Stephen King said it best: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
He’s 100% correct on that point, so I’m going to go ahead and assume that you’re all out there reading. And as I’ve recommended before, you should be reading in and out of your favorite genre. Do you write (at least primarily) fantasy? Fantastic! You know I love fantasy. I write fantasy, and I read fantasy, too. And I read science fiction, horror, mystery—in various sub-genres—as well as “literary” fiction and all sorts of non-fiction, and not just non-fiction about writing fiction, either, but all sorts of stuff, across the board.
I bet you do that too, and that’s swell.
Now let’s kick it up a notch.
Read—for God’s sake, read—but if you’re also writing, you should think of everything you read—again, in and out of your chosen genre(s)—as Writing School. Everything you read—and I mean everything, good, bad, or indifferent—is a lesson in how to do it or how not to do it, often both within the same book.
For example, I didn’t just read then set aside the book The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write, which I recommended here a couple weeks ago. As I read that book, I wrote notes in the margins, copied passages into not just that post but into various files on various subjects, including this one, from E.L. Doctorow’s essay “Childhood of a Writer” in which he revealed that when he was nine years old he
…was more disposed than ever to read or listen to radio stories, and I was now reading not only to find out what happened next but with that additional line of inquiry of the child writer who is yet to write: How is this done?It is a kind of imprinting. We live in the book as we read it, yes, but we run with the author as well—this wild begetter of voices, this voice of voices, this noble creature of the wild whose linguistic lope over any sort of terrain brings it into being.
I also recently ran across (for only 99¢—the subject of another post!) the book American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson. In an appendix therein, Rollyson showcases a few passages that were found underlined and/or annotated in Plath’s personal library, including:
O strange happiness, that seeketh the alliance of Death to win its crown… it must needs be a forcible evil, that has power to make a man (nay, a wise man) to be his own executioner… A wise man is indeed to endure death with patience, but that must come ab externo from another man’s hand and not from his own. [In the left-hand margin, Plath wrote, “Why?”] But these men teaching that he may do it himself, just needs confess that the evils are intolerable which force a man to such an extreme impropriety. [Plath wrote, “yes.”]
—St. Augustine, The City of God
Something I share in common with Sylvia Plath. I love it.
It’s actually pretty rare that I read a whole book without at least copying out some passage if not actually marking it up in the book itself. I have a whole shelf of books that I have annotated in some way.
If you can’t handle the sin of marking up a book, consider this your only trigger warning for the images to follow, but even if you do feel strongly that books should not be written in (Sylvia Plath and I, at least, disagree) then at least scan stuff you want to remember, or shoot a picture with your phone camera, or transcribe it in some way—the same way you might take notes in class. Because if you’re a writer, when you’re reading, you’re in class!
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from books I’ve read:
I’m still working my way through a beat-up old copy of the sword and sorcery anthology The Fantastic Swordsmen, edited by L. Sprague de Camp, but I had to call out this example of how pulp fiction wasn’t all written in the kind of straightforward, results-oriented style of the hardboiled detective authors like Hammet and Chandler. Here, a sixteen year old Robert Bloch, via Lovecraft, via Dunsany, goes purple:
In the same book I came across a reference to a book that sounded interesting (and it’s been added to my list!) and thought a paragraph in de Camp’s introduction to Henry Kuttner’s “Dragon Moon” offered some interesting advice on how imitating other authors can actually help you find your own voice.
In the weeks ahead look for a post on how authors use sound to move their stories forward, which will include this example from the short story “The James Dean Garage Band” published in Rick Moody’s collection The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven.
I use Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew as one of the texts for my online Horror Intensive, so when I put that course together I read it again while making extensive notes, like this, which illustrated a point I made in my own book, Writing Monsters:
Not intending to do so when I sat down to read it, I wrote a three-part blog post series on lessons from Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, after noticing I’d called out a bunch of concepts like:
Anyone who’s spent any time here knows I put a lot of thought and words into heroes and villains, so why wouldn’t I have made note of this paragraph from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground?
And I could go on and on and on.
Everything I read (and everything I watch on TV and every game I play, and every conversation and every moment I’m conscious) I’m observing, thinking, trying to remember, taking notes… absorbing the world around me to put it back into my work.
And I’m not special or weird or in any way different from any other writer. It’s a thing we do so we can then do what we do.