photo from Eli Francis on pixabay
This is a combined post from the editors of The Unpublishables. Been There, Done That is our advice series for people working in creative industries. We share the lessons we’ve learned because your success is our success.
It’s always surprising to me when storytellers don’t read widely or, in some cases, even read at all. Why would someone who wants to tell a story not be interested in other people’s stories? They don’t seem to understand that having a very limited reading range has a huge effect on their storytelling that is pretty obvious to readers: the greater likelihood of clichés, poor structure, weak characters, and many other narrative problems.
Some storytellers think it’s enough to have a unique idea…except if they read more widely, they’d find out that their unique idea may not be so unique after all. And that’s not a problem; it’s not the idea but how it’s interpreted and told that makes a story compelling.
I’ve read quite a few not-good short stories and indie comic books by people who clearly admire writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman and wish to write like them without realizing that the reason Moore and Gaiman are so great at writing is that not only do they read, they read deep cuts.
There are some writers and storytellers who have read more books talking about the craft of writing than they have read actual fiction, and it really does show. While writing is a skill that can be developed through practice, I don’t think it’s possible to distill it entirely to a set of steps. I know it sounds judgmental but it makes me shake my head when indie comic book writers read some Moore and think that’s enough to be as good as he is.
Being well-read means that your stories have depth. The worlds Alan Moore built in From Hell or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen wouldn’t exist if he didn’t have a profound knowledge of Victorian literature and culture.
Reading a wide variety of books also means exposing yourself to different types of excellent writing, which can only improve your own. If you’re a storyteller and you find it a pain to read more, then I think you may need to reconsider what you’re doing.
-M. Paramita Lin
I have a friend who jokes that any writer who reads less than forty books a year is a narcissist. This may sound harsh but he has a point: the best writers are avid readers. Writing, after all, is a response to reading, a chance to participate in a conversation with other practitioners of the craft. In its lowest form, this practice is known as Twitter—that’s where you can find me pretty much every day, saying things like, “People are just jealous that Malia Obama is living her best life at Harvard.”
Whenever I am advising a writer on their work, whether it is a story, essay, or novel I ask what they like to read before I look that their manuscript and then I suggest a list of books that will help them assess their own writing and the next steps to take in the editing process. (By the way, I’m currently open to taking on clients who want one-on-one feedback on their work.) [Email Doretta at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more]
I have been working with a tremendous young writer named Mike for the past few years, and after I read the first draft of his novel, I told him to read several books including My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, and Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang. Each one of these texts holds a key for him to unlock parts of his manuscript. It doesn’t mean that any of these books will appear in the marketing report when he is approaching publishers—they’re just meant to provide shortcuts to understanding techniques that make a book sing. I was so pleased when he wrote back to discuss the books. He was giving his all by supplementing the hard work of writing with directed reading.
If you cannot afford to do an MFA, reading can be one of the great equalizers. It may not provide you with a New York network, but it gives you a chance to be on equal footing with most other writers. A lack of funds cannot stop you from reading Mohsin Hamid or Jenny Zhang or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Eden Robinson or Jen Sookfong Lee or Lydia Kwa or David Chariandy or Leanne Simpson or Roxane Gay or Amber Dawn or Vivek Shraya (this list could keep on going and going but you get the point) and learning a hell of a lot about story, character, craft, and panache.
Get thee to a library or bookstore! Do the reading. Your writing will thank you.