One of the oldest clichés when it comes to writing advice is that if you want to write, you need to make time to read and you need to read a lot. I will confirm: yes, yes that’s absolutely true.
It’s entirely subjective evidence, but I find in my own life that when I do hit the rare dry spell writing, I’ve also hit a similar dry-spell reading. Perhaps life is just getting in the way too much. Perhaps I’m reading a particularly lengthy book that I’m not enjoying as much as I’d like and is “bottlenecking” my desire to get back to things. Or perhaps I just find myself seeking other, less engaging forms of media that week. (I enjoy games, the Lego games especially).
All that is fine as a temporary issue, but if you don’t have the discipline to finish a book, how do you expect to have the discipline to… well… finish a book? But it’s more than that. It’s a creative muscle that you’re flexing when you read, and it’s informing how and how well you write. I’ll attempt to break down my experience and the pseudo-science behind it.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” — Stephen King, On Writing.
Reading — and writing — are both global processes. By which I mean, when at their best, they are using both the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Reading a book isn’t a simple one-action, it’s a complex series of actions that is going on within you: there’s the actual act of reading and understanding the symbols representing language before you, but also the picturing of what you’re seeing. These pictures are both drawn from memory and imagined whole-cloth by you. There is also a predictive nature to reading, when you’re unconsciously noticing the patterns taking place in the plot and story and using it to predict where that story is going. These predictions and then mitigated and adjusted with each new sentence — each new bit of patterned information — you receive. With all this going on, it’s amazing people say they’re just going to “relax and read a book,” because it takes a lot of work.
That act of picturing what you’re reading, that is a creative act. When you read, you are as much the creator of the story as the author. That’s a part of the reason there can be so many varying interpretations of the same work, and all of them be valid: the author is only doing half the work, the other half is up to the reader. When I read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov or Taking Stock by Scott Bartlett, neither give me descriptions of the narrator: these things are left up to the reader, and you don’t notice because your mind fills in these things automatically. You, the reader, created them from nothing: and your creation affects how you view the story. When I create the image of Humbert Humbert in my mind he’s not the dashing handsome man from the film adaptations of Lolita, he’s a sick old man who thinks he’s such. He’s deluded. I brought that to the table. Would it stand up to critical analysis? Absolutely not, there’s no basis in the text for it: but nevertheless, it affects how I read the story.
So let’s accept that you’re creating the story as much as the author. Great. So you’re excersizing those creative muscles that you’re going to use when writing, but it’s more than that: you’re also learning patterns. Lots of patterns, all of them. The human brain is astonishing at seeing patterns: it may be our most advantageous attribute. It’s how we do everything: we’ve learned the pattern for work, for play, for gaming. Everything. When you read you are learning — on some level — that author’s pattern. If you’re reading Stephen King, you have learned Stephen King’s pattern. But it isn’t a perfect copy, it’s filtered through your lens. Now, if all you ever read was Stephen King, then your writing may well come out as a sort of King-clone, as a lot of work does, him being so prevalent. So the goal would be to read as much as possible from as many different sources as possible, so that you see these different patterns and they all merge together in you, to form different ways your story can be told and your plot can progress. The new patterns is part of the reason i love reading indie books lately: I’ve noticed that the big-publishing house process of bringing a book to print — and deciding which books get printed — have a way of ironing out the patterns and making them a bit too uniform. I get more “new input” from reading indie.
Have you ever known the plot twist of a movie or book long before any of your friends could see it… sometimes before you can even explain why you see it? Congratulations, your brain is a extremely finely-tuned pattern-recognizing machine, so much so that (when it comes to fiction) you border on the precognitive. You’re ready.
To all the gamers out there, you should get this part of pattern recognition: have you ever played a boss from the 16-bit era? They usually move in a fairly set, recognizable pattern, right? Your job as the player is the recognize that pattern and slip past it, to get into the gaps and force the pattern to change by hitting the boss. That’s what you’re doing when you write. Readers, have you ever been reading and gotten to a point where the author makes a choice your brain doesn’t like, and you go: “Here’s how I would have done that”? That’s the reading equivalent of seeing through the bosses pattern and jumping in for the strike. Your mind has made the logical leap from going along with the author to creating all on its own: you’ve consumed enough material, it’s time to play with the big kids and create something all your own. 🙂
I write a lot. At any given point I have three-five novels on my plate in varying stages of “being done.” As a consequence of this, I have to read a lot. Sign up to Goodreads and follow me, you’ll see. I set my “reading goal” every year to 365 books — one per day — and always surpass it. Great chunks of these are novels, a lot are audiobooks that I can listen to while jogging (you can’t sit and read 365 books a year and not get fat), and a fair number are graphic novels. Graphic novels are great, and I’m glad they’re being recognized more and more for the art form they are. More importantly, they are their patterns presented in easily-digestible forms. I can get many of those patterns in in a day, and take in the patterns of Warren Ellis, Brian Micheal Bendis, and Joss Whedon all before sleep, and let my REM-sleep brain gobble them all together into something new and cool.Graphic Novels are totally legitimate, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Your brain boils every novel down to two basic components for use: the pattern, and the idea. Graphic Novels present both without all the fluff. You still need that fluff from other places, but graphic novels are a healthy part of any literature diet.
If you’re local and stuck not knowing what to read? Take a stroll down to Elaine’s Books by the war memorial. It has a ton of things there that are sure to get your motor up and running again. 🙂