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On Writing, Reading and Lowering the Bar

July 25, 2013

Blake's Book of Urizen, cover

William Blake’s Book of Urizen, cover. What, like you never turn pages with your toes?

I spend a fair amount of time buzzing through the forums at Absolute Write and if you are a writer, you should too. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Back? Cool. Case in point: there’s a discussion up today where someone asked what a writer should read to improve their writing…and how. A fine question. Ultimately, of course, as R. J. Blain has pointed out over on Google+, there’s a hard limit to how much one can improve one’s writing without, you know, writing, but at some point in the process, one has to have read enough to know what a book is supposed to do, and more specifically, what readers of any particular kind of book expect.

Expectations take many forms, though. One of the people in the discussion noted, with a hint of discouragement, that seeing work that breaks “rules” we are brought up with as writers published anyway brings into question whether those rules matter. If so-and-so can publish with an adverb per sentence, what’s the point of editing adverbs out of a story?

My response: turn it around. How much *better* would the story be if it weren’t an adverb-strewn wasteland? As writers, as artists, we should never strive to be just as mediocre as someone who’s “made it” in spite of their flaws. When I see adverbs or initial participles or run-on sentences littering a story like discarded candy wrappers outside a Weight Watchers meeting, I don’t think “Wow, I’ve been too hard on myself.” I think, I can write better than this followed by If this can get published, my stuff can too. I like to think that, when presented with two manuscripts that do the storytelling equally well, the one with better prose is going to be the one editors pick. I also rather suspect that there are hard limits on just how well a story *can* be told with weak prose, but that’s another discussion.

But back to reading to write–I *assume* people have read the genres they want to write in for some time before they start writing, to the point where they have internalized the general demands of the genre. I thus suggest reading books that touch on similar themes out of genre, including literary-grade forays from the last century or so at least.

Doing Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible is important if you want to align your work with the existing corpus of English Literature. It’s not as if one must toss in literary or Biblical allusions, but being able to if one wants is handy–and it indicates an awareness of the persistence of themes and motifs that are Older than Dirt. If you write a book about someone who suffers for no apparent reason, and you’ve never read Job (the original, not Heinlein’s)* your book will not be as good as it might.

Now and again, when I want to employ a specific effect, I’ll go read a book by someone who’s known for doing it well, not to copy but to get a feel for what it’s like when it works. Example: I read one of Walter Mosley’s recent novels when I wanted to work a subplot into an existing story, to get a sense of the mechanics–how long the subplot pieces should be, how frequent, when best inserted to highlight or counterpoint the plot action, etc.

I shy away from reading books that are too similar to what I’m writing at the time I’m writing. I usually reserve those time slots for supporting non-fiction research anyway.

As to what to do while reading–I’m not a big margin-scribbler. Too many erasing sessions in grade school, perhaps. Things that both work well and stand out (or things to avoid–see adverbs, above) tend to stick in my head on their own. Something really exceptional I might share here…which would of course help me remember it. But I use a Darwinian approach when it comes to ideas–if they’re really good, they’ll survive the hellhole of evolutionary pressure within my skull. Or adapt. 🙂

On an unrelated note: my friend and fellow writer Trey Dowell is getting a heart bypass x6 done today after a mild heart attack this weekend. Trey’s prose is as trim and buff as he is, which provides both an object lesson in the fundamental unfairness of the universe and a good reason to look for his stories to cheer his recovery. He’s got several at Untreed Reads including the Derringer-nominated “Ballistic.” So check him out before he checks out.

Of the hospital. Geez, what did you think I meant?

*Obviously Heinlein did, in fact, read the original. There you go.

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