Thursday 3 November 2011

What can you learn from reading?

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?


If you found this post interesting, please consider giving it a retweet. cheers. 


Brent Wescott said...

I see you're reading Murakami's new one. I'm anxious to read it.

I like the advise at the end about having an focus in mind while you read. What do I need to work on today?

julie fedderson said...

It is ultimately all about the story. So many classic novels do "all the wrong things" yet I couldn't put them down because of their pace, or the suspense the author was able to create.

Alexis Bass said...

Love this. And it's so true. Very good advice. (I'm now following you on Twitter - can't believe it took me so long!) Happy writing.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I agree. I too want to read Murakami's new book. I think I'll have to bump it up the list.

mooderino said...

@Brent-1Q84 is a damn good read, I recommend it.

@Julie-a good story trumps all other qualities I think.

@Alexis-hello, and thnaks.

@Michael-I encourage you to bump it to the top.

Javid Suleymanli said...

Reading is very helpful I think, especially for the people whose English sucks like me.

Sophia said...

I too like the idea of focusing on a specific aspect of writing you want to improve and then seeking it out in books. As I read more and/or learn more about writing, I find it easier to notice good writing-- spotting an interesting voice is the easiest (when I find myself laughing, smiling, nodding at some amazing truth), but I'm also getting better at noticing when conflict is being introduced or the stakes raised. I think you must be right about osmosis, although it's always a good idea to take a more active role in improvement, which is why I read with post-its next to me.

The added bonus of reading a bad book is that you get a confidence boost; if *that* can get published, why not my book?

Ted Cross said...

I often find myself worrying about some specific thing in my writing, so I recall some book where I thought the author did a great job at that particular thing and I reread it while paying attention to how the writer dealt with the subject.

Anne Gallagher said...

I love reading bad books, because then I can where my own faults lie. I love reading good books because then I can imitate what I've found.
This was a superlative post.

Halli Gomez said...

The book I'm reading now has affected me more than a lot of others in this aspect. I am studying it more than reading it and find that I need to sit with a notebook while reading. I love these kinds of learning experiences.

Donna K. Weaver said...

I love what the character Isola Pribby says in "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" when she's introduced to good literature. Reading good lit spoils you for reading bad lit. Sometimes you have to read the bad stuff to realize just how good the good is.

Anonymous said...

I read a lot of genres, including self help, Christian rah-rah, fiction, history, etc. I think a well balanced approach is best. Not just to better one's craft of writing, but to make oneself a better person in a general sense.

mooderino said...

@javid-i think we all can learn a thing or two.

@Sophie-the other problem is being so into looking at the mechanics that it spoils reading for you. There are plenty of 'okay' books that I now only see as poorly written and can't enjoy.

@Ted-I have that happen too, although usually I remember there was a perfect passage to help me, but I can't recall which book it was.

@Anne-I think critiquing others has a similar effect. I tend to see mistakes in mine once I see it in others.

@halli-finding a book that speaks to your writer's side is always a great thing.

@Donna-there is certainly a joy in reading crappy but fun books that you can lose once you start being serious about writing. A lot of people end up being dismissive about the badly written stuff, but I think there is stuff we can learn from them.

@Stephen-reading different genres is something I've always done, but I don't think you can make people do it. One of the problems with schools, I think, is forcing kids to read books that puts them off waht they'll later discover is a great read.

Sarah Allen said...

Great post! And I love that picture so hard :)

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

gordan said...

very nice posting. Thanks for the quality too

Anonymous said...

I've learned so much from books.

One example was when, years ago, an agent told me I needed to work on plot and she recommended I read a fiction book similar to mine. So I read it, writing down all the plot points and other observations. That changed my writing immensely.

Julie Daines said...

The sad thing is, for me, some of the magic has gone out of reading. I'm always noticing the editing issues and plot holes when I read a book. Even a great book. My new goal is to turn off the editor/writer inside me and remember how to let myself get lost in the story. I miss those days.

mooderino said...

@sarah-finding pictures for my posts is the best part.

@gordan-cheers, and welcome.

@Medeia-plus they're good for balancing wonky tables.

@Julie-it passes. There are books that are beautifully written that are incredibly tedious, and horribly written ones that you can't put down. The story that going to grab you by the throat will kick your door in to do it.

Jenni Steel said...

This is a very interesting post one of which I will keep in mind a come back and re-read, if I may.

I feel I could learn a great deal here.

Thanks for sharing. I like Haruki Murakami's books too.

Shaving Set said...

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Anonymous said...

Brilliant article - as are a couple more on here. I have used several of them as the basis for a post of mine relating to something I wrote the other day. I do hope you won't mind and I have given you full credit.

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