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

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…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