Fiction Writers, Are You Reading Enough? Just Thought I’d Ask…


…because there was a time in my adult life when I read no fiction at all. I went from avid child-teen reader (some favourites above) to wilful adult non-reader. The reason was not reasoned. As a child I decided I would be a writer ‘when I grew up’, and when I grew up I further decided that reading other people’s works would block the ethereal visitation that, any day soon, would deliver the lightning bolt of writerly inspiration, that in turn would drop into my mind the fully formed novel idea, and thus spur me to sit and write the thing.

It was not a good start – a case of locked-in block before I had written one word.

There was a further obstacle, one I did not even see until I had returned to reading. By then it had also occurred to me to buy a writing magazine, and that was a turning point. Instead of a lightning bolt of inspiration came a thunder blast of reality: I might be a whizz at writing dissertations and museum guide books, but I knew nothing of the mechanics and craft of writing fiction. I was astonished to discover that people had so much to say about it: story arcs, characterisation, foreshadowing, pace, mood and setting etc etc. Good heavens. Who knew!

Of course it might be said that you can become too knowing, that absorbing too much ‘how to’ can lead to self-consciousness and a lack spontaneity or originality.  I think my answer to this is you need to cover the ground, embed what you can through practice, then move on. It is rather like a painter learning how to prepare their canvas and mix their pigments before the real composition can begin. It is also about opening up mental pathways that clear the way for the story-making. This means reading other writers critically, and not simply reading with your discretion turned off. Two and three readings might be needed to see how and why a piece of fiction works. The best writers, after all, aim to be seamless, not to display their working methods.

So for some swift and pleasurable enlightenment on the fiction writing process I can suggest no better start than to visit the children’s section of your book store or library.  Some of the most impressive and imaginative fiction around is for young adults. Works for this age group are tightly written, multi-layered, have memorable characters, affecting themes and energetic plotting that is character-driven. The writing will be economical, but also resonant, and often very deep. The best and most telling words will be chosen. There may also be a repeating motif that is more suggestive of poetry than prose, and which may lift the tone of the book in unexpected and magical ways. There is also the overall impression of the story having been well distilled, and thus being refreshingly free of the kind of self-indulgence found in some adult literature. In other words, every word will count.

My own favourite writers for this age group include Geraldine McCaughrean (The Kite Rider), Sharon Creech (Walk Two Moons), Kate di Camillo (Because of Winn-Dixie), David Almond (Skellig and Kit’s Wilderness ), Philip Pullman ( Dark Materials Trilogy), Frances O’Roark Dowell (Dovey Coe) and Gillian Cross (The Great Elephant Chase). All these stories may be characterized by the fact that they have something worth saying, and that this ‘something’, framed in highly original ways, gives their stories stature and substance as well as making them darn good reads.

And aside from learning fiction’s nuts and bolts, there are other good reasons why writers must keep reading.  It is not so much about borrowing (stealing) ideas, but more about drawing on the creative energy of other works, and using it to fuel your own writing.  And I am not talking about plagiarism, but of tapping into the spirit of someone else’s creation. Reciprocating, if you like. Striking up an engaging conversation.

If you think about it, it is obvious. As children, we learn to speak our native tongue through exchanges with others. We learn not only vocabulary, but also rhythm, inflexion, idiom, innuendo, puns, riddles, jokes, and narrative skills – all the tools we need to communicate effectively.

With writing we thus have a paradox. Writers, as some of the world’s great communicators, generally struggle to wring out their words in isolation. It has to be done that way. There are no answering voices except the writer’s own. But if that is the only voice, how is the writer to learn, grow and and test the boundaries of their art? How will they keep their edge? And yes I do know that many writers, new ones especially, fear losing their own voice if they resort to reading other writers’ fiction.

I would argue that through continuous reading, writers replenish their imagination banks, hone their language skills, explore different modes of expression, learn new things, grow wise, develop insight and understanding, find new ways of telling a story. What they read in the external world, and their reactions to it, will all be stored in the subconscious for further processing and reworking.  And I believe that this is all part of learning how to make oneself heard, of building one’s true and distinctive voice.

Best of all, if  a project has stumbled into a dead end, then visiting another’s writer’s world may provide the very thing  to turn the work around. I personally find that I write best when I am reading a book that carries me away. My most recent writer’s refuelling came courtesy of Malaysian writer, Tan Twan Eng  and The Garden of Evening Mists.  This is an adult book, but I will also return to Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Kite Rider  whenever I need a fix of this writer’s airy prose.

So for those of you writers who have not been reading much lately, time to join the big fiction conversation. Read, read, read. You will be glad you did.


Related: Fun and Games at the Writer’s Block Party

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

35 thoughts on “Fiction Writers, Are You Reading Enough? Just Thought I’d Ask…

  1. Everyone told me the same thing. If you don’t read, you won’t be able to write. Granted, it’s a balance because you can’t spend all your time reading and still get any writing done, but I found when I was heavily into writing a book, that I had to take reading breaks. I was surprised. I thought reading other peoples’ work would get in my way, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. Live and learn, right?

