Stephen King offered this pithy gem of advice in his fabulous book for scribes, “On Writing,” and he considered it crucial enough that he repeated “read a lot and write a lot” throughout the book. As much as I admire Mr. King for “On Writing,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” and the sheer mass of work he produced (I’m not a fan of horror), I have a slight tweak to add.
Read a lot, but read selectively. Write a lot.
The reason why is that I have found that whatever I’m reading affects the way I write. Although it probably affects character and plot development in ways that I’m not aware of, my biggest concern is the effect on the beauty and quality of the writing. In other words, if I’m indulging in a juicy piece of mind candy to escape from reality – and we all do it, chances are it’s not written in the gorgeous style of quality literary fiction. Chances are, the editing may not be that great either. But if the story is engaging, pulls me in, and I’m enjoying the read, I don’t care because I’m getting what I want out of it. However, I’m not thrilled when that less than high quality style of writing is coming from my fingers as I’m typing happily, especially if I’m in the 3rd or 4th rewrite. So it’s probably best to read the most sumptuous, lyrical, poetic prose I can get my hands on, especially while I’m in the later stages of rewriting, editing, and polishing.
I have found that what we read influences not just what we write, but how. This is especially true of the fiction we read while growing up. For instance, before I found my niche where I belonged, I tried my hand at writing a mystery. Why? Because I grew up reading Agatha Christie mysteries. I read all of them by the time I finished my teens. Between the pages of those deceptively simple tomes was a brilliant brainteaser of a Whodunit. Nobody did the Whodunit better than Agatha Christie. Nobody even came close. And the reason why is because it’s f***ing difficult. It wasn’t long before I found out that I sucked at writing mysteries in general, and the Whodonit in particular.
Yet there was no way I wasn’t influenced by Agatha Christie’s work. I read too much of her when I was young for any other outcome. How? What gift did I receive from the pages of those mystery novels I couldn’t write? Strict and obsessive attention to detail. From what I read, Agatha Christie didn’t neglect a single detail in her books, that’s why when the reader and the innocent characters in her stories finally got to Whodunit, every detail offered up was presented, including the details that she sneaked in. Not a single detail was wasted, whether it was to throw us off the path, or stacked to build a case for the murderer who had actually done it.
As a reader, I notice the abandonment of details - usually in subplot storylines that don’t conclude or even in the main story itself – and every time, I’m irritated with the sloppy, lazy writing and editing. I’m especially annoyed because those works actually got published. As a writer, I do my best to avoid that. Hopefully, I succeed in the goal of getting all stories and details to round out to a satisfying ending.
So those influences come out in sneaky and surprising ways.
Read a lot and write a lot. But be selective in your reading choices.