Monday, 5 January 2015

What reading has taught me about writing


As documented in previous posts, I decided to have a writing break from the last week in November, and start working through my to-read list.  I read more than 25 books and I am so, so glad I did this; I got more out of it than I ever would have imagined. 
 
I’ve actually been sitting down and reading for hours at a time, like I used to, rather than managing half an hour here and there in the bath, or on a journey.  I reckon the chances of really getting into a book are doubled if you immerse yourself in it for a few huge chunks of time rather than dipping in and out over a period of a month, as so many of us do.  I suppose that goes without saying, really!

After a while I realised that I wasn't just catching up on my Kindle backlog - I was viewing the whole thing from 'the other side', if you like!  Here are my conclusions; perhaps you won’t agree with all of them, but I hope some will be of interest.

  • No, it isn’t always necessary to start a novel with a big punch.  It’s a clichΓ© that’s arisen from a hundred and one writing advice blog posts.  Some books can start rather quietly but be just as compelling; you don’t necessarily have to make your main character tell her boss she’s going to kill him/get out of her husband’s best friend’s bed/wake up to find that the world has ended, in the first paragraph.
  • Having said that, it’s critical that the first couple of chapters are tight and succinct with perfect, or damn near perfect, grammar and proofreading, zero clunky sentences, and a ‘voice’ that really comes through.  I abandoned about ten of the books I started.  With some of them, it was because of lazy prose, or flat delivery.  You might be able to get away with some less than ΓΌber-smart writing later on in the book, but not at the beginning.
  • Reviews matter.  Before buying a book I usually read a cross section and I presume others do, too, because of all the ‘helpful’ or ‘unhelpful’ votes.  However, just because a book hasn’t got many reviews, it doesn’t mean it’s no good; my absolute favourite book of last year only has six on Amazon UK at the moment, but it’s best to read some.  If you haven’t seen my Top 20 books of 2014 post yet, it’s HERE
  • Book blogs are marvellous things.  If you aren’t getting your books featured on any, make it a new year resolution to do so!  At least one book from my top 20 list I found via a blog, via Twitter.  Book bloggers are truly wonderful people!  I shall do a post featuring several in a week or so; in the meantime, you might like to look at Rosie Amber and A Woman's Wisdom . I review all the books I finish, on Amazon and Goodreads, and have also started a blog for them, too.  Please note, it is not a proper book blog as I don’t take in requests; it’s just a place for me to feature my reviews.  It's HERE.  
  • Pacing and structure matter so much when it comes to maintaining a reader’s interest - another good reason to leave your book for at least a fortnight before its final edit.  Some of the books I enjoyed most were those that changed POV (character point of view) at exactly the right time, or took the reader to another aspect of the story, ditto.  Once or twice I felt like applauding the author and could be heard muttering “Oh, nice move!” or similar.  Never mind whether a book is written in the third or the first person or a mixture of the two; what matters is that the pace works
  • It’s important that your cover, title, blurb and style of promotion reflects the style of the book.  I reluctantly abandoned one book that really brought this home to me.  I’d been looking forward to this novel for a while; from its blurb, cover etc, I thought it was going to be a witty yet thought-provoking contemporary drama about a subject that interests me.  It wasn’t, it was chick lit.  Well written chick lit, and I could see from its Amazon page that many people liked it a lot, but it’s not a genre I enjoy, as a rule.  A time when I should have taken my own advice and read the reviews more carefully!  I also took note of why I chose each next book - I wrote a list that I intended to work through, but didn't.  I chose the one I fancied next, instead.  This was partly down to mood, of course.
  • Ruthless and painstaking re-drafting is worth every minute.  One piece of completely non-book related advice from about twenty-five years ago that's stuck in my mind (for some reason!) is to always give your hair a final rinse even when you think you’ve got all the shampoo out.  That so works, and stops it looking dull/feeling a bit sticky!  Similarly, if you secretly suspect that your novel might need just one more ‘go-through’, you should give it that final rinse, too!
  • eReading devices are great!  If you haven’t used one, or have one but aren’t sure about it, do please persevere.  Mine has a soft leather cover which makes it more comfortable to hold than a paperback, it’s light (which I need because I tend to read lying down, holding the device above), and a great way of shoving ten books into your bag at once!  The best thing, though, is the cheapness and convenience.  Last night I finished reading part one of a three part series; as soon as I’d read it I downloaded the second part in just a couple of minutes, for just two quid, and off I went again!  I also like the fact that you can read it in the dark (when you have someone asleep beside you!) (I use the Kindle App on my Nexus 7, rather than my old Kindle, which didn't have a lit screen) and alter the font size according to tiredness of eyes.   I love it much more than real books now.
  • Talent matters.  I’m fed up with reading blog posts about how hard work, presentation, marketing and perseverance are more important than being naturally gifted; there’s a spate of these at the moment.  I think this is so wrong.  Over the past year I’ve come across beautifully presented books that are proofread to perfection and follow all ‘the rules’ – the attention grabbing start, the extensive research, the clearly defined genre, the descriptive passages, etc, but are just – adequate.  Competent and readable at best.  Okay.  Not too bad.  Worthy achievements, and if I was stuck somewhere with nothing else to read I might carry on with them.  But they’re like novel writing by numbers.  Creative writing exercises.  I think a common misconception in these days of ‘if you’ve got a laptop you can write a novel’ is that, indeed, anyone can write one.  Sure, yes, they can, if they want to.  But taking a course in watercolours won’t make you anything other than a just okay artist, any more than having all your semicolons in the right place or diligently attending writing classes will make you a compelling writer, if you have no basic talent.  I can produce a fairly reasonable meal if I concentrate and follow all the instructions, but I have no flair for the culinary arts, so anything I produce will only ever be just quite nice.  A couple of the books in my Top 20 break ALL ‘the rules’, but I couldn’t stop reading them, because the writers have a true gift.  I agree that talent will not get you very far without the perseverance, hard work, marketing, attention to detail, etc.  But it needs to be there in the first place. 
I’ll stop here before this post gets too long; suffice to say that I adored my reading bonanza, not least because I was able to spread the word some wonderful books.  I’d recommend it to anyone who’s busy with their own work that they don’t get a chance to do the thing that made them start writing in the first place.  I know just what it’s like, and now mean to have at least two weeks off in between every book.  There are a few that I fully intended to get to recently that have been carried forward to my list for the next session.  