  2. Guess what? I probably don’t write as much as I could because I spend my time guzzling books. Because it’s easier in many ways – and it’s also a bit depressing. I’ll never have the incisiveness and humour of Anne Enright, or the language skills of Anthony Doerr, or the imaginative structuring of Niall Williams. The real truth is laziness I suspect, and lack of mission – and photos are so much easier.

    I loved your piece, its substance and its thoughtfulness. Thank you for many reminders, and especially for your championing of children’s books.

    1. Hello there. Please do not say what you don’t have – the weight of the list is bogging you down. You have your own perspective, and only you can tell your stories, but there has to be some regular practice. Writing memoir is a good start – just a paragraph at a time maybe – create a habit – you can write to a photo. And as you go, you can consider what your mission might be. I feel there is something, you just haven’t figured it out yet. But you might need to give yourself a serious interrogation, and ask yourself out loud too. Try talking to yourself in the 3rd person – preferably when there’s no one else around 😀

      1. Thank you! Definitely self-talk home alone or the thoughts of family will be confirmed! What I need to return to is the discipline of time set aside – a year of just an hour on Sundays produced a lot I’m pleased with.

      2. Yep. Bums on seats, as children’s writer Tony Bradman dictates to shirking writers…Go for it. Build on what you know works, and you’ll be up and away…

    1. That’s a good point, Gilly. I think sticking to what you want to read is definitely the best plan. You might slip in an ‘ought to’ once in a while, just in case it turns out to hit the mark on the likes front, but otherwise, life’s too short to struggle with things that don’t really engage you. I think this is about enlivening one’s spirit rather than giving it a lowering heavy burden to bear.

  3. Since I began writing, I read every single day of my life. I usually have around three or four books on the go; usually humorous, but often a ‘serious’ one and occasionally a classic.
    I love having a kids book at hand as well. Roald Dahl is perfect.
    I learn big words, such a wahoogmanuff 😉 ( thank you Jasper Carrot)
    To read is to write. To not read is to stagnate as a writer.

    Lovely post.

  4. If I read any more, I’d have to hire someone else to do my living for me. 🙂 Maybe it’s not quite that bad, but much closer to that end than reading. Of course, what you’re talking about in your post isn’t as applicable to me as I’m not writing a book. I love children’s books and young adult books, although the latter seem, in the modern era, to have headed heavily towards vampires, hot guys and girls, and other things I won’t comment on. 🙂

    Off to return to my book,


  5. I fully agree with you Tish. I know for sure now the perfect narrative doesn’t drop into my lap any day soon …And reading other’s work improves us in the ways you describe. I’m a batch reader…I read nonstop for a few months, book after book, and then rest a few months…to digest 🙂

    1. I think that sounds a good idea – the batch reading. In a way it’s using reading as part of writing practice – reading with attention. Bumble has a very strong narrative voice, by the way 🙂

  6. Good insightful post Tish. I am afraid I spend five minutes with my Kindle before dropping off to sleep at night. I enjoyed the Miniaturist by Jessie Burton and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Quirky. But when it comes to writing my blog, I just try to tell a story. I don’t have the time or the energy to polish the prose much.

    1. No indeed, Ian. After reading about your working day in the clinic in Swaziland, I’m amazed you have the energy for much else. It is so good though that you are documenting your time there, and keeping us entertained and informed too.

  7. Another superb post, and yes so many of the points do apply to painting. One way I move through blocks is to go to exhibitions – to soak in the thoughts, ideas and concepts of other creatives.

    As difficult as the visual artist’s life can be in terms of making a living and receiving recognition, etc, I have always felt that the writer’s lot is even more challenging. Whereas the painter’s work can be viewed with a sense of immediacy… must take the time to read a book and digest the words.

    I also love children’s fiction….for all the reasons that you describe.

    Have a lovely weekend….will re blog. Janet.

    1. Thank you, lovely Janet. I like your point about the more immediate accessibility of art. And also that you commune with other art works to get over a block. It’s a bit like striking matches – we need our receptors challenged and tuned in.

  8. Inspired and inspiring post, Tish. I had to set down a book I’ve been reading for 2 months now to augment it with something fresh. A friend mailed me a copy of Raymond Carver’s poetry, published posthumously by his once-wife and editor, and that’s injected some new fuel into my tank. Couldn’t agree with you more here, and I relate to having committed some fool-hardy non-reading acts myself as a writer. So it goes.

  9. You manage to write about writing (or reading) without being boring, Tish, and that’s an art in itself. I love sharing and benefiting from your experience. I’m a proper crosspatch without a book but I don’t read as much as I once did. A certain blogging habit gets in the way 🙂

    1. Oh I know about that – the blogging habit hijacking the reading and writing time. Thank you for your kind words, Jo. Glad to be of assistance on the writing front.

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