Read more; write less

Yesterday I told you all (and myself) to write less and read more. Today I’m saying the opposite. In some ways, I’m still talking to myself, but I’m also talking to all LDS writers out there, regardless of genre or market. You need to read more — and as a result you may need to write a little less. Why? Oh, there lots of reasons. The standards ones include:

  • Reading helps build your vocabulary and your understanding and storehouse of syntax and metaphor and all those other good sentence-level things that make you a better writer.
  • Reading helps you generate new ideas and keeps you from falling in to your standard formulas
  • Reading help you learn from other writers and keep up with developments in the field (for a great example of why this is important see question 13 of this excellent interview with Brandon Sanderson over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist)
  • Reading, especially nonfiction, provides a good base of research that makes your fiction richer and more realistic

But if you’ll allow me to get a bit metaphysical and pompous here, while I think all those points are excellent, I think that, in a less easily identifiable way, reading simply makes you a deeper, more interesting writer. Writing should be a conversation. It should be a grappling with the best in your genre/literary vein/peer group. And if it isn’t, well, then your work is going to be shallow. It’s going to show, and it’s going to lead to a less satisfying experience for (most of) your readers. And that’s true no matter whether you are writing literary fiction or genre fiction, short form or long form.

Yes, your time is limited. Yes, you can’t read everything. But if you aren’t reading key works in your field and if you aren’t also reading wider than your field, then you aren’t putting in the work of a writer. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you write literary fiction and don’t read some genre works and vice versa, then you are doing you and your readers a disservice.

So. Since this is an area, unlike yesterday’s write more; read less, where I do fairly well (although I’ve had to work at reading widely enough and still could be better balanced in my reading choices), I’m going to illustrate how and why this works. It’s a bit trickier than the right pen and pad of paper, but hopefully I can express it well.

Read to write example: “Dark Watch”

The story I entered in this year’s Irreantum Fiction Contest is called “Dark Watch.” Now it didn’t win, and it’s by no means a perfect story, but bear with me because I it’s a good illustration of reading to write.

“Dark Watch” started out as an image and a phrase — the image of a woman staring out a window late at night as storm clouds gathered and her husband “startling himself awake.” Later it tried to become a poem called “Desert Prophets,” but I suck at poetry and then lost the 20 or so lines of it that I had written. And here’s where the reading came in.

It started, I believe, with 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon and me thinking about this whole notion of breaking up in to tribes. Somehow that got mixed up with the “Desert Prophets” poem, which was still percolating, and  became a post-apocalyptic story about an erstwhile LDS couple who lead a tribe that’s part of a Confederation in a world where the LDS Church has fled to South America and American society has broken down and then haphazardly built itself back up a bit. I wrote an initial scene or two and then it went in the drawer for a long time. During that time I read Orson Scott Cards The Folk of the Fringe ( Amazon ) and was both pissed and depressed to discover that he had beat me to the post-apocalyptic LDS fiction notion by more than a decade  (that is one danger of writers reading, but it’s a solvable, worth-risking one). However, I was also happy because it meant that I knew what the field had already done and it meant that I had to grow, I had to push my story. So the story continued to percolate and last year I finally was ready to write it.

It ended up being an 8,000 word short story told from two alternating points of view (a husband and wife) in second person. The plot is slight, and I’m not entirely sure the two voices are as distinct as they should be, but overall it’s a unique work and my most successful full-length story to date. And I was able to do what I did because:

  • I have read the Book of Mormon many times and as result certain ideas and notions from it are always percolating in my mind.
  • I have read the Old Testament (there’s a nod to Micah in the story) as well as many novels and stories that draw from images or stories from the Old Testament.
  • I have read quite a bit of post-apocalyptic fiction so the setting while not fully fleshed out (it’s only a short story) is informed by and aware of the tropes of the field.
  • I have read a lot of cyberpunk (including Snow Crash and Neuromancer and the Mormon-themed cyberpunk novel Hunting Gideon); “Dark Watch” isn’t cyberpunk but it has some elements of hacker/coder culture.
  • I have read a ton of Mormon fiction and am aware of what has and hasn’t been explored within an overtly Mormon context.
  • I have read a pretty good amount of post-modern/experimental literature, including experiments with second person.
  • I have read many short stories and novels that are about couples, especially married couples, including much of what’s been published in the Mormon market. At its core, “Dark Watch” is about a married couple and their relationship.
  • I have read many novels, works of history, and business books about leadership. This story is also about being a leader and how strange and scary it is to wield power.

Again, I’m not making any great claims for “Dark Watch.” It has several faults as a story, which is part of the reason why it didn’t win. But what virtues and unique aspects and moments of grace and bits of beautiful language or imagery it does have directly spring out of all the reading that I have done, and the fact that I take what I read and ruminate it.

So if you are writer, you probably should read more.

12 thoughts on “Read more; write less”

  1. I like that way of putting it, Adam. “The best rest is different work.”

    Th:

    That’s a tough one. On the one hand, it’s good to keep abreast of certain fields and have some background in the canon. On the other hand, it’s like a dissertation or thesis — there’s always one more thing you could read.

  2. .

    Exactly. But some of my gaps are pretty wide. Never read any Philip Roth, for instance. Or any of Updike’s novels. Or any Nabokov. Someday this may well embarrass me.

  3. Roth is obsessed with masturbation; Updike is boring; and I’m in the same boat as you when it comes to Nabokov.

  4. There’s no time to write because there’s too much to read. Wm, it sounds like you feel the same and your prior blog on writing more was less persuasive than this one, suggesting that more writing is where the work needs to be done. But how to let go of that long list of titles that are all begging to be next in line? Logically, I know that the best way to improve as a writer is to write. Reading widely is also important, but how can the reading be helping my writing when it is preventing me from writing? Don’t know. But I recommend Nabakov’s Pale Fire over anything by Updike or Roth. In fact, I should really reread that book. It is one of my favorites.

  5. Pale Fire has been on my list for awhile.

    It’s more persuasive because it’s what I’m better at, Roger. But as much as I love to read, as easy as it is to provide emotional and intellectual pleasure, it’s still not as fun and pleasurable as reading AND writing.

  6. I can’t speak for Roger, but for me, it all depends on what you mean by pleasure. Everything on my list is there because I want to read it. I expect that everything will provide me with a pleasure. But I don’t expect all the pleasures to be the same. Of course, I’m a rather omnivorous reader.

    I can say that I’m rather allergic to books that I *should* read. Which is why The Backslider remains unread. As does anything by DeLillo. I did read Refuge recently, though, so the list is now down to two.

    Also: here’s my current to-read list — it’s missing many titles (there are some 19th century novels, in particular, that I want to read or re-read, but haven’t bothered to add to the list), but it’s a decent snapshot.

  7. I’m afraid that for me, reading interferes with writing. I’ve read many writers who say the same thing, at least as regards reading things that are similar to what they’re trying to write. I do know that I’m a bit of a stylistic sponge: after reading something, I tend to write like what I’ve just read. Which can be either good or bad, I guess.

    Part of me feels like I’ve put in my time reading over the past 3-4 decades, and it’s now time to try to make something grow out of the leaf-mold instead of adding more raw material. In other ways, of course, that’s completely untrue. Still, I think there’s certainly some element of either-or for me.

    The baseline principle (as always) is, in my view: do what works for you. And be open to trying new things.

  8. By the way, Wm., three books per week? I’m so jealous. I have twice that much time on the bus, and it takes me at least two weeks to get through even one good sized book.

    I am a terribly slow reader (read, “bad person”). You may ban my comments now.

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