Friday, November 18, 2011

NaNoWriMo #19: Improving Your Writing Through Reading

Today’s writing tip is: read. To be a better writer, you have to read, and read with a purpose. (Okay, Alex Berenson raised this point a few days ago, but I’m going to expound on it today.)

You learn to write better by reading good writing. You can take courses, listen to writers speak, read how-to books, but in the end, in order to become fluent in storytelling, you must read.

I was at a talk given by Rebecca York last night (more on that in the coming days) and she summed it up best: to become a better writer, you need to figure out what you’re good at, and what you’re not so good at. Then, find the writers who are good at the things you’re not good at, and read them.

If you’ve been meeting your NaNoWriMo quota, by now you probably have a good idea of which elements are your weakest. Do you have a problem with dialogue? Read someone renown for her dialogue, like Elmore Leonard. Do you plots tend to be anemic? The answer here will depend on your genre, but if you’re looking for a place to start, try reading award-winners (the winner of the Edgar for best novel, for instance, or a book that made “best mysteries of the year” for more than one publication).   

For problems with openings and weak endings, one of my favorite tricks is to sit down in front of my bookcase of favorite reads and to go through books at random, reading their first and last pages, studying the author’s technique. Put aside the ones that work best in your opinion, then go back and read the first and last chapters.

Some folks worry that they’ll inadvertently “lift” from the book they’re reading, and transplant a character or a subplot into the story they’re writing. I say if you find you’re doing this, you’re not analyzing the story you’re reading deeply enough. You want to uncover the writer’s technique, not that you found (for example) a particular character enjoyable, but you want to figure out how the author was able to make the character well-rounded. How the author was able to given that character dimension. What about the character made her come alive to you.

So, to recap: if you writing is feeling a bit beleaguered, try reading.

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