I am a writer because I have my own stories to tell in my own way. I am a control freak and where better to exert control than my story. So reading someone else’s story is like asking a painter to color in another person’s coloring book. Ok, that was my opinion in the beginning. I have learned a few things over the the years.
Lesson 1 – You have to be a reader.
Duh – you say, but wait. I am not talking about curling up with a book and cup of tea for a rainy afternoon. I mean truly, painstakingly, ruthlessly, critically reading. Stories have characters, settings, dialog, plot, themes, and life lessons. How does the author accomplish each task? Is he successful? If you like the book, why? Reading books that you didn’t like is valuable as well. Pinpoint the reason you don’t like a character or you find the story unbelievable. It will help you avoid that pitfall.
Working in a critique group is a must. Got a villain that just won’t come to life? – read through another writer’s character troubles. Lack a good story arc? – pour through the pacing you find in a struggling friend’s work. Feel like giving up? – find your inspiration in the prose of a partner who nailed that difficult chapter against all odds. This is reading on a level that amazes me with the insights it provides. And there is more.
I go back to my favorites Twain, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Larry McMurtry or Thomas Edison and tear apart their work. See what they did and then imitate and practice. I find the master of my genre and study at his feet – he’s left the textbook right in front of me.
From time to time I go back and read the endless pages of garbage I wrote to get to the few pages I kept. It helps to see how bad I am capable of writing, so I don’t get too agreeable with all the nice folks who kindly tell me they like my writing. Reading like this reminds me that this writing business is work. It doesn’t just fall like manna from the sky.
What unexpected lesson have you learned as you have honed your craft?