At right, are the books I bought at the Festival of Faith and Writing last week. I could have bought a great number more – including A Beautiful Disaster by Marlena Graves and Slavery in the Land of the Free by PeggySue Wells – but I had to stop somewhere . . . and also be sure I could afford the gas for the trip home.
But books are no luxury purchases for me. No, books are – in every real way – life-savers in my existence. When I was a child, The Chronicles of Narnia helped me remember that magic is real when most everything else in my life was telling me it was a lie. After my dreams of moving to New York and doing church planting collapsed with me in a nervous breakdown, The Cloister Walk reminded me that I could live big in small ways. When my husband left, I hunkered down with cozy mystery after cozy mystery, allowing Ellis Peters and Peter Tremaine to comfort me in tidy, rich stories.
Then, as a writer, I have been filled up again and again by the words of other writers. In fact, it is the work of others writers that has, more than any other earthly thing, kept me going at this word-drawn life. When I feel like giving up – which is not an unfrequent state of mind for me – I am heartened enough for a few more steps by the work of people like Ed Cyzewski, Shonda Rimes, and Nnedi Okorafor.
But reading does more for me than just keep me alive – you’d think that would be enough for books to do, right? Reading also influences my writing by making it richer, stronger, powerful than it would have been if I didn’t read. Books teach me how to begin with energy, not the simple clearing of my mental throat. They teach me how to write chapter conclusions that leave the reader breathless or sunken deep into truth. They show me how pacing works, how I can keep a reader connected and moving without resorting to gimmicks or tricks. Books, in short, teach me how to write.
So when I hear about writers who don’t read – “I don’t have time to read.” “My attention span doesn’t let me focus.” – I cringe. Really cringe, like shoulders up to my ears and a grimace on my face. I’ve read the work of writers who don’t read, and it’s usually a little paltry, skimpy, too skeletal, like it hasn’t been fed enough. When I read those books, I want to hand the author a stack from my shelves and say, “Have you read how Elizabeth Peters uses Egyptology to set a mystery? Or what about Octavia Butler’s use of time travel as a device? Or have you seen how Edward Ball weaves together memoir and primary source documents?” I want to urge people to settle into the words that have gone before them before they try to put even one more word on the page.
Here are five ways I think writers can read more with the intention of improving their own work:
- Study how writers we admire begin and end paragraphs, chapters, and entire books. Look at whether they choose action or reflection, if they begin or end with dialogue or description, if they come in before or after the action begins or in the middle of it.
- Study point of view. Did the author choose to write in first-person and draw us very close as readers, or did she choose third-person, where we stand back a little from what’s happening?
- Study the balance of description. Look at where characters are described in a great deal of detail or when they are just lightly sketched. Ponder a writer’s choices about how much he describes a landscape or time period.
- Study dialogue, both internal and external. What do the characters say to themselves or think? How does the writer reveal the interior? What do the characters say to each other? What is the balance of dialogue to description?
- Study sentences. How long are they? How simple? How convoluted? Does their length or complexity differ based on the scene in which they appear?
These are just a few ways we can begin to study the works we read. If we let ourselves slip into the worlds other writers create and spend just a few minutes gazing up at the fabric that the writer has woven to make this world, our own work will be richer, even as our souls are filled up.
What books have taught you something about the craft of writing?
Yesterday, I had the wonderful honor of being a guest on the What Should I Read Next? podcast with Anne Bogel. We talked about books I love and one I hate – English majors, don’t loath me, okay? – and Anne recommended three books that I can’t wait to read. You’ll want to check it out, I think, and then subscribe to get all of the episodes each week.