The Three "Rs": Reading, Reading, and Reading
I know, I know, you're a writer, so you want to read something about writing, not reading. After all, you've been reading practically all your life, from Dick & Jane, to The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, to comic books, to Lord of the Rings, to summer beach reads, to Playboy and Cosmo (for the articles, of course!), to the great classics (whether because you had to or you wanted to), to endless work memos, to instruction manuals for Ikea furniture and Christmas bicycles, to trashy guilty-pleasure novels, to blogs, posts, and tweets, to obits. So why am I writing a blog about reading? Because writers need to read. Here's why: Readers make better writers: Would you try your hand at brain surgery without studying up on the topic? Would you book Carnegie Hall without singing in the shower or, at least, watching American Idol? Would you have children without ever having bothered to be one yourself? No. So what makes you think that you can write something people will want to read if you don't read much yourself? You can't understand what makes a good story or book if you haven't bothered to read any--both good and bad. You won't understand anything about grabbing the reader's attention, developing characters, crafting artful prose, conjuring up realistic-sounding dialogue (which actually isn't realistic--it's better than realistic because it leaves out all the boring parts), or dropping subtle clues and foreshadowing in service to a suspenseful and compelling plot, if you don't read. And, while writing can be cinematic, don't think that just watching TV and observing people at the park amounts to the same thing. Those situations have visual and other sensory cues that writing doesn't have unless you find an artful way to add them in. This isn't about trying to mimic someone else's style or making sure you include a checklist of items. We've all been at a picnic or party where one of our neighbors or not-so-close friends mistakes a recitation of facts as a story when it's not a story, it's just something that happened, with no plot arc, twist, social commentary, or compelling action or character development to engage you, as the listener. You need to read to find out what makes a story, what works and what doesn't work in engaging and maintaining your interest. Sure, not everyone is interested in the same things, but unless you know what works for somebody (hey, that's you), it's hard to put together what works for enough people that someone will publish and/or read your story or book. And, trust me, putting together something that works is a whole lot harder than complaining about something that doesn't. Everybody's a critic; not that many people are actually writers. Reading Your Own Work Helps Both It and You: Once you've actually read (both inside and outside your preferred writing genre--you'd be amazed what you can learn about writing from reading in other genres) enough that you've written something you think is passable, the next phase is to read your own work. First, read your latest draft out loud. Doing so will improve your rewriting in several ways. Sure, you'll find some typos and grammatical errors that crept in because your brain automatically reads things you wrote the way you intended--glossing over errors; your mouth won't do that. You'll also find some poorly placed attributions. (E.g., When, as you are reading along aloud, you come to a sentence like "'Come , over here right now,' he whispered after dimming the lights." and you read the dialogue in a normal voice, not noticing it was supposed to be whispered until you got to the attribution, you may suddenly realize that perhaps the sentence should have read. "He dimmed the lights and whispered, 'Come over here right now.'") Reading your material aloud also helps find repeated words, awkward syntax, and long, boring sections. Reading your work aloud is also good practice for reading your work aloud ... in public. Nothing showcases that your work is worth reading like enticing an audience with a snippet that makes them sit up and notice. That means getting over your jitters, working to improve both your enunciation and the emotional resonance of your reading, and taking control of your audience. You can't do that if you have your head down, looking at your draft, as you mutter your way through your work as quickly as possible. If you don't think your work is exciting and compelling and worthy of being heard, why should your audience want to buy it? Read Your Audience: How can you hope to write compellingly for an audience if you never pay attention to their responses to your work? In a public reading you do this by maintaining eye contact and gauging their reactions. Are they bored? Do they lean forward (and not just because they can't hear you)? Do they laugh or smile at the right parts? If not, why not? Do they look confused when they should? Do they look confused when they shouldn't? You can't be sitting over the shoulder of everyone who reads your story or book. It's creepy when they know you're there and breaking and entering when they don't. Reading in public is the closest you can ever get to simulating such stalkerish behavior within the bounds of the law. And, when reading in public isn't available or isn't sufficient (sure, you can read a chapter, but usually not a whole story or book), you need to read the reviews and critiques posted about your writing, and not just the nice ones (Thanks, Mom!) Sure, you may think some of the critics clueless ignoramuses or unduly harsh or even notorious suck-ups, but some of those reviews and critiques have important things to say, both good and bad. Turn off your defensive tendencies, read the comments, the LET THEM SIT for awhile, and then come back to them. Choose to let the worthwhile comments guide you and improve your writing. Sure, sometimes critics will disagree with each other. Sometimes they will be wrong. Learning to separate the wheat from the chaff is an important skill for a writer. You might not learn anything valuable from your audience, but if you don't read the reviews, critiques, and comments, you are absolutely guaranteed not to learn anything at all from them. Remember, real estate might be about location, location, location, but writing is all about reading, reading, and reading. And, if you ever become a rich and famous author, contact me. I'd be happy to do a reading with you. Reading in pairs or groups is a great way to expand your potential audience.
Just remember, this blog is a fount of wisdom, but the picture above is a font of wisdom. Aloha! Don