The only difficulty is stopping myself reading, and starting to write again…. now, I must move back to the sofa, my Kindle app is calling me and I must just read the third one in that trilogy...

Happy new year!

19 comments:

  1. I so agree that reading in huge chunks is far more rewarding (and helpful as a writer) that the couple of pages here and there (often last thing at night) that so many people manage. It also means that I've enjoyed books I'd have given up on if I'd read just a few pages at a time - I've just finished The Luminaries, and I don't know how anyone manages it if they only read in bed. On top of that, it's a masterclass in structure and pacing!

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    1. Agree, agree! Doing this has made me rediscover how much I used to love being totally wrapped up in a book :)

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  2. I agree with so much that you've said here. And more. I never stop reading, even when I'm writing, and I've published 25 books. I need the encouragement and inspiration of other writers--and sometimes I need what you point out: to see what other writers have done wrong. So even though I'm writing a novella right now, I've read three books this week. Okay, they're short, all under 250 pp. And one had a lot of white space. :-) But I feel a bit lost when I'm not reading something wonderful. I picked these books carefully: their voices are very different from mine, periods ditto. I didn't want to risk copying anything they were doing, but I also didn't want to give up the music of words.

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    1. Yes, Lev, I so agree, as does Stephen King, I read yesterday! Thanks for reading and commenting :)

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  3. Hello Terry, yes all very true. In addition, I always think reading a book is akin to actually talking to, i.e. making friends, with the author. Hence if someone's writing 'voice' jars with you, could be because you wouldn;t like the author if you met them. Similarly, when a book really 'clicks' with you (such as Valerie Poore's 'African Ways' with both of us) it can be because you feel you actually know and like the author as a person.

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    1. That's very true, but then Val is particularly 'special', I think! On the other hand, I reckon I'd probably think Douglas Kennedy is a total arse, but I love most of his books! It's not always because of a voice 'jarring' with you, though, is it? Sometimes there just isn't much writing talent, which is one of the main reasons I abandon books.

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    2. I couldn't agree more, Terry. I know lots of authors who are really lovely people but whose books are no better than 'quite nice'. And I'm sure some of the great writers out there are total arseholes. It's not the voice. It's the talent

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  4. I really enjoyed this post Terry, thank you. I wonder if I could add something? I am a huge fantasy fiction (and TV show) fan. If there isn't a dragon, werewolf, faerie or vampire in it then I will normally give it a wide berth. I write in the same genre (as well as non-fiction but that's another life!). When I joined twitter two years ago, and started writing my blog, I found so many wonderful authors - yourself included. I began to interact with authors from various genres and I enjoyed their posts and tweets. After building up these relationships I purchased their books. I was suddenly reading romance (! know!), historical, crime and horror. After restricting myself to fantasy it was refreshing to see how other 'voices' came across. A lovers quarrel is the same between a man and woman as it is an elf and his orc bride! Reading a variety of genres really is so important for a writer, I was just a bit late realising it! ;-)

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    1. Oh yes, yes yes - if you look in the December posts I've written about becoming a 'born again bookworm' and discovering the very same thing! I thought I only liked contemporary dramas and histfic - but my number one in my top 20 books of 2014 is Sci-Fi/Post Apocalyptic. And as for the zombies... (see my book review blog and the last 3 I've reviewed!!)

