Monday, September 28, 2009

Reading vs. Writing

There was a heated discussion going on last week at Nathan Bransford's blog about whether or not authors need to be well-read in order to be good writers. Click here for the discussion.

The first answer, of course, is "Duh!  Of course you have to read to be a writer."  But that wasn't the question.  The question is "Do you have to be well-read."  Which then begs for a definition of "well-read," which seems to vary according to individual perspectives from "lots of classics" to "lots of currently popular books" to "lots of books in the genre in which I write."

There are very good points on either side of the discussion.  For example, one person pointed out that if you absolutely must read a lot of books before you can write a good one, what about those who wrote some of the first books (like Chaucer), or the first books in any genre?  (Obviously, we're talking about fiction here.)

And then there is the issue of "staying current."  You don't want to write what everyone else is writing, so the argument goes, so you must read every new book that comes out (or at least every one in your genre) and monitor current trends.  For me, this is like saying you have to keep track of all the waves on the ocean. Even if there is a trend that you want to take advantage of, or avoid, chances are that by the time you write a whole book, revise it, find an agent, sell it, rewrite it for the publisher, and go through all that printing, marketing and distribution time, the trend will be over.  Not to mention the huge drain on one's time, creativity, and enthusiasm.

My comment on the topic was a bit more practical, betraying my insecurity with writing in general:

"At the risk of getting jumped on, I'm going to admit that I don't read much any more, although I was a voracious reader in my younger years.

The reason is two-fold, and related to my attempt to actually write a book of my own.

1. If I am reading, I find that the part of my mind that resides in my novel leaves to go live in the other book until I'm done with it. I literally can't write until I finish whatever I'm reading.

2. Reading other books, particularly in my genre, tends to be very depressing. Like Guy Piano on Sesame Street, I then look at my own work and cry 'No, no, no! It's horrible! I'll never be able to finish. Never!'"

I will amend this to say that of course reading widely helps one learn how to tell a story, and use punctuation and grammar, and all that fine stuff.  But in my opinion, at the end of the day all that really matters is that you have written the story that you had to tell, to the best of your ability.  What happens to it after that, is up to Fate.


bunnygirl said...

I have to be very careful what I read while I've got a novel in progress. Anything too similar to what's in my head will distract me from my own work.

Typically, I only read fiction if I'm between novels. I read non-fiction the rest of the time.

Bane of Anubis said...

I'm one in the camp that think reading is a tad overrated -- important, but once you've got the fundamentals down, I think there's more criticality in practicing writing.

That being said, I generally don't have a problem reading anymore while I write. I'm fairly confident in my voice/style, and usually what I read or listen to on tape doesn't affect me (or if it does, it's usually conscientious cherrypicking).

Laura Martone said...

I agree with Bane. I love to read, so I try to do so whenever I can. I try to read a wide range of genres, too - classics plus modern horror, literary fiction, mystery, and fantasy (can't stand romance, I'm afraid). Reading doesn't affect my novel-writing abilities, but it does cut into my time, which I have a limited amount of. And, frankly, I've read enough at this point to understand what makes for a good story.

Now, it's going to take practice to WRITE a good story - but that's, well, another story. Being "well-read" (or I should say, "widely" read) is important, but it would be impossible to read EVERYTHING, and I agree with you, Christine - if you read current novels to note current trends, you'll be forever chasing your tail. Trends change too fast, and the publishing process moves too slow for that kind of education to be effective... in the long run.

So, I second your opinion that "at the end of the day all that really matters is that you have written the story that you had to tell, to the best of your ability." I just don't believe in Fate. Of course, Luck is just as nebulous and hard to attain.