Writers need to read. For inspiration, for learning, for exercise (of the brain), and for seeing “how it’s done.”
For example, the best way to see how to start a novel or design an opening paragraph is to go to a bookstore and pull famous or favorite stories (or download a lot of “beginnings” from Amazon) and see how they did it. Read them closely. Take notes, compare/contrast. Define the ways all those authors got the reader’s attention, established the protagonist and the setting, started a narrative momentum, and made a “promise” to the reader that would need to be fulfilled in the rest of the book. And if those paragraphs are really good, they also established what the conflicts would be.
This might be the best means of learning how to write. Look at good examples—closely and thoughtfully—and collect the methods by which they succeed. Then, apply them.
But reading is also important for inspiration, for getting ideas on what to write about—stories, characters, settings, backgrounds, ideas, situations, conflicts, atmospheres, moods, styles. You get many examples when you read. And you never know from where inspiration will come—from newspapers or online journals, cartoons or junk mail, grocery lists or advertisements. It’s all fodder for the writer’s brain.
But most of us don’t have a lot of time for reading. Being a teacher of literature, I’m lucky. It’s my job to read. But those books are often required and many times I’ve read them before. Though they never fail to inspire, the first punch of inspiration (usually the strongest) is already past.
So what can we do in our so-called “spare time” to keep ourselves reading, in those microscopic moments when—shock!—you find yourself with maybe as much as 5-10 minutes (wow!) to read something that’s not required, or that doesn’t have to be done by tomorrow, or that’s not an instruction manual or an article in a “Help” menu. And mood is often a greater determinant than time. In those precious few minutes, what do you really want to read? You don’t want to waste it. But you might spend all the little time you have in just debating the right choice. Believe me, it happens.
So here’s what I do.
I read at least three, and often more, books at the same time. And they’re always in three different categories: science fiction, non-fiction, and classical or mainstream literary fiction (with often a book from another popular genre, like fantasy or mystery, but they usually wait in line behind the other three).
Science fiction because that’s my genre of choice (that I study, teach, and write). So of course I always want to stay well-read in it—to know what’s been done, what’s out there now, and the tools needed to work in the genre. Non-fiction because from it come ideas for the thought-experiments of my own novels, topics for plot scenarios, conflicts, issues. Especially useful are popular explorations of science, history, mythology, folklore, and cultural studies. And literary novels because they provide new outlooks and styles that diverge from the foregone expectations of much popular fiction. The often challenging originality of these novels (that might not fit the standard “arcs” of, say, romances fulfilled or murders solved) and their experimentation with narrative techniques provide inspiration for new ways of doing things in fiction, ways that genre writers can’t always apply until such methods are more adapted for market realities. In this way genre writers can take advantage of the sometimes chancy trial-and-error narratives for use in their own works.
Right now, the current SF novel I’m reading is Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross (though untouched for a week or two), the non-fiction is a Time-Life The Battle of Britain (it’s most often read over breakfast), and the literary work is The Road by Cormac McCarthy (which, darn, I haven’t picked up in a month). Those are the formal choices, and since they’re all in progress, I can always find something for the mood I’m in when I suddenly have time for reading a few pages.
But, as you can tell by the parenthetical comments above, nothing’s easy. There’s a host of informal or required readings too. For the Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill and an undergraduate course I teach, I also have, equally in progress and taking up much more time: The Name of the Wind (fantasy) by Patrick Rothfuss, NOS4A2 (horror) by Joe Hill, Ubik (classic SF) by Phil Dick, Mistborn (fantasy) by Brandon Sanderson (but I had to set this one aside), and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Then, for SF (and my special interest in SF authors of the 50s), there’s Mysterious Planet by Lester Del Rey and Ensign Flandry by Poul Anderson (read over lunches or when I’m on the treadmill), and I really need to get back to Blindsight by Peter Watts as well as House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds. Then, for literary fiction, there’s Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (which I’m rereading after many years and listening to sporadically on audiobooks—I should finish it by next summer), but I’m also eager to start The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman and John LeCarre’s Our Kind of Traitor, and soon I’ll need to reread Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights for a class. Then, for non-fiction, after having to put Ships aside (a coffee-table book) to make room for The Secret War (on spying in the 40s) and The Railroaders of the American West (it’s amazing what you can finish over breakfast), I just read a chapter into Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs. And on top of all of that, since I’m now writing a prequel to my novel The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, I just gathered a stack of works for research I want to do (on the Sahara and Alaska, Australian mythology, “mysterious places,” archaeology, fabled lands, quantum physics—all of which I’m sure I’ll add to).
Can you see why I can’t keep my Goodreads up to date?
And then there are the graphic novels, which provide another great realm of inspiration. But that’s for another blog.
All in all, what I wanted to suggest here (before getting buried) is to encourage that we read at least three books at one time, that we have them in three different categories so any mood or varied inspiration can be covered, and that we don’t pass up any book that we suddenly yearn for even if we only get one chapter into it and then have to switch.
And to always, always, always read.
And to always, always, always read.