The second rule’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If you want to be a writer you’ve got to read.
You can study reading. You can read books on how to read books, and (I guess) many writing courses will give you lists of things to watch out for: characterisation, plot, dialogue… all the elements that, when blended together, make Literature. But I’m not too sure about this. More than anything else, reading should be a pleasure. And I think it’s just as useful to absorb these messages subconsciously as it is to learn by dissecting the text. I guess I think there’s room for both. It’s almost certainly been good for my writing to read books on pacing and character. They might not have told me anything I didn’t instinctively know, but it’s a benefit to have knowledge moved from the subconscious to the conscious.
But reading is, and should always remain, a delight. The wonderful thing is that every time to pick up a book you’re going to learn something new, whether you want to or not. Maybe it’s only ‘how not to do it’, but even in books you hate you’re going to learn a little more about the world – or at least one select part of it.
Most instruction courses on writing and literature will point you towards the classics. Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, Dickens, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky – the heavy hitters. I can see why they do it (they’re widely available and aren’t too esoteric for the masses – and, of course, they’re good) but this always puts me off. I know, I know, it’s my loss, but – whisper it quietly – I don’t want to read these. I know I should. And one day I will, I promise. But my point to you is that’s not only the greats that can help you. You can learn about writing from a Mills & Boon; after all, they rely on proven plots and have an established structure. And they’re short, so you can read a few quickly, then move on to something else.
Of course you should read the classics. But you should also read – well, everything else. If you’re a genre writer you need to read within your genre, that’s a given. It’s always helpful to know conventions, ‘the rules’, if only so you can play with them, break them good and hard if your story calls for it. It’s also massively helpful to read beyond your bounds. I mean, everybody should read as much as possible anyway because reading makes you a more rounded human being, more open and receptive. And there’s little better than sitting holding your partner whilst you both read. True fact.
So range wildly with your selections. Make your library your first stop every time you leave the house. Surround yourself with words and slowly they’ll fill you up, become part of your glorious shining soul. The presence of books in your life is the greatest gift you can give yourself, your children – even your friends and enemies.
And do your best to include non-fiction in your diet. You can do your readers no bigger favour than to know a lot about the world. This is obviously true for historical fiction, where the slightest anachronism can ruin the flow. It’s equally true for fantasy and science-fiction. Terry Pratchett once said that when you construct a city you need to start by knowing where the water goes in and how the waste goes out. You can’t invent a tribe without some understanding of power-structures at whatever level of development they’ve reached.
And none of this should feel like work. What greater pleasure can there be but to understand the world a little better? And always, always, you’ll be encountering new ways of thinking that might inspire your writing. I’ve talked before about how I’ve been influenced by real-world history. An awareness of popular science – and of possible trends – is also hugely helpful. Even if you dismiss what you’ve read – even if you disagree vehemently and want to give the author a good slap – it can drive you to write a sharp riposte, a counterblast.
It almost goes without saying that memoirs, biographies and travelogues – any narrative non-fiction, really – can also be incredibly useful. These (should) provide real-life examples of notable characters, places and times – or, if nothing else, ways of thinking.
The thing is that once you start writing – or at least after you’ve been doing it for a while – you’ll start to notice more in the books you read. Maybe it’s a case of becoming a little more discerning. You’ll get more out of the shape of the dialogue, the rhythms, the pace. Sentence length, that’s something to watch out for, especially as it influences that nebulous, barely definable thing they call ‘style’. These things will seep into your skin and slowly transform the way you produce your material. And it takes no effort. The wonderful thing – almost miraculous – is that all the things you’ve learnt will come out in your own voice, not as the people you’ve been reading. The brain is a very clever thing – far smarter than I am, at least.
So go! Journey into strange lands and travel through time. Stride across galaxies or into the hearts of lovers. Live vicariously, feel pain and joy and anger and deep, deep passion. Push yourself always onwards, and remember – you’re not wasting time. Never that. You’re merely rehearsing your craft.
The second rule lets you soar.