Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Train Your Mind for Writing with Great Books

Julia: Some personal family health issues, so I'm sharing a post from the vault.


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

2 comments:

Robin Mason said...

challenge accepted!!! only 'cept i cain't do it til october!! i have eight, count 'em, eight on my TBR and reviewed list by the end of september!!! how do i [keep] get myself into these pickles??? LOL

Cara Putman said...

I firmly believe reading all the time makes me a better writer. Great post, Julia.