Do You Have This Important Tool In Your Writer's Toolkit?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I'm currently between manuscripts. I finished editing a book in June, turned it in to my publisher, and now am busily researching my next book.

The research stage is always a bit of a break for me. I don't have the daily pressure to write a certain number of words. And I don't need the intense focus required during editing. Even though I try to accomplish several hours of research per day, my daily goals are less intense.

During the research lull between books, I usually attempt to make a dent in my to-be-read pile. While I've always considered reading one of life's greatest pleasures, I've also come to realize that as a fiction writer, reading is a necessity in becoming a better writer.

The more a writer reads, the more familiar they become with story-telling. In fact, if you grew up like I did, with a book permanently attached to your hand, then writing fiction is probably somewhat intuitive. You already have a good foundation for what comprises a well-told story, even if you can't quite put those techniques into fiction-writing lingo.

Even so, I recommend that all writers, no matter how much fiction they've read, STILL take the time to familiarize themselves with the craft of writing fiction. Even if we think we know how to write, we'll only give ourselves even more of an advantage by familiarizing ourselves with story structure, plotting techniques, character building, etc. I find that I pick up new tips every time I read a fiction craft book.

In the busyness of life and writing, however, I'm becoming more convinced that writers NEED to make the time to read fiction, particularly within their genre. But I've benefitted in reading way outside my normal comfort zone as well.

Maybe we won't be able to read every day or even every week. Maybe you'll read in spurts like I do. Whatever the case, we can't let guilt inhibit us from pursuing a passion for reading—guilt from the constant pressure to be doing something "useful" when we're not writing, like being on social media building a web presence and marketing our books.

Reading is part of the toolkit in becoming a better writer—particularly when it's coupled with intentional evaluation. 

Nowadays, I have very little choice but to evaluate the books I read. My internal editor never (or at least very rarely) hibernates. So I'm always critiquing the books I read, whether I want to or not. I've been known to take notes and even get out a highlighter and mark up my novels.

When I read something I like, I ask myself these questions:

• What made that particular scene resonate with me?

• Did the plot grip me? And if so, what techniques did the author use to keep my attention?

• Did I like the characters? And if so, what about the characters made me empathize with them?

When I read something that falls flat, I ask myself some of these kinds of questions:

• Why didn't the scene draw me in right away?

• If the plot plods along, why? What's slowing it down?

• If I don't fall in love with the characters, what's keeping me from liking them?

Recently, I was traveling home from a family wedding, and during the long van ride I was reading a book by an author I normally love. But for some reason, her latest book had failed to keep my attention. I started going through the above questions, and I came to the conclusion that the plot was plodding because the story lacked a threat (or antagonist) to the characters. And I hadn't fallen in love with the characters because they were mostly consumed with their own desires.

All that to say, while I was reading, I was "working." I was growing in my writing skill. I was consciously looking at techniques I could use in my stories as well as issues I could avoid.

Not only does reading help us grow in skill, but it also helps us be more market-savvy. My editor said this in a blog post last week: In finding the “original” for your story, your greatest weapon is going to be your reading. You need to know what’s out there, what’s already been done. You need to read fiction.

So writers, next time you feel guilty for reading (or your spouse asks you why you just bought another book!), remember you're working. Because for a writer, reading should always be part of the job.

How much do you read? Do you ever feel guilty for reading, like you should be doing something more productive?

© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!