Saturday, January 23, 2010

Writers and Reading

Have you ever met a writer who didn’t love to read? I suspect most writers’ desire to write grew in soil made fertile by reading.

Reading continues to nourish writers at all stages of their careers. Reading can spark story ideas, deepen one’s knowledge of people and of the world, improve vocabulary, and provide models of good and bad writing, among many other useful gifts. But how much should a writer read?

One writing teacher I know of recommends that writers read five hours for every hour they write, which would seem a near-impossible goal for most writers. I try to average two work days of fiction writing a week. So I should be reading 80 hours a week? Not going to happen. I couldn’t free up that much time even if I gave up sleeping.

Other people recommend a book a week. That’s 53 books a year—probably manageable for most writers. Even in my craziest, most time-deprived years I read that many . . . but it's not enough to give me the foundation for writing I want.

The answer to the question of “how much should a writer read?” is probably “as much as possible.” That answer suggests a follow-up question: What should a writer read?

Writers who read only for fun build their stories on sand, with no foundation underneath to support it. I suggest that SF/F should also choose reading material that builds knowledge, nurtures creativity, and cultivates wisdom.

To that end, the reading pile of an SF/F writer should contain nonfiction, including books and articles on:

•world history
•cultural anthropology
•animal behavior, especially primatology
•literary criticism of SF/F
•world religions
•science and technology
•the arts—music, painting, dance, etc.
•running a business (because being a writer is a business)
•writing technique

as well as fiction, including:

•classic SF/F novels and short stories (to learn the tropes, to be able to converse knowledgeably with other writers, and to avoid accidentally copying well-known ideas)
•newly published novels by new authors (to see what publishers are currently buying)
•novels in other genres
•novels that are similar to ones they want to write
•bestsellers in their field (to see what readers are buying)
•works by great stylists (to learn new ways of putting words together)
•classic works of literature (to see what lasts)

In my next post at Novel Spaces, on Saturday, February 6, I’ll have more to say on the importance of reading nonfiction. Until then, what do you think of my lists? Are there glaring omissions? Items you disagree with? I'm curious to hear how your lists of suggested reading would differ.

As always, thank you for visiting Novel Spaces today.

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

Excellent. Just what I'm talking about (reading) to my students in the writing in psyc class. So true. Good writers read a bit of everything

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, I value your opinion, so I'm glad you agree.

Liane Spicer said...

Absolutely, Shauna. Stephen King said it and I believe it: "If you don't have the time to read, you have neither the time nor the tools to write."

Or, according to Samuel Johnson: "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading; a man will turn over half a library to make one book."

ninthmuse (roz m) said...

The animal behavior books really come in handy when writing about unfamiliar nonhuman cultures. Examining how animals think can offer you a framework from which to build the emotional and mental lives of your new alien/paranormal race members.

writtenwyrdd said...

I never set out to read about all this stuff, but somehow I absorbed a lot of stuff on a lot of different subjects. I recommend reading magazines like New Science, National Geographic, or others that can give the gist of scientific, psychological or other principles and ideas on topics like you mention.

Also, just watching documentaries is useful for ideas of where to go looking.

Mostly, though, I think people should do what I did as a kid, and pick up anything to read that interests you. And never lose that curiosity and enthusiasm for knowledge.

Finally, I really recommend people who write or need critical thinking skills to get a basic understanding of logic. I don't think it's being taught in schools, and neither is critical thinking, for which logic is the foundation.

(As you can see, for me it's not about what topics to read but more about how to approach learning.)

writtenwyrdd said...

And can I just add that I find that a lot of folks undervalue their personal experiences. You may not know about dog behavior or training like I do from personal life experiences, but if you know about raising a child, for example, you aren't far off. Basic principles can translate, and you can find the details that flesh the topic out, or fact check, later.

A writer should never get locked into the mental box of exactitude. (Or perhaps it is my writing spec fic that makes me think that way, lol.)