Tis the good reader who makes a good book. Ralph Waldo Emerson
The most powerful method that I have found for developing my skills as a writer of fiction is to to read voraciously, with the eye of a writer. I have filled my shelves, and more recently my Kindle, with books that I have either read or want to read, with the express purpose of “growing” my writing.
However, I find that reading outstanding fiction to improve my writing cuts like a two-edged sword. On the one hand, I am inspired by examples of compelling plots and rich narrative. I marvel at the ability of accomplished writers to make the language sing as if the words were notes and they were composing an aria. I am intrigued by the multi-dimensional characters that skillful writers manage to create.
On the other hand, I am humbled and even intimidated when, after reading an especially brilliant or clever piece of fiction, I go back and compare it to my own.
My initial reaction, “I wish I had thought of that first,” always gives way to sharp self-criticism of my work. Words like derivative, trite, and cliché, get slung around in the slug fest taking place in my mind, until the inner voice of reason finally calls a halt to it all with the reminder,
“Nobody is forcing you to do this. You never have to write another word if you don’t want to.”
I sigh deeply, return to my computer, and begin revising that which I have deemed to be derivative, trite, and cliché because I am a writer; and, writers have to write. It is also because I am an avid reader of fiction and have seen so many amazing examples of fresh and original writing that I can recognize when my own writing is derivative, trite, cliché, and thus in need of revision.
Aside from feeding my inner-writing critic with examples of all of the ways I need to improve, reading literary fiction with the eye of a writer can be uplifting as well.
- It has enabled me to explore vicariously, through the works of others, my own writer’s voice.
- It has helped me to think about my world view and how I will choose to portray the human condition through the stories I tell and the settings and characters I create.
So many books, so little time. Frank Zappa
Reading with the eye of a writer helps me define my brand–to decide who I am as an author, as well as who I am not. It helps me to find the right niche for my book–the place where my book(s) will be shelved in the vast library of publications, available to every reader, and growing by thousands of volumes every day.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? With all of the genres of books to choose from, it would be critical to let readers know that if they love historical fiction about southern women, they might want to take a look at Hattie’s Place.
And to go a step further, readers need to have an idea of what they can expect when they read a book by Kathy Stillerman or any other author. It’s better for them to know up front that what they will be getting is a tender, coming-of-age story, with themes of hope and trust in the basic goodness of humankind. It’s only fair to warn them that if they are expecting a dark plot, with passionate love scenes and vivid descriptions of gore and violence, they will not find it in Hattie’s Place.
By establishing my author’s brand–communicating my chosen genre and as well as my general world view as a writer–I can ensure that none of my readers will be shocked like the movie-goer described in this scenario.
In the summer of 1956, my grandmother, on whose life my novel Hatttie’s Place is loosely based, found herself with several hours to burn in Vancouver, British Columbia, before she was to rejoin her tour group. She thought she had bought a ticket to spend her free time watching Around the World in Eighty Days, the spectacular adventure story based on Jules Verne’s novel by the same name and starring David Niven. She discovered more that half way through the movie that what she had in fact been watching was I was a Teenage Werewolf. Turns out, she had read the marquis correctly but had taken the entrance that led to the theater next door to the one where Around the World in Eighty Days was playing.
That’s an extreme example of a reader (viewer) having an experience that she didn’t bargain for. But with so many books and so little time, no reader should have to run into a werewolf except by choice!