Most of us have heard the cautionary phrase, “Look before you leap.” It’s sound advice, and alliterative, to boot. Here’s another one for ye: “Read before you write.”
I’m not being funny here. I mean it.
Every now and then, people hear of rising stars in the literary world by clicking through the entertainment section or catching an interview on daytime TV, and think, Hey, I could do that! I’m functionally literate, AND I have a word processor. I could drum out a book, get rich and famous, and be the new big It thing by next year!
And who knows? Maybe you could! I’m not here to crush your hopes and dreams with the meat tenderizer I keep for just such a purpose, but I won’t offer to sell you a bridge in Brooklyn, either. (Though if you want to reconsider, I’ve got a couple great ones: real clean, no trolls.)
Writing is easy. Writing well is not. Otherwise, we would all be signing seven-figure deals and wondering where to put the next theme park based on our work. There are a lot of different things that have to go right for someone to break into the traditional publishing world, and a lot more for someone to achieve that super special level of sparkling international acclaim that gets noticed in the mainstream media. And before any of that can even begin to happen, you have to do something, first:
You have to be a reader.
No, don’t you even wave that cereal box or hobby magazine at me. When I say, be a reader, I don’t mean, occasionally allow your gaze to wander across a collection of text and call it good. I mean, put aside some precious free time, grab a book and a mug of your favorite nonalcoholic comfort drink, and settle in for the long haul. From cover to tattered cover, my friend.
Too often, when I ask aspiring writers who their favorite authors are, I get only blank stares in response. Bad sign. Sometimes, they rattle off a couple names you see most often gracing the shelves of airport kiosks or supermarkets, often with “So-and-so’s Book Club Selection of the Month” emblazoned on the cover. Not a good sign, but we can work with it.
Pro tip: read everything in the genre in which you want to write. Have no idea where to start? Ask your local librarian or bookseller. Interacting with humans gives you hives? Don’t worry—there are Lists. The American Library Association has them. Literary award websites have them. If you’ve hit rock bottom, the New York Times has them, too. Google “Best [Romance / Memoir / Secondary World High Fantasy Novel] of the Year / Decade / Century.” Go on. I can wait.
Then read until your vision blurs and you get paper cuts on your page-turning fingers. Read until your eyeballs are just shy of spontaneously combusting. Keep reading. Read outside your genre. Read beautifully written, exquisitely crafted books that make you laugh out loud or cry yourself to sleep, and that inspire you to elicit equally powerful reactions out of your own readers. Read awful books that make you want to write better ones out of a fit of righteous indignation. But for the love of all that you hold holy, read.
Because we can tell when you do not.
Oh, yes. We know.
Not only can reading your eyes out give you a certain instinct for what does and does not work when it comes to pacing, dialog, characterization, scene setting, world building, et cetera, but it also helps you absorb the basics: dialog tags, for instance, or what punctuation you want to use to end a question.
Again, not being funny here. These are some of the things you notice as a proofreader.
But I don’t have time to read, comes the echoing battle cry of the beleaguered. I just want to write my bestseller, make gads of mad cash, and be done with it!
MAKE TIME, YOU MAGGOTS. Set aside your aspirations for your billion-game solitaire winning streak. TiVo those episodes of Judge Whosit. Delete Angry Birds from your smart phone. Stop crying! Delete! The time you take on the toilet, the time you ride the bus into town, the time you spend counting the holes in the tiles on the ceiling above your cubicle don’t even deny it I have seen you do this—all of this is time that can be converted into The Time During Which You Read. And take an aggressive stance when it comes to this time:
We will get your free sample back in six hours!