The Idea that #Writers Must #Read Everything Is Absolute Bullsh*t (Unless you know how and why to read)

Okay, I will admit that this idea is a recurrent theme of mine. Anyone who has heard me talk about writing has heard me call bollocks on the idea that  novelists cannot hope to become good writers unless they read every novelist they can find. Stephen King is a particular advocate of this way of thinking.

Hey, Stephen, kiss my adverb.

Let me tell you what these writers are actually telling you. They are saying, “One of the most important market segments for novelists is aspiring (and published) writers who read voraciously in hopes of becoming successful. If you lot stop buying our books, we’ll lose a shite-load of money.” In other words, you should buy everything, because since you’re listening to them, it’s likely theirs is whose books you’ll then purchase.

On its face, this advice sounds logical. It isn’t. It is tantamount to a painter’s telling you that the way to become a great artist is to visit every museum you can find. In fact, the way to become a great painter is to paint, just as the way to become a skilled writer is to write, edit, solicit readers, re-edit, submit, publish, read reviews, and respond to what you’ve learned via improvements.

Want a short cut? So did Little Red Riding Hood. Look how that turned out.

Certainly there is something to be gained from visiting a museum. You can learn how people react to art, all of the different styles available, and even techniques, colors, or creative combinations you’d never have thought of before. Similarly, you can learn how different writers’ styles are, and how uniquely each uses language. But will these teach you how to hold a brush or create a story? Not likely.

In order to become a skilled writer, you must write. F*ck reading. If you don’t have time to do both, don’t read anything but short pieces and whatever you’ve written. Get others to read your work and tell you honestly what they think. If you must read, then read like an analyst, not a fan. It shouldn’t even matter to you if you finish a book, unless you’re trying to understand how books are finished. I rarely finish a book I start. That’s not what they’re for. If I want to love a story, I write one. If I’m reading, say, a Toni Morrison book, it’s because I want to understand how she uses the rhythm of her language to paint a lyrical mood without overwhelming the reader with unneeded prose.

Read, sure, but have a specific objective in your reading. Start by asking yourself what you want to know from the book (and it’s not whether Mary and Tom eventually hook up, though it could be understanding how the writer made you care whether they did.)

There’s no you, after a while. There’s only the books you’ve read.

I know some of you aren’t buying this, since it goes against the grain. Let me start with a quote by writer and teacher  Roz Morris.

Reading—the good and the bad—inspires you. It develops your palate for all the tricks that writers have invented over the years. You can learn from textbooks about the writing craft, but there’s no substitute for discovering for yourself how a writer pulls off a trick. Then that becomes part of your experience. – Roz Morris

Sounds good, right? Well, it is, with one caveat. Discovering how Hemingway pulls off a trick will only teach you how he did it. Should you do it the same way? Should you read ten other writers and then choose one of their ways? I’d suggest you focus on good characterization, story telling, and plotting, and trust that your natural language abilities will improve as these things improve. Read to learn what good writing sounds like and then develop your own tricks.

Reading others will give you ideas, certainly, but the idea of consciously imitating another author–no matter what some people say–should make you queasy. I can have a character ask a question and then say, “She told me no,” similar to how Raymond Chandler did. However, I shouldn’t then attempt to imitate his staccato dialogue pattern. I should, instead, F*CKING LEARN HOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE BY ACTUALLY HOLDING AND LISTENING TO CONVERSATIONS.

Oh my god, stop believing advice that’s meant to teach you how to be commercial is the same as teaching you how to be good. Read because you like books, stories, and language. Read in order to diagram and understand the process. DO NOT read start-to-finish like you’re in a book of the month club. Let me go back to Roz Morris and tell you HOW she says to read (with annotations by me).

  1. Skip sections – you’re in writing school, not doing a book report. And by the way, I got the best book-report grades on books I never finished. Read the good bits, skip the boring bits and those telling you how to do things you already do well.
  2. Quit altogether – if it bores you, seeyalaterbye it.
  3. Read things you hadn’t thought of reading – yes, yes, yes, read! But not just novels, for goodness sakes. I read tons of stuff, but rarely novels. I know how to tell those stories. What I want to know is how people tell true stories so that I can make my fiction sound true.
  4. Walk away and take notes – again, you’re not reading a library book; it’s a text book. Mark it up if you want, but if you’re reading Hemingway or Proust to learn their style, take notes on what you’ve learned.

See, I’m not opposed to reading. I am opposed to aspiring writers’ thinking this advice has anything at all to do with their book-of-the-month club. I never read King anymore because I read 10 or 15 of his books and I know how he does them. There’s nothing else to learn. I’m too busy trying to improve to waste time with people who have nothing to teach me. Now, when he gives advice on marketing, I’m all in.

To summarize, let me quote Ray Bradbury, who was pretty adept at both writing and being successful, as he spoke about reading, and specifically, what to read and why.

For the next thousand nights, before you go to bed every night, read one short story. That’ll take you ten minutes, 15 minutes. Okay, then read one poem a night from the vast history of poetry. Stay away from most modern poems. It’s crap. It’s not poetry! It’s not poetry. Now if you want to kid yourself and write lines that look like poems, go ahead and do it, but you’ll go nowhere. Read the great poets, go back and read Shakespeare, read Alexander Pope, read Robert Frost. But one poem a night, one short story a night, one essay a night, for the next 1,000 nights.  – Ray Bradbury

Let me tell you the final reason that the Big Five publishing world is telling you to read, read, read. Their products aren’t necessarily great, but they’re commercial. Reading successful authors won’t help you get better; however, they might show you trends that are selling. If you’re getting a book out within the 18 months after the book you read was published, maybe you’ll get in on the trend before it passes. Their job is to sell commercial dreck and convince you that you should buy it and write similar dreck, so that they retain their market power. What happens if all writers stop buying this crap? I’ll tell you what: they’ll stop publishing it, or they’ll lose market share to the indie community.

Reading is imperative, I agree. However, if you don’t know what to read, how to read, and why you’re reading it, you are doing yourself no good.

In the last 18 months, I have completed 6 novel manuscripts and 1/2 of a short story collection. Each is probably better than the first 9 books I wrote, and they’re not bad. I’ve read exactly 1 book in that time, and came to the conclusion that the writer was brilliant with plot and language, but wrote characters you couldn’t love and fell in love with miserable endings. So, I read his story collection, and learned I wanted to ensure none of my stories included those two things I hated.

Read, but wisely.


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