A good question don’t you think? Even though Randy Ingermanson asked it in 2014 and I did too. But it is still relevant, I believe!
How is your writing going? Are you writing or are you on holiday? Or maybe you do both? I do, as it happens. Day job is off for two weeks, but as the best husband in the world’s back does not allow camping as originally planned we stay home and render Norfolk’s beaches uncertain ;-). Holidays are usually a time for excessive reading for me and a few weeks ago Randy Ingermanson’s newsletter was about reading as well. He voiced the opinion that as a writer you should read a lot. Not only what you like and what is “good” but all the opposites as well. Of course not too much of the bad stuff. Not sure if his newsletter helped me decide to give reading a certain time a day or if it was my Amazon Kindle Daily Deal binge a few Sundays ago. There are so many books I want to read, but I also love to spend time with the family and write and…. getting into a routine does help sometimes :-). I agree with Mr Ingermanson. Right now I am concentrating on both English and German classics as well as self-published authors. Besides all the technical aspects that I might (or might not) learn while reading it always gives me new ideas what to write about. And that for me is another important aspect
That’s why I bugger off and get a book and leave you to ponder Mr Ingermanson’s ideas about “You are what you read?”
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 9,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visitwww.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
Craft: You are what you read?
Years ago I was talking to a fellow novelist whom I’d just met and I asked him what his Top Five favorite novels were.
This is a question I ask writers a lot. I’m always looking for great books, and one place to find them is on the Top Five list of another writer.
This guy’s answer just about knocked me over. He said, “I don’t read fiction.”
I couldn’t believe it. I asked him if he meant he didn’t read much fiction.
No, he didn’t read any. He was a nonfiction kind of a guy.
He wrote fiction, but he didn’t read it.
That was years ago, and I haven’t seen anything from him recently.
To put it bluntly, I don’t see that as a recipe for success. If you’re a novelist, you need to be reading fiction.
There’s a saying that “you are what you read,” and I think this is partially true.
If you read great fiction, you’ll absorb some of it, and you’ll become a better writer. You’ll learn what’s possible to do in writing, and it can’t help but expand you as a writer.
But I think it goes beyond that. I recommend reading widely, even if it isn’t great fiction. Because the fact is that you are MORE than what you read. What you read is fuel for your mind—it’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient.
Novelists need to be reading fiction. A lot of fiction. Not just the bestsellers. Obscure stuff. Good fiction. Great fiction. Horrible fiction (not too much of this—if you do manuscript reviews at a writing conference, you’ll see more than you need).
When you read other people’s fiction, you learn things that you couldn’t learn any other way. Because when it comes to the craft of writing, you don’t know what you don’t know. The only way to learn what you don’t know is by reading other people’s work.
For starters, you should read widely in your category. You need to know. the rules of your genre—which ones are ironclad and which ones can be bent.
But that’s not enough.
Read widely outside your genre. Read outside your demographic. Read outside your worldview.
Read romance fiction. Most novels have a romance thread in them, no matter what their category. If you can improve that thread, your story will improve.
Read suspense fiction. Most novels have some element of fear in them. Learn how to do that better and your novel will be better.
Read fantasy. Even if you, personally, would never want to read a vampire or werewolf story, it’s quite possible that one of your characters would. If you understand that character better, then you’ll do a better job writing that character.
Read mysteries. Even if you hate mysteries. Most novels have an element of mystery to them—some secret that needs to be uncovered. If you know how to unwrap that secret, one layer at a time, then your story can only get better.
Read a spy novel. One of your characters is reading a spy novel right now. Do you know what he likes about it?
Read a historical novel. The better you understand history, the better you understand the present.
Read science fiction. You might learn a bit of science, if it’s a hard science fiction novel. But for sure, you’ll expand your universe a bit. Never hurts.
Read YA fiction. It’ll give you insights into your younger characters. It might give you some insights into a few young adults in your life.
Read women’s fiction. If you’re a guy, you’ll understand women better, which is good all by itself. If you’re a guy writing fiction, you’ll understand your readers better, because the odds are that the majority of your readers are women.
Read fiction that features characters with wildly different beliefs than yours. I understand hyper-capitalists better after reading Ayn Rand. I understand Jews better after reading Chaim Potok. I understand Wiccans better after reading S.M. Stirling’s apocalyptic series that begins with Dies the Fire. I understand Muslims better after reading Khaled Hosseini’s book The Kite Runner. I understand fundamentalists better after reading the first book in the Left Behind series.
The better you understand your characters, the better your novel will be.
Read bad fiction. Yes, really. If you find a particularly bad piece of writing, read it all the way to the end. Figure out why it’s so awful. Resolve never to do the things that the author is doing.
I confess that I have a favorite bad novel, written by a high-school kid who graduated a couple of years behind me. This thing is fearsomely, wonderfully, amazingly awful. It’s bad on every possible level.
No, I won’t tell you the title. Find your own dreck. I’m keeping mine a secret. My family knows which book I’m talking about, and they’ve all read it. We sometimes quote particularly horrible lines at the dinner table.
There are a billion ways to write great fiction, but only about a dozen ways to write truly horrible fiction. Good writing starts by learning to avoid that dirty dozen of Desperately Horrible Writing Follies.
If you’ve read some really awful fiction, I guarantee it’ll improve your writing. But there’s such a thing as too much of a bad thing, so stop when you’re had enough. A little goes a long way.
Read a little bad fiction and a ton of good fiction.
Reading fiction is the foundation of writing fiction. Make your foundation broad and strong.