If nothing else, the experience of reading mounds of badly written fiction gave him an indelible lesson in exactly what constituted badly written fiction.
1Q84, Haruki Murakami
One of the most common advice to aspiring writers is to read. Read everything. This advice comes from everyone: writers, teachers, people in the street... Undoubtedly, if you want to write fiction, you should read fiction. In fact the reason you want to be a writer is probably because of stuff you’ve read. But exactly what are you supposed to glean from reading other people’s books? And how will it make you a better writer?
The great thing about reading a bad book is that bad writing is easy to spot. You don’t need an MFA to know when something isn’t working. Clumsy phrasing, long paragraphs of dull exposition, plots that make no sense—when you see them on the page it’s pretty obvious. And then you start seeing that stuff in your own work (in a kind of Oh, shit, I do that too manner). But you also have to bear in mind that this terrible thing you’re reading got published. And then it may well have been read and enjoyed by loads of people.
Whatever you find at fault in a bad book, chances are there are also some good qualities to it too. You may not value those qualities yourself, but some people do, and they value them beyond simple grammar and syntax. Working out what those qualities are is a big part of getting to grips with storytelling.
Because no matter what genre you’re interested in or what style you are drawn to, you still have to tell a story. An interesting one.
In any case, bad books may show you the things to avoid, but that won’t necessarily make your story worth reading. Even if you know which road to avoid, that doesn’t automatically tell you which is the best route to get you to your destination.
The far more difficult thing to do, is learn from a good book. Often the writer is so good you can’t really tell what it is they’re doing. Like a master craftsman, all the joins are invisible. And on top of that, as you read, concentrating on how things slot together, you find yourself pulled into the story, even if it’s your umpteenth time reading it, and you soon forget you’re supposed to be learning something, not enjoying yourself.
On some level, good books train you without you noticing. You absorb a degree of technique through osmosis and you will be a better writer, and most likely a better person, just from having read a great story. But if you are looking to push your own skills as a writer to the next level, you need to put in a little work. Which is why, of course, it’s much easier to let someone else do the work and then go along with whatever conclusion they arrive at.
But that’s the right conclusion for them. It may, if you’re lucky, also be the right one for you. Or it may not.
Taking a book and ripping it apart to see how it works is a time consuming thing, and one not everyone is interested in doing. Trying to absorb everything at once can be overwhelming, and a very slow process.
My approach is to have one specific thing in mind that I want to improve. Maybe pacing, tension, flirting, fighting, how to stage a phone conversation, describing scenery without being boring—whatever it is, I try to be specific in my own mind what it is I want to do better. Then I go read whatever I fancy. And at some point I will undoubtedly come across an example of what I’m looking for. It always happens, sometimes in the most unlikeliest of books.
Simply narrowing your focus allows the mind to see it, because you know what it is you’re looking for. Specify what it is, and it will start appearing everywheere. And seeing how different authors tackle the same sort of thing is very eye opening.
How do you find learning from the great books of literature? Picked up any handy hints?
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