Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Train Your Mind for Writing with Great Books

Pride & Prejudice

When's the last time you read a classic?

Summer is beach, pool, park and bleacher time. The perfect time for sunning yourself, enjoying a glass of iced tea and a good book.

Instead of a beach read why not refuel your mind with a time-tested read?

I hear you. Some of those novels break the writing rules we are often taught. They contain long paragraphs, more than the occasional run-on sentence. The plot twists and turns aren't always enough to keep you turning the pages. In fact, some of the conflict seems downright boring.

In our fast-paced society, do classics have a place and do they have anything to teach the modern writer?

1) Classics teach you to read S-L-O-W to absorb the layers.

As a fast food society, we want to be spoonfed. Studies have shown that on a screen our reading can be haphazard, missing key details. Our words per minute rate on our devices is higher, and that's not always a good thing. If you have a minute, here is a fascinating NY Times article on your brain's reaction to ebooks. According to one professor at the University of California, digital media doesn't balance attention well.

I have been swinging back from my kindle to paper books as over time I noticed my enjoyment of reading was less. I read through books quicker and I found with my favorite authors, I wanted to savor their words and it was easier to do with a library copy. However, when I"m reading a mystery, I actually prefer the ereader format. Just my personal opinion though.

Don't we want to write novels that readers can read over and over?  Books with depth that yield something new with each reading. C.S. Lewis believed the best books grow with us. Who better to learn from than celebrated greats of the writing world.

2) Reading great old books increases your vocabulary, which spills over into your writing.

Its no secret that the average reading level of an adult book is fifth grade. Borrow your grandparents McGuffey readers and you'll see that wasn't always the case. A few words may be obsolete, but it's still fun finding their origins. The average read doesn't send me to a dictionary, but Charles Dickens almost always does. The more words we know, the more shades of dimension we can offer to our descriptions and settings.

3) Your voice will grow and deepen as you observe other writers.

One of the most helpful exercises we were given in college was to try to imitate various authors. It was challenging. We were taught we needed to learn the fundamentals of style while developing our own.

So try it. What was your favorite book from your college years? Give it a slow reread and try to write in the author's style. Not only is imitation a form of flattery, it also leads to growth.

4) The best books challenge us to think and that reflects in our written work.

Classics include strong themes and such elements as foreshadowing. How can you strengthen the theme of your own story?

My husband and I had a recent discussion on Ayn Rand and the relevance of her novels for today. I've struggled to make it through Atlas Shrugged several times and lamented to him about the snail-like pace of the plot, sharing that I prefer modern authors. He argued that it was a hard book but I ought to stick it out because it has a lot to teach about the human condition. I have a feeling Rand belongs back on my summer reading list.

Les Miserables
So, how about it? I challenge you to read ONE classic this summer. 

---But where do I start?

Modern Library has a list of 100 best novels that might provide a good starting place. 

The Great Books List is divided by eras and provides plenty of choices.

The American Library Association's publication Booklist provides a database of award-winners.

What's your favorite classic and why? What did it teach you about writing craft?

 Julia Reffner is a writer and reviewer for Library Journal and a blogger for Wonderfully Woven. She lives in central Virginia with her husband, two children, and three ragdolls cats.



kaybee said...

Good morning Julia,
My father read every one of Charles Dickens' novels, even the less popular ones, at least once every 10 years. He loved the description, the detail and the characterization. I haven't been reading classics lately and I need to get back to them. Thanks for a great post.
Kathy Bailey

Julia M. Reffner said...

Kathy, thanks for stopping by. That's neat that your father reread all of the Dickens books. I'll bet reading them is a special memory for you because of that. I have read less and less classics over the last few years and this was a reminder to me to spend more time in these great books.

Marilynn Byerly said...

As an English major with more than one degree, I agree with the value of reading the classics, but as a writing teacher, I have to warn students that the classics, or even popular novels written ten years ago, aren't a good tutorial on writing a popular novel.

Narrative techniques and styles have changed drastically over the years, and so have reader expectations. Readers don't have the patience or the need for long narrative descriptions, pretentious vocabulary, or slow setups so you aren't doing yourself a favor by trying to write in older styles.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Marilynn, I don't at all think we should only read the classics, but I'm not sure most of us read any. I so get what you're saying. The craft is evolving, I don't think they are direct teachers but I also don't think learning the craft always comes through direct methods. Learning to think promotes learning to write.

Teresa Tysinger said...

I love this post...anything that encourages the reading of the classics. I studied them in college. Like good contemporary fiction, they stick with you. Any excellent fiction, regardless of date of publication, does. My favorite is just about anything by Jane Austen or the Brontes. I just recently reread Pride and Prejudice. But my favorite might just have to be Jane Eyre. The refined writing seems to have a delicateness sometimes lacking in today's new fiction. Although, I write contemporary fiction...a good reminder to consider my writing's delicateness. :)

Unknown said...

A lot of good points! While reading the classics can definitely help writers grow (especially when it comes to slowing down to understand the finer, deeper layers of the work) I think classics should still be balanced with more modern writing. A balanced reading "diet" is perhaps the most beneficial overall. Sadly, many classics do get left behind, though, as some readers/writers fail to realize the contributions that they can have.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Teresa, I love Jane Austen and Jane Eyre is probably one of my all-time favorites. I have read it at least 5 times! There are several Bronte fans among The Writer's Alley.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Caitlin, You're right. As I read back over my post I may not have made the point for reading contemporary fiction. I guess my supposition was that most writers were already reading this type of fiction...and we SHOULD be. I was hoping to make the point both should be included in a reading "diet" as you say so well here.

Pepper Basham said...

Great post, Julia! I can't believe how many times Joseph Conrad is listed on the top 100 classics link you placed up here! I've had my fill of Conrad and Faulkner. Whew...toughies. Great writing, but....ugh. Heart of Darkness! The Sound and the Fury! Nope!

However, I might try a DL Lawrence :-) The time period suits my tastes at present

Wonderful reminder of how we learn from the greats!


Tiffany Jane said...

This is a fantastic post, I've been listening to pride and prejudice lately and I just forgot how good classics can be, and you captured all I'd learned in a blog post. Definitely inspiring! :)