ABC’s of Fiction Writing: R is for Reading

Posted by on Mar 19, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Photo on 12-17-13 at 8.20 PM #2I almost felt silly writing about reading, because, duh, right?  But it’s important enough to write about over and over and over again.  Even though I don’t think craft books are required reading, I also don’t think it’s ever a bad idea to pick one up.  My personal favorites (On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman, if you were wondering) tend to emphasize the importance of reading. We all know that you need to read to write.  Reading everything you can get your hands on is fundamental to developing a personal style as well as ability.  The only thing more important is sitting down and doing the dang thing.

I’ve seen a lot of people shy away from reading too much while working on a particular piece because they don’t want even a trace of anyone else in their work.  The author is afraid readers will accuse them of imitation.  Whether it’s outright copying or only an inspiration this is something writers are terrified of.  But imitation is the key to developing your own style.  We don’t live in a vacuum and everything’s been done before, so stand out by taking what you love from the pros.  In the last couple of years I’ve fallen into a pit of only reading spooky, strange, and weird.  Shirley Jackson, Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi.  And now everything I write is spooky, strange, and weird.  And, honestly, out of risk of sounding super corny, I’ve never felt more at home.  I didn’t realize this is the writing I should be doing until I started reading these books.  Even though I’m not directly imitating these authors, I’m sure anyone who’s reading any of my newer work could tell who I’ve been reading.  There’s no greater compliment in my mind.  Just imagine someone calling you “Your-Favorite-Author-esque.”  Delightful.

The other part of this is just pure absorption.  You can pick up technique and good habits just by seeing them in someone else’s writing.  It’s rarely conscious, but suddenly one day you aren’t overusing adverbs anymore, or you’ve started writing vivid sense descriptions.  Plus, you get to read all you want and claim it’s work.  I actually only read Ex Libris a couple of weeks ago under the guise of research for this very essay.

The flip side to all this reading is you find out what you absolutely do not want to ever see in your own words.  I’m not saying go out of your way to read books you hate, but sometimes you don’t have a choice in the matter anyway, so why not make it a learning experience?  The Scarlet Letter, and Nathaniel Hawthorne in general, is my learning experience.  I had to read that book at least three times between high school and college, and by the last time I was just straight up writing essays about how much I hated it.  (Just know this, if I ever write an allegory it’s a cry for help and/or I’m being held against my will.)  But, at least I learned I hate overt symbolism, and I would not have fared well as a writer or reader in the nineteenth century.

Just read, okay?  I know I don’t need to tell you that because you’re reading an essay about reading, but I’m going to ask it of you anyway.  Maybe this is cheating because I consider myself a reader long before I consider myself a writer and I just need an excuse, but a writer who doesn’t read is like a chef who doesn’t eat, a musician who doesn’t listen to music.  Be brave enough to imitate your favorites.  Don’t get discouraged when you hate something, especially if you think you’re “supposed to” like it.  That’s another essay, but just know that idea is probably the number one source of B.S.  If you read as much as possible and put in the work, you’ll be amazed by what you can create.


Emily Densten is a graduate of Rowan University with a BA in Writing Arts with a Creative Writing concentration and an English minor. She has been previously published in Spry, as well as Nib Magazine, and Here Comes Everyone. She has worked as a General Reader and is currently working as an Editorial Reader for Spry. She blogs here about trying to act like an adult and her gradual inability to watch a movie without crying.

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