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.)
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.
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.