Thursday, February 09, 2017

Writers Reading

Kameron Hurley's column in this month's LOCUS discusses how "crucial" it is for writers to be avid readers. (It doesn't seem to be available online yet.) Titled "If You Want to Level Up, Get Back to the Basics," this article focuses on "the basics" of what drew us into writing careers in the first place, a love for books. Hurley is "shocked" to "hear from other professional writers that they don't read anymore." I'm shocked, too; I had no idea this was a widespread phenomenon.

Some writers deliberately refrain from reading in their own genre to avoid being influenced by other authors' works. I see their point, but what about the opposite hazard? If you don't stay familiar with what your peers in your genre are producing, how can you be sure of not re-inventing the wheel? You might create a novel with a plot too similar to one published so recently that no editor will want yours. Furthermore, from my viewpoint, if you write in a particular genre, you must love it. If you love it, how can you NOT keep reading it? Also, in a sense the total body of work in any field comprises a conversation; every new article, story, or book responds to others that already exist. Don't you want to join the dialogue rather than working in isolation? (Consider how many vampire novels are homages to or subversions of DRACULA.)

Every interview I've come across with an author who doesn't read in her own field while working on a project, however, notes that she does read voraciously in other genres. Not to read at all, though? I'm astonished, not in a good way.

Hurley recommends reading widely for several reasons, one of them practical—"to stay on top of the field" for the sake of her own career. To keep advancing, she needs awareness of the state of the industry. Also, taking time "to study the novels of others" can help a writer break out of repeating her own mistakes by "writing the same