We must read fiction to write fiction

We must read fiction to write fiction

Reading exposes us to writing conventions, and what works

That being a fiction reader is essential to being a fiction writer is a conventional wisdom in the writing realm. Stephen King is blunt about it: “It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little—or not at all in some cases—should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written.” This idea always left me nodding along, but even as a professional non-fiction writer, I wouldn’t have quite been able to say why until I had spent years toiling specifically over the fictional written word.

Fiction writing is its own special world, and it is a vastly different challenge to create and contrive every moment of a story from the intangible breath of an idea brushing across our consciousness, than it is to do a good job explaining or recounting something concrete that really happens. Having a professional writing background does help in some areas: experience with research, having honed technical skills—and having developed an ability to discern what matters enough to include and what to leave out, which is a big amateur challenge.

It does not provide the advantages of being a fiction reader, though, which allow us to learn some things by exposure and internalization, such as pacing and basic writing conventions. Until you begin composing fiction, you don’t realize how many dozens of constant choices are being made as you write, about what to say and not to say; about how to say the things you have decided are worth mentioning; and how to do all of it in a way that meets reader expectations. You have to know that as readers, we do not want or need to hear about how your character got up from her chair, hunted for her purse, got a drink, went to the bathroom, fed the dog, locked the door and got in the car once she decided to go to the café—that you do not need to get us from place to place, but rather to make a scene break. Not by just breaking off, though, you must wrap it up succinctly, yet in a way that transitions….And so on.

That’s why a renowned writer famously retorted, to a suggestion that brain surgeons can retire and write fiction, that he could just as easily retire from writing and do brain surgery. (Speaking of research, I can’t find that quote! If anyone has it, please and thank you for sharing in the comments : – )

Now you may wonder, is it possible that there is someone on earth, an occasional fiction writing protégé, a Mozart of writing, who without training or study sits down and poetically pens great American novels? I’d like to think so, but I have yet to come across a writer who says it actually works like that for them. Instead, they all say variations on writing being ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration, or that success comes from treating it like a job, by sitting down every day for years and writing.

By reading, we also learn what readers like, at least to the degree of our own experience. Click To Tweet The novel I am currently working on brings together former lovers, and as I debated how to have that scene unfold, I remembered the excitement I felt as a reader of a different book in which such an encounter also happens. In fact, knowing that was the set up, from the blurb, may be why I bought the book. I wondered, what would that be like, to encounter a lover from the past, years later? I remember the anticipation I had as the protagonist was preparing to go to an event where she knew she would see him, and how her reflection on their past together, while packing up for the trip, served as the exposition at the same time as it built suspense.

And none of that was conscious to me at the time. There does come a point when we “read as a writer,” which was another axiom that resonated with me but did not settle in as a companion until I had been writing fiction for a while. Reading as a writer can be a drawback, in that we are more likely to be taken out of the dream as we spot holes in a story, or the repeated use of a certain device. At the same time, as I read now, I bring a greater respect for all writing efforts. As Red Smith famously said, we open a vein to write, and amateur writing can be as bloody a process, or worse, as more expert work is.

I am grateful that I now read as a writer, because it has set the stage for some of the most heartfelt experiences I’ve ever had. It enables me to swoon all the more over a beautifully written, pithy observation about life, now that I know what went into creating it—years of living in awareness, a penchant for reflection, and hard work at the craft of writing.

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