Read More Fiction (A New Year’s Resolution for Writers)

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Are we too late for New Year’s resolutions? I hope not, because there’s one I urge every writer to make.

Read more fiction.

It should be easy for us, right? Here, we’re all story lovers. But I mentor a lot of authors and you wouldn’t believe the number who tell me they make a deliberate point of not reading other fiction. I ask their reasons, and the answers have a certain logic:

  • They don’t want to be influenced by other writers or inadvertently copy an idea, character, or plot situation.
  • They need to spend the time writing because they’re struggling to fit enough hours in.

But when I’m critiquing their work, I frequently see problems that could be solved by studying the fiction of others. Here’s the short list of the usual suspects:

Boring Exposition. All stories need a lot of set-up, especially at the beginning. Too much and the reader wonders if you’ll ever get cracking with the action. Too little and the characters’ actions can look random and unbelievable. You’ve got a gigantic iceberg of background information and you have to figure out how much of it to show. The easiest way to learn this is to notice how it is done in other books. (For more tips on how to craft a powerful set-up, check out Becca’s recent post on the topic.)

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Courtesy: Pixabay

Failing to Give Readers What They Want. This comes down to questions of genre. Now I know a lot of us kick against the idea of categories. After all, we’re creatives. We don’t tick boxes; we invent the boxes. But all books have certain types of readers whose tastes fall into broad categories. I see a lot of writers who struggle to develop their plot events. Rather than just stab in the dark, it really helps to know the kind of thing your reader might be expecting. It might be a hint of mystery, the suggestion of a ghost, a focus on interiority, an emphasis on relationships, a sense of political pressures, a social issue, etc. Or they might want a bomb blast by page five. If we know what our readers enjoyed in other books, we can use our ideas to please them. And we’ll also spot what other ingredients we need to add.

Dialogue Issues. Many writers find this tricky. They either include no dialogue at all and write the entire book in their general narrative voice, or they switch gears completely and write dialogue scenes that are a list of who said what, with the narration disappearing altogether as though we have switched from a novel to a radio play. Or they might write scenes with too many characters. Movies can easily handle dialogue scenes with a lot of people, but in prose it’s hard to marshall them all in the reader’s mind. Of course, there are many novels that do all these things deliberately and successfully, but the writers are fully aware of the effects they are creating. My number one tip for authors struggling to make dialogue expressive and interesting is to read novels and notice how the dialogue is woven into the prose, how the speech and the description work together, how nuance and subtext are created.

Writing that Falls Flat. We want to know how to write so the reader is swept away. Prose in fiction is not just a set of explanations (John did this, then this, then this). Prose is the very texture of the experience. Your word choice creates the mood. Your sentence structure can quicken the reader’s pulse, or lull. Prose is music, lighting, aroma. It’s even something less definable that goes straight to our wiring. Look at this description by Graham Greene of the sound of a person being shot:

a thud like a gloved hand striking a door.

Not all fiction has to aspire to poetry, of course. But many writers are unaware of how much richness they could add if they used their prose sensitively. The best way to learn this is by reading.

We get writing lessons from everywhere!

Nowadays we have a lot of narrative media and we absorb lessons from them all, without even intending to. TV, films, music videos and adverts all use the power of story and are great for teaching us certain basics. From all these we can learn the essentials of structure: beginning, middle and end, how to use twists. They teach us how to create characters that will grab the reader’s attention and a piece of their heart. But some of the story essentials, such as dialogue, don’t translate to prose at all. And prose has certain unique qualities we can only learn from reading.

So this year, when you’re figuring out how to enhance your writing craft, make a little time to read fiction. Read books you like – and also books outside your comfort zone. Figure out what bores you, excites you, or sets your teeth on edge. You’ll learn just as much as you will from craft books. Give yourself a bit of pleasure – and improve your writing at the same time.

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Roz published nearly a dozen novels and achieved sales of more than 4 million copies – and nobody saw her name because she was a ghostwriter. A writing coach, editor, and mentor for more than 20 years with award-winning authors among her clients, she has a book series for writers, Nail Your Novel, a blog, and teaches creative writing masterclasses for The Guardian newspaper in London. Find out more about Roz here and catch up with her on social media.

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17 Responses to Read More Fiction (A New Year’s Resolution for Writers)

  1. Patsy says:

    Of course writers need to read! We can learn so much that way – about the ‘rules’ for our chosen genre, what the readers want and expect, and what does and doesn’t work.

