Thursday, April 9, 2015

Learning to Read Well

Over the years I've been writing fiction, I've discovered something surprising. Writers are so very often not readers. At first glance, that seems like the opposite of what you'd expect. I mean, we're all in the same industry together, right? But when you begin to think about this issue in more depth, it makes sense. So many writers are also other things. Mothers. Fathers. Husbands. Wives. Cooks and laundresses and teachers and doctors and gardeners and the list goes on and on. Finding writing time can be quite a struggle, especially when deadlines come into play. So really, from this perspective, it's no wonder that reading falls to the wayside.

But, I want to challenge you with the idea that we may never reach our writing potential if we do not first become good readers. I know that may sound extreme, but it's just the truth. By reading, we expand our vocabulary-- not only of words, but also of skills, emotions, and creativity.

I'm currently reading Kristy Cambron's newest novel, A Sparrow in Terezin. In case you missed it on Facebook, here's how I felt when my advanced reader copy arrived in the mail:

And the only thing wrong with this picture is it doesn't quite show how excited I really was.

If you don't know, I am a huge fan of Kristy's work (and her general personhood), and her sophomore work does not disappoint! I was up until two o'clock in the morning last night reading a particularly engaging series of developments.

All day, I have been in a particularly optimistic and inspired mood with regard to my own writing. Is it a coincidence this creative spark has come as I've jumped into a masterful piece of what can only be called literature? I don't think so.

See, I think quality fiction inspires us to raise the bar. It's sort of like going to a museum and seeing a phenomenal piece of artwork, them coming away challenged to make more beauty in our own world. The words we feed our minds will inevitably affect the quality of words we write out.

So today, I want to give a few quick things to consider when reading as a writer:

  • Read for the literal, practical sentence structure. The more we consume clear, beautiful, error-free sentences, the better our own writing structure will become. Just as babies learn to speak through imitation and repetition, we learn strong sentence structure by seeing it done well.
  • Read for the deeper level artistry. This can be a hard one, because not all books exhibit artistry. But search for those that do--it's worth the effort. I have found that when I do discover a book (like Kristy's, which is why I mentioned it earlier) with lyrical writing and intentionality driving each scene, I can recognize those layers and then better weave them into my own writing, with my own voice. Look for things like imagery, tone, voice, and evocative descriptions. Reading well-written poetry is another great way to train ourselves to see artistry in phrasing, in particular. (Try John Keats, E.E. Cummings, or William Blake, to name a few of my favorites.)
  • Read books that take you from the position of "writer" to the position of "reader." One of the greatest achievements a book can have is to make a reader out of a writer. When you sit down with a book planning to dissect it and then get so lost in the story that you forget you were supposed to have a critical approach, you know you've struck gold. Sarah Ladd's writing is a great example of this for me! I get so caught up in her style and her stories. When you catch yourself in these moments, ask what it is about the book that allowed you to let go and really make that full escape into the story. Then look for ways to adapt that into your own writing.

Your turn! Do you have anything else to add to this list? What's the best book you've read lately? Or do you struggle to find time for reading?


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Robin E. Mason said...

I recently finished Nowhere to Turn by Lynette Eason - wow! wow! wow! at first glance it was similar to a couple of others I'd recetly read - I soon was so absorbed in *this* story - I now want to read ALL of her works!!
I fully agree, reading enhances our writing experience, our abilities, our perspective. I read now more than I ever did [and I love to read] and I read in various and different genres - always exploring!!

Ashley Clark said...

Robin, I'll have to check that one out! :)

Kristy Cambron said...

Besides the fact that Ashley Clark looks beautiful with both long and short hairstyles... I just loved reading this post. My heart is blushing a little though. LOL! Thank you for being so wonderfully kind and encouraging. I think every writer (and reader) wants the creative bar raised by the artistry in the books we read. It intensifies beauty. Electrifies quiet areas of our faith. Stirs us to feel something -- even on days when we fight it! I love how words can do that. And if what I write and read and my heart absorbs can make me a better follower of Christ... that's where I want to be. All. Day. Long! : )

Hugs - Kristy

Mary Vee Writer said...

Perfect timing, perfect post.
Of late I've had an urge to read classics. Yeah, go figure. It's like a typical American wanting to eat vegetables. I think healthy finds a way to grow inside us and makes us want to delve into the unknown.
So, I've read "Emma", "Pride and Prejudice", "Mansfield Park" and loved them.
Decided I hated "Wuthering Heights" but loved the Sherlock Holmes collection...
And am surprisingly drawn into "Great Expectations".
As a matter of fact, a new story idea burst into my mind after reading one particular line in several of these books. One that, if taken literally would mean something quite different than intended in these classic stories. A suspense novel is brewing all because I have submerged myself in the classics.
Think of what would happen if I ate my vegetables?

Unknown said...

Beautifully said, Kristy! Thanks for dropping by! :)

Unknown said...

Mary, great analogy! And I'm impressed! I have always loved Jane Austen stories, but truth be told, struggle to dive into the actual writing (I'm probably too spoiled from BBC movies!). Don't tell Pepper I said that! ;)