Inspired by the Guardian article, in which they asked several authors to share their Top Tips for writing, I have extracted my favourites (there were lots to choose from. Lots). Contributors to the Top Tips article include Hilary Mantel, Annie Prolux, PD James, Sarah Waters, and Michael Morpurgo. Many of their tips focussed on similar themes, themes that I know will be particularly helpful to me, and hopefully they will be to you too. In this blog I will be focussing on them one by one. To see a list of all the themes, please visit my original post. Today’s theme is Reading. The key tips from the authors can be seen in the images.
It’s always seemed obvious to me that if you want to be a writer (of fiction) you must also be a reader. It also seems obvious that the word “must” can easily be replaced with “will.” When I try and imagine someone who wants to be a writer who doesn’t also want to be a reader I get very confused. Surely such a person wouldn’t exist? For me, it comes down to what it actually is that makes me want to write stories – I use my imagination, taking an interest in places and people and developing situations. I invent new places and imagine what it would be like to be transported there. Some of this inspiration comes from every day life, but the desire to write any of it down into a coherent and extended narrative comes from reading.
I write things that people will take as much pleasure reading as I have with my favourite books. I write what I like to read, and I wouldn’t really feel drawn to write something in a genre I’m not particularly interested in. If I didn’t read; if I didn’t particularly like to read or it just didn’t interest me; I’m not sure where my motivation to write would come from. Books need readers, otherwise why bother creating them? So to me, the two must go hand in hand, because one cannot exist without the other. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the opposite is also true – that if you are a reader, you must also have at least a tiny inkling of a desire to be a writer, even if it is never acted upon. Readers love stories, and certainly for me at least, there was always a littler wondering at the back of my mind of what it would be like to tell my own.
Aside from motivation, the other aspect of these author top tips is the fact that reading books can improve your own writing. Reading widely can help you to know which kinds of books you like; what genres, what style of storytelling, and from that, you can develop your own style. Sarah Waters points out the difficulties in actually recognising good writing. A reader might know that they enjoy or appreciate a certain style of writing, but might not necessarily know how the author achieved it. Reading analytically and figuring out how certain plot devices are used will undoubtedly inform your own work. But the secret to a good book, of course, is that the reader doesn’t know that particular devices are being used. A reader should just be swept along with the story, and the characters should seem real, not forced. So it can be hard, if you’re really enjoying a good book, to take a step back and work out why exactly it flows as well as it does. A writer doesn’t want to run the risk of simply copying someone else’s work – they need to understand a format and make it their own.
While reading can show you what works, it can also show you what doesn’t work. Recognising bad writing is probably easier than understanding why something is good, but examples of bad writing, poor characterisation, clunky descriptions and disappointing plot twists can be just as useful to a writer as the good examples. You don’t want to make the same mistakes. A reader who is also a writer must learn to recognise the good from the bad, and to read without discrimination, as PD James says. Bad writing is contagious. For every book I read that makes me think “I wish I had written that,” there is another that makes me cry “How did that ever get published?” And I make a point of making my own work, as imperfect as it is sometimes, not to be so terrible. But it is only by reading widely that you can better understand how to recognise bad writing – I don’t pretend to be an expert on that, but if anything will help me to improve, its reading.
In essence, a lot of this is about inspiration – finding things that you enjoy or admire or that motivate you to write. The Top Tips I will discuss in my next post, Keeping a Record, further explore the theme of inspiration and ideas.