As a writer of books for children, the most difficult thing for me to admit is that I wasn’t a big reader when I was a child (which is very a-typical for kidlit authors). I read and loved a lot of picture books during my elementary school years, and then some Amelia Bedelia early readers, but I can literally name—on just two hands—the novels I remember finishing before I graduated from high school. They were pretty much all by Judy Blume and Roald Dahl.
I look back now and can’t figure out exactly why I wasn’t a big reader—my parents both read incessantly and took me to the library all the time—but I have a clue. Truth be known, reading was difficult for me. More often than not, I felt frustrated because I would read five or ten pages and then realize I had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t remember which character was which or how they knew one another. I didn’t feel attached to the story at all. As it turns out, I had a learning disability that I didn’t know about until I was in college. But I won’t put a label on it now because this isn’t the point of my post.
The point of my post is to say this: My writing ability has taken a very long time to develop because I wasn’t a big reader until I was in my twenties. And now I’ve been playing catch up for the next twenty years.
I started with non-fiction (typical for a college student), moved on to the adult market, then finally—for the first time in my life—truly discovered the magic of middle grade and young adult novels. And that’s when I fell in love with reading. It became an addiction.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King says, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
I wholeheartedly agree. Reading is, by far, the best thing a writer can do to sharpen his or her storytelling skills. Yes, you also need to write and write and write, for development, but very little improvement will take place if a writer isn’t learning from others through a process similar to osmosis. Exposure to excellent storytelling, and lots of it, can’t help but rub off.
As a reader, the more books you read, the pickier you become about loving a book verses just liking it. Or even finishing it. Right?
The same thing has happened to me as a writer. The more I read, the easier it becomes to pick out what makes a plot work and what hurts it. The characters in a great novel become my friends, and just like it’s simple for me to tell someone what I like about my real-life BFFs, I can more skillfully tell my readers what makes a person attractive or repulsive (at least to me). And I can also better understand, by reading excellent books, what my own weaknesses are as a writer. I struggle with the details of setting—how to make it feel natural without overdoing it—and transitions. (Why is it so darn difficult to move a character from one room or thought to another?!)
But when I see the masters at work, I learn. And I absorb.
And this is another critical element: A writer needs to know and understand the genre and market they’re writing for. If you’ve been involved with critique groups and read enough pages from beginning writers (and believe me, I was one of them, so I’m not knocking anyone), it’s likely that you’ve heard sample pages that don’t fit the parameters of the author’s intended market. Perhaps it’s a picture book with 3000 words. Or the story is about seniors in high school, who should be thinking about college applications and their unattainable crush, but is instead filled with pranks on teachers and middle grade gross-out humor.
Knowing what works in each market, and what doesn’t, is obviously paramount to your success. And you’ll only know this if you’re intimately familiar with your chosen genre.
And then there is pacing. This is another thing I struggle with. I think of a cool scene that I’m dying to get to, or that awesome moment when my two main characters finally get things right, and I want to make it happen that very moment. I want the plot to move over so my characters can make out express everything they’ve been holding back. But the best pacing uses restraint for a slow burn; it builds up for a worth-while reveal. It makes a reader work for the rewards. And it also knows when to push all the details about the carpet and drapery out of the way and get on with the story.
I love that about reading, because good pacing is something that can only be understood through experiencing it. It can’t really be taught, and it’s certainly difficult to master.
Another benefit of continuous reading is recognizing clichés or overdone plots. While it’s true that there are “no new ideas, only new voices” editors likely won’t even read your first page these days—no matter how stellar your writing is—if your pitch tells them that the new girl in school is unavoidably attracted to a mysterious boy who is actually—gasp!—a vampire/werewolf/dark angel. While this pitch in various forms sold book after book about seven years ago, writers who keep up with the ever-changing trends will likely know better than to spend their time on a similar plot (but check back in another seven years).
And the #1 reason to read: isn’t reading THE BEST THING EVER, anyway?
I’m still not a fast reader, and my struggles with attention haven’t entirely faded, but once I get hooked on a good book, I’m gone. I’m in heaven. And I want nothing more than to help my own readers experience this same emotion.
So tell me, what has reading done for your own writing? Has it helped you avoid overdone plots or character types? Honed your skills? Does good writing put you in the mood to work? It surely does that for me!
Amy Finnegan writes Young Adult novels and is a host at BookshopTalk.com. Her debut novel, NOT IN THE SCRIPT, will be published by Bloomsbury, Fall 2014. You can follow Amy on Twitter @ajfinnegan, and Facebook (Amy Finnegan, Author). She is represented by Erin Murphy.