      I've also discovered that I seriously don't like some genres, tho - crime mystery type thrillers, for instance; I find that I don't really care whodunnit. I also don't care for chick lit and basic romance. Has to be more of a story to it.

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  5. Thank you for this post, Terry. Am in the midst of re-writing my second book & have stopped daily reading. Your thoughtful & articulate list of reasons why we should never abandon this mode of inspiration has motivated me to return to this daily practice. Thank you so much for reminding us of the basics.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Meredith. I'm so pleased it's made you take up the Kindle again! I'm going to carry on making time for it now. :)

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  6. Brilliant post Terry, really emphasises the importance of reading and reading widely. I love getting lost in a book for a day and it doesn't happen too often anymore. Partly life but also partly because I struggle to find THE book that will hold my attention and keep me reading no matter what. There does seem to have been a boom in publishing and although I don't read much self published material (I am a lover of the physical novel) even some if the traditionally published material seems to be of a lower standard. As you say, pace and a voice are so important but I find these lacking in a lot of the fiction I pick up these days.
    Sadly, this makes me delay reading sometimes, as I don't want to be disappointed. Perhaps I put too high an expectation on stories these days but I'm searching for more fiction to love, not merely just to like. I want to be able to shout about how great a novel is rather than not bother recommending it. I currently have The Miniaturist on my shelf awaiting reading...am fearful it won't live up to the hype for me (as Life after Life, for which the end ending ruined it for me!).
    Thanks for reminding me that books CAN make a day disappear by simply sitting in a chair and using my imagination when tactfully guided by others. Might schedule in some reading thus weekend now!

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    1. Hi Cat, thanks for reading and commenting! I agree re Life after Life, btw - I adored it, but the ending was too ambivalent for me.

      Dare I say that I wonder if you're over-thinking reading? You won't find perfection, just as you won't get perfection in your own writing. One thing this episode taught me is to just pick up a book and start it - you can always lay it down and pick up another if it doesn't suit, it's no biggie. It's one of the things that's so great about Kindle reading, and something that it's worth getting your head around if you're going to publish via ebook.

      Perhaps you've grown out of genres you used to like? I find that the standard of trad pubbed chick lit and romance books is particularly low - it seems the publishers go for the lowest common denominators. It took me a while to realise that I find these two genres either too daft, too shallow or simply not interesting enough - there is only so much you can do plot-wise after all. One thing this exercise has taught me is to try new genres - and I've been pleasantly surprised. Also, it meant I found at least two new writers who will now number amongst my all time favourites (Val Poore and Dylan Morgan).

      If you like Kate Atlkinson, try Deborah Moggach and Douglas Kennedy, and John Boyne! :^D

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    2. My standards are very high, but you're right: I do need to learn just to start and perhaps ebooks would allow me to do so without as much disappointment as a physical copy!

      Will definitely look up those authors (glad I wasn't the only one to have such an opinion re Life after Life). I've been experimenting with genres over the last few months and discovered some lovely novels. Investing in books at literature festival events has been great and I've been introduced to some great authors - Rosie Garland being one of them (Love her debut Palace of Curiosities).

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    3. It's sometimes hard to have high standards, isn't it? I am often amazed by 5* reviews given to some books that make me want to say, 'but it was full of cliches, contrived dialogue, and unfeasible plot lines...' - oh well! I'll check out Rosie Garland, too x

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  7. A wonderful post, and how true! If there is anything that has taught me how to write, it was reading good literature. That's where I take my inspiration.

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    1. Thanks, Ann! Oddly, watching television helps, too - it's taught me about structure and dramatic impact.

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  8. How come I missed this? Agree wholeheartedly..can learn a lot from others. Well, everything. Like the shampoo analogy!

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    1. Thanks! Yes, I like that shampoo thing too! I think this was my first rant about 'hard work is better than talent'. I saw a blog post the other day that promised 5 myths and 1 truth about writing. The 'truth' was that 'anyone can learn to write well'. I just clicked off it straight away before I got into an argument!

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