were added just to complete a laundry-list description.  I simply do not get bored reading her descriptions, though I might skip another author's descriptive paragraphs.  In my own writing, I try to emulate Hambly's ability to describe something simply but in a way that is unusual or provides a dream-like quality to a piece.

I also love Hambly's dialogue.  To my recollection, her writing has never included a pair of talking heads.  Her characters eat, dice, drink, and think while talking.  And while I love that her dialogue is never boring, there have been instances where so much happens between person A speaking and person B speaking that I have had to backtrack a paragraph or two to remind myself that I am still reading an on-going conversation.  I've thought sometimes that Hambly's characters must always pause for five to ten seconds before opening their mouths to speak.

Enter Roger Zelazny.  His dialogue quite often continues for a page or more with nary a dialog tag to be seen.  Usually, this is not a problem because his characters speak with such different styles that it is easy to distinguish them.  However, a well-placed "he said" would certainly alleviate my confusion at times.

My response?  Take the best each writer has to offer.  Use Zelazny's ability to create varied styles of vocabulary and manners of speaking to identify individual characters, and then add in Hambly's ability to keep dialog from becoming boring by providing a glimpse into what each character is doing or thinking while speaking.

While I have learned and chosen to emulate specific techniques through my reading, my writing has also been influenced in much larger, less easily imitated areas. 

I fell in love with the first two books of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.  I slowly became disillusioned with books three and four and quit the series shortly thereafter.  It felt like the plot had gotten away from Jordan and had become ungainly and scattered.  When I  finished a book,  I asked myself, "What happened?"  I never want anyone to read my own work and wonder the same thing, and this has deeply affected my revising.  As I go through each chapter I ask myself, "What happened?"  If I can only say, well, the main character wallowed about in self-pity for a while before going to eat dinner, I cut that chapter completely or at least shorten it considerably.  I've also begun outlining what should happen in each chapter to make sure the conflict continues to build, action continues to move forward, and I never have to ask myself, "What happened?"

Other fantasy series have also affected my writing.  I started Kate Elliot's Jaran series and fell in love with Tess, the main character.  I eagerly grabbed books two and three and am now stalled somewhere in the middle of book four.  The problem?  I fell in love with Tess and as the series progressed and the plot got bigger, less and less of the story was about her.  I found myself counting the pages till her next scene. 

Bait and switch.  I fell in love with one character, only to have that character moved out of the spotlight.  Again, this affects my revision as I try to make sure no secondary character starts to outshine my protagonist.  I've also avoided adding a prologue that might star different characters than the body of the novel.

Reading widely has done two other things for me:  It has guided the ideas that I actually turn into stories and warned me of clichés.  After reading an article about the Shanghai Armoury Tower, I desperately wanted to write an SF story with some kind of moral point about growing up in a completely enclosed space.  However, my reading has shown me that this idea was old back when science fiction was young and almost every story had a moral point to make about the use of technology.  That story has been placed on the backburner until I can come up with a more original spin. 

Every genre has its cachet of clichés, but it seems sometimes that fantasy especially revels in producing novels that feel just the same as the one before.  Main characters sharing similar backgrounds (usually orphans) wandering through a typical landscape riding a typical horse gathering typical plot coupons until they have travailed enough to vanquish the Big Bad at the end.  Reading widely in the genre in which I plan to write alerts me to these clichés and allows me to banish them from my own writing.

Reading is fundamental.  I would never have discovered that without taking the time to think about Holly's survey.  Through my casual reading I've discovered what stories to write and which to put on the backburner to wait for a fresher viewpoint.  By reading constantly and widely in a particular genre, I've learned the clichés to avoid in my own writing.  By reading outside my genre, I've learned new skills and gathered new ideas to add to my stories.  By reading everything, I've learned techniques I'd like to emulate and those I wish to avoid.  I can't think of any writing skill in my bag of tricks that has done so much for me with so little effort.  I finally understand why Stephen King recommends writers read at least four hours a day. 

So what's next on your list to read?