07 December 2009

Writerly Advice #4: Be A Reader

In my previous 'Writerly Advice' posts I've mostly concentrated on advice that is often handed out without thought, and needs debunking. Today, by contrast, I'm going to focus on the positives: advice that is useful, positive, and warranted. Which is:

If you want to be a writer, you'd better be a reader.

Or any variation with similar intent.

I hope that most of you will find this piece of advice pretty self explanatory; in any business, to succeed, you have to know the business, and for a writer that means not only knowing how to market your book and find and agent and so on and so forth, it means knowing how to write, and knowing what's been written. We read to learn as well as to enjoy, to absorb the rhythm of Story.

Lots of people read; we'd hope so, or all us writers would be out of a job. But, to borrow a phrase from Holly Lisle, as writers, we read the opposite way around to most people.

Most people read fiction for fun, and if they want to learn something, they turn to non-fiction. As writers, we can, of course, read like 'normal' people; you'd hope we could find fiction fun, otherwise why the heck are we writing? And of course we learn things from non-fiction, too.

But here's the thing: we also read backwards. We read fiction with our writer brains engaged, observing the methods of the author. We examine the way the plot hangs together, the way the characters are developed, the particular phrases and rhythms that are employed, and how they're employed, and what effect that has on us. Maybe we don't do this all the time, but I have noticed one thing - writers are often a lot more specific about why they don't like a book than non-writers :D Whether you admit it or not, you're paying attention to this stuff when you read fiction.

In contrast, many writers read non-fiction for 'fun'. Sure, some of the stuff we read is pretty dry and can hardly be classed as exciting or thrilling stuff, but ultimately the reason why we read so much of it is to fill up our ideas tanks, to spark off things in our brains that will thrill us, to find those serendipitous phrases and ideas that connect with something in a current or future work and create flares of excitement and joy.

If you don't read non-fiction, and you plan to be serious about this whole writing thing, you need to ask yourself why not. Non-fiction is an insanely broad category, and if your protest is that you 'don't like' non-fiction, then I thumb my nose at you. All you mean is that you haven't read widely enough to find out what you're interested in. And if you're not reading non-fiction, where is the depth in your writing coming from? Where are your ideas coming from? Sure, from life, and also from the fiction you read - but why not add non-fic to the mix as well? Those of us that write spec fic particularly can find non-fiction to be a veritable mine-field of ideas and inspiration for world building, plot twists, concepts, characters...

My fav non-fic books are the DK series that include Earth, Ocean, Human and Animal (the four I have). The full-colour, glossy illustrations are the epitome of shiny :D I also love books on animal psychology, on human relationships (so useful for figuring out what makes characters really tick, and also aiding in writing realistic characters of the opposite genre), and on anything to do with food :D

So tell me: Do you read non-fic? How often? Do you find it a source of inspiration or do you just find it dull? Do you have favourite topics? Tell me, tell me! :D

7 comments:

Kristi Faith said...

I haven't read non fiction in ages. I have had a renewed interest in history all of a sudden, so if I were to go and get a non fic, I'm sure it would have to do with that. I think the last non fic book I read was by Patricia Cornwell, she wrote a forensic study of Jack the Ripper

Rie said...

The non-fic I read is usually for class. I find inspiration in daily weird things, at least for YA. I read non-fic online, but to go out and buy a book that's job is to inform not entertain seems foreign to me.

Yunaleska said...

I read non-fic usually when I need to do some research. I love the DK range and would like to collect them :) Last non-fic I read was on Gems and Minerals.

I totally agree with you on reading. Read like there's no tomorrow. Ever since I started my review blog, my reading speed has increased and I simply devour books. It gets dangerous when I'm let loose in a bookshop. When reading a fiction book, I do read partly for fun, but I half-consciously ask myself why I like certain characters, why I don't, whether plot lines add up, what parts would have me set the book down, how tension is built, how the characters are create and how real they appear. It has unquestionably aided my writing.

So go read!

Natalie said...

I don't read very much non-fiction, but I love a great memoir or biography every now and then. I think one of the hardest parts about writing novels is that it's hard to turn off the writer brain and just enjoy the story sometimes. I love it when a book captures my attention so well that the writer brain switches off and just lets me enjoy the ride.

Inkblot said...

Kristi - yeah, I go through stages too. For ages I didn't want to touch non-fic in my spare time because I had to read so much for uni. The Patricia Cornwell one sounds interesting, though! :)

Rie - I'm hearing you on the reading-for-class thing o.0 But I'm a sucker for /any/ book that looks even /remotely/ interesting, so you know O:) Have you SEEN my TBR pile? :D

Yuna - I am SO dangerous in a bookshop o.0 I recently rediscovered Amazon's WishList function, and boy, is THAT dangerous!! Now that I'm reading a lot more, I'm reading a lot faster, too, which is wonderful :)

Natalie - I love books like that too, even if it's only, say, for /most/ of the book. Some books I just literally /cannot/ read any more, because my writer brain just won't. shut. up. :D

Krispy said...

I don't read much Non-fic nowadays, but I did back in the day. For most of my early elementary school years, most of my leisure-reading books were non-fiction. I liked animal books a lot, and I basically only read fiction for school. Weird, huh?

When I read Non-fic for fun now, it's usually humorous essay-type books like David Sedaris. He's hilarious. I also like Sarah Vowell; she's nerdy/smart-funny and way into US History, which I also love. History books can be fun too.

I do rather enjoy TV docs though, like the nature docs Discovery Channel used to do more of (like Blue Planet, Planet Earth, etc.). Also, History Channel, Animal Planet? Yeah, love it.

Inkblot said...

Krisps - I love docos too! :) Esp science/nature ones :o)

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