“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
In thinking about how I personally learned the craft of writing, it’s hard to minimize the impact of books. For all the classes that I took, and all the seminars I attended, the simple act of reading is responsible for easily 85% of what I’ve learned. At first glance, this might not make much sense – there are lots of prolific readers out there who aren’t remotely good writers – but that’s because not all reading is created equal. The better acquainted you become with the craft, the easier it is to see devices for what they are, to spot the sentences that make a work sing, to notice the strengths and weaknesses of characters… in short, to read like a writer. The following are things you can do to start yourself down one of the most important journeys in any writer’s career, and they are available to you anytime you pick up a book.
In high school we learn to read things as quickly as we can. Individual sentences don’t matter. A teacher will never ask “What color was Hester Prynne’s dress in The Scarlet Letter?” They ask instead, “What important decision did Governor Bellingham make, and how did it affect the plot?” This trains our minds to look for plot points when we read. It’s great if we can get through a work of fiction and understand what happened, but in reading for events, we lose so much of what brought those events about. Reading isn’t a race! It’s better to understand a single book on a deeper level than finish three books in a row without taking the time to study them.
Guess Where It’s Going
Many writers, myself included, do this subconsciously. If you don’t at first, that’s okay. For now, do it consciously. Put the book down in-between chapters and ask yourself what you think will happen and why. You might find that you’ll not only get better at predicting plots, but you’ll get better at seeing devices such as foreshadowing, that move the story forward from behind the scenes.
When Your Emotions Become Affected, Question Why
If something strikes you, either because it draws you in or is completely unrelatable, take a second to scrutinize it. Is the language bare and direct or filled with a preponderance of vernacular that enthralls you? Is it the characters, the plot, the dialogue or the description that caused you to feel something? Particularly when we become excited, the tendency is to rush through the words. If you’re overtaken in the moment, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t speed through a section – but make note of it and read it again later when your mind can better focus on what it is that makes it so thrilling to read. Can you incorporate their styles in your own writing?
Only Read The Best Fiction
People don’t like this advice. Whenever I tell this to writers, they respond with a list of their guilty pleasure books, telling me how fun they are to read, even though they know they’re terribly written… My advice to anyone considering becoming a writer is this: don’t read any books that you wouldn’t have been proud to write. If you see yourself exclusively as a science fiction writer, what could you hope to get out of a horror? If you want to write like James Joyce, why are you reading Nora Roberts? When you make the choice to become a writer, you should be aware of how your entertainment affects your writing. As writers, we are constantly drawing on the things around us, whether we know it or not. This means that the mere act of reading Twilight could, theoretically, damage your prose!
Don’t Put Writers On A Pedestal
Writers are human. If something bothers you in a book by Dostoevsky or Hemingway, don’t give that writer the benefit of the doubt. It’s quite possible they’ve made a mistake! Millions of readers every day are convincing themselves that when they get confused reading Faulkner, it’s because they read the passage wrong, or because they weren’t alive during the same time period as the author… many of these things may be true, but sometimes, even the best authors make mistakes. I’ve caught misplaced commas in Steinbeck and instances of passive voice in Fitzgerald – these things don’t detract from the excellence of these writers, but it’s important that you see their work, however excellent, without rose-colored glasses. By convincing yourself of their abilities, you risk misleading yourself in your own work. If you think it’s okay for Victor Hugo to go on a twenty page rant about architecture in the middle of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, then maybe it’s okay for you to depart from your own story to talk about the history of the town that your story is set in. If you think Proust’s 150-page-long chapters are okay in his work, why not do the same with yours? Don’t put aside your critical mind. I promise you, even your favorite book has flaws.
Don’t Ignore Grammar
Yes, this is coming from an editor – I’ll give you that. Even so, too many writers ignore things like punctuation and sentence structure when they read. I recommend that instead of skipping over punctuation as if it doesn’t exist, you occasionally study its placement. This might not sound particularly exciting, but at least until you become a master of grammar yourself, it might help you to see how your favorite authors handle it. Do you tend to use more or less semi-colons than your favorite author? How long is his/her average sentence? Given that the best grammar is practically invisible, it’s all the more important to pay attention when it doesn’t seem like there’s much to notice.
Don’t Worry About Books Losing Their Allure
Does following the above advice ruin the time you spend reading? Absolutely not. Knowing where something is going means you’ll be surprised less often, but it will make you all the more appreciative when an author does surprise you! When you’re reading as a writer, you’re “chasing the dragon” of literary fiction. Instead of just reading and accepting the world an author tries to paint, you look beyond their portrait and at the colors themselves, and the act of truly understanding a work of fiction makes it all the more beautiful.
The following is the opening to Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. What do you like about it? How is it different from your own writing? Is there anything you can learn from it?
A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it’s night. He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall—soon—it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.
Inside the carriage, which is built on several levels, he sits in velveteen darkness, with nothing to smoke, feeling metal nearer and farther rub and connect, steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage’s frame, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others pressed in around, feeble ones, second sheep, all out of luck and time: drunks, old veterans still in shock from ordnance 20 years obsolete, hustlers in city clothes, derelicts, exhausted women with more children than it seems could belong to anyone, stacked about among the rest of the things to be carried out to salvation. Only the nearer faces are visible at all, and at that only as half-silvered images in a view finder, green-stained VIP faces remembered behind bulletproof windows speeding through the city. . .
Look for positive things. Did you notice the powerful opening sentence? Did you notice how Pynchon alternated the standard order of things as in “Above him lift girders old as…” instead of “Old girders lift above him, old as…”? Did you notice that Pynchon is describing a character as “he” without giving his name in order to increase tension? Did you note the interesting way “soon” was separated by dashes? When you read “Only the nearer faces are visible at all”, did you notice how everything in this Third Person Present never leaves the eyes of our character? How about negative things? Did you notice the considerable use of the word “But” in the first paragraph? Whatever your stance, did you notice how Pynchon occasionally strings on sentence fragments, such as the following: “But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.” It’s okay if you didn’t immediately take these things in. Reading as a writer takes a lot of practice at first.