Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Writer's To Be Read Pile - Novels and nonfiction

I don't know how you can be a writer without being a reader. Some people try it, and perhaps some are successful. But most accomplished writers that I know seem to swallow libraries whole and to have To Be Read stacks that reach to the ceiling.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, reading should be on your priority list. Stephen King says so. This time, I'll look at reading in more detail.

To begin with, let's acknowledge that books should lead the way. If you are writing books or even scripts of any length, most of your answers to your most difficult problems have been worked out by other authors. While you might find good prose in magazines and newspapers (along with a lot of appalling uses of words), books are the only place you'll find big answers. Like what?
  • How to maintain reader interest over hundreds of pages. 
  • How to create a satisfying character arc. 
  • How to interweave plots and subplots. 
  • How to eke out loads of information in powerful and engaging ways.
Novels provide models on how to immerse readers for hours and hours. They create characters whose heads you can get into and whose lives become part of your own. They create worlds like Middle Earth and revive societies like Tudor England that encourage people to enter and reenter.

You might be wondering what the differences between works of fiction (most of what I've covered so far) and absorbing films, like the Star Wars series, and television shows, like Breaking Bad. Films and television, especially for those who delve into the scripts on which they are based, have a lot to offer the writer. Storytelling and characterization both come alive in these media. However, viewers are different from readers, and the experiences and lessons of film and television are usually incomplete and obscured because so much of the final work of art depends upon others (actors, directors, designers, composers, sound engineers, cinematographers, etc.).

So, have near the top of your To Be Read pile novels. Make them an important part of your diet. Personally, I always have at least one novel in progress. And I tend to alternate between classic works (usually from the 19th century) and contemporary works. I make a point of throwing in wildcard novels from time to time so I see what's happening in other genres.

Poetry has made its way back into my life. Primarily, I listen to readings. I have the great pleasure of hearing a number of poets read their work at Bread Loaf last summer, but YouTube and The Sonnet Project provide excellent sources for a regular (and painless) infusion. You might set yourself a target of, say, listening to one of Shakespeare's sonnets each day at lunch time. (When I actually put a book of poetry into my hands, I read it the first time to myself, and then make sure I read it out loud.)

Nonfiction reading is standard for research, but I'm a big believer in having much of it be driven by curiosity. Scientific ideas, including social sciences, can give you more to say when you're writing. Histories — especially when you read contrasting views about the same incidents or historical periods — provide perspectives on how the world ask, the role of chance, and the consequences of bad decisions.

The best biographies revealed how people work and can extend your view of how extreme their choices can be. They provide some of the best ways to understand gut level how complex humans are.

I could go on for a long time, but let me close by endorsing writing books. I've already mentioned Stephen King's On Writing. Robert McKee's Story should be on your shelf. Jack Bickham provided some of the best help on nuts and bolts. And I like almost any writing book that focuses on interviews with working writers. The current favorite of mine is The TV Showrunner's Roadmap.

That's it. I'd love to hear what you feel belongs on a serious writers to be read pile. Ultimately, what reread shapes us. As humans as well as writers. So keep reading a priority and never stop challenging yourself with typical works.

No comments:

Post a Comment