    I’d still read loads though even if it was no help at all, as I love stories.

  2. I’m a total sucker for a uniquely turned phrase. I’ve got a spiral notebook where I keep some of my favorites so I can use them for inspiration when I get stuck trying to express something in just the right way. My favorite books are the ones where I have to toss my notebook aside because I’m taking so many notes I can’t enjoy the story ;).

  3. Joy Pixley says:

    I completely agree about how useful reading others’ fiction is for helping your own writing. Another benefit I find is that it gives me perspective. Every book I read that I think is brilliant still gets negative reviews, and some books that others rave about, I just don’t like. It’s good to be reminded of how much tastes differ when I’m getting those nasty critiques and rejections. Also, even the books that I absolutely love are not perfect on every single page — there’s no such thing, so why hold myself to that standard?

    • Hello Joy! What a good point. Reading can help us regain our sense of perspective about the way books are received. For me, that reminds me that it’s important to be true to what I want to write – the one person who has to be truly satisfied with the book is me!

  4. Natalie Shannon says:

    I am taking a break from writing my novel to read a lot of books. I am writing a vampire novel and I need to know details of how to write vampire fiction. I am reading almost every vampire book series. I read Anne Rice, Stephanie Mayer, Morgan Rice, etc. I try to get ideas and come up with something different that other authors don’t write about. I want to avoid all the cliches and write a vampire novel from a unique angle.

    • Hi Natalie! Good for you! When I start on a book, I make a reading list. It sounds like you’ve set yourself an enormous reading challenge with vampire novels as there are a lot of them. Er, lots to get your teeth into…. good luck!

  5. Mary Kate says:

    I will never, ever understand writers who tell me they don’t read. I read because I love it, but also because I just learn so much from it. And yes, oftentimes an idea from what I’m reading at the time will creep into my WIP, but what’s wrong with that?

    • Hi Mary Kate! I hear you. If I’m idle somewhere and I don’t have anything to read, I look for something. A poster, a bus timetable, anything!
      Seriously, you make a good point here about ideas slipping into our own work. But they usually don’t go in wholesale. They might trigger a character trait or a plot direction, but they’re usually vastly changed. In the same way, pieces of real life – or even items on the news – might make their way into our books. After all, our work is partly made up of our experience. But they’d rarely be recognisable to anyone else.

  6. Great post. I try to never read a book that is too close “plot wise” to something I’m writing at the time, but other than that, full speed ahead. I have also found some nice surprises reading outside my genre as well.

    I definitely do need to make more time for writing though overall, and this was a good reminder. 🙂

    • Thanks for inviting me to be part of your team, Angela!

      I know what you mean about choosing a book carefully in case it influences what you’re working on. I find this works both ways. Sometimes I search on LibraryThing.com to find plotlines that are similar to the ones I’m playing with, and also themes and issues. Of course I then find I’m reading with a very critical eye, thinking ‘I won’t do that’ or ‘hmmm, hadn’t thought of that’. It’s very different from settling down with a book simply for the purpose of enjoying the ride.

  7. Sara L. says:

    Great post, Roz! I agree that we can learn a lot about writing from the books we read. They show us great examples of dialogue, foreshadowing, symbolism, character relationships / interactions, description, overall writing quality… and the list goes on. Of course, we might also find examples in published books where those techniques aren’t done so well or to our liking – but we can learn from those reading experiences as well. I personally love reading and can’t imagine not having books to read (sort of like I can’t imagine not writing and being a writer).

    • Hi Sara! You raise an excellent point – I’ve learned so much from reading books that aren’t quite to my taste. It makes me examine my responses and figure out why something isn’t working for me. Angela talked about reading outside your usual favourite genres too. Perhaps I should have added that to my post – make time to read something that isn’t your usual. Or even something you think is bad!

      • Sara L. says:

        You know what? The benefits of reading outside your genre could be a whole blog post in and of itself. 😉 Food for thought for your next Writing Coach post?

        And on that note: Most of what I read is fantasy (either adult or YA), but I do try to fit in other genres from time to time, like historical fiction, science fiction / dystopian, contemporaries, and mysteries. Each genre gives you a different perspective on the craft of writing and offers techniques or ideas that you can bring into your own work. Plus, it’s a nice change of pace mentally to check out other genres once in a while.

  8. I read to learn how other writers “do it.” And typically note my favorite lines which are often the lyrical/poetical ones. Thanks for affirming what I’m already doing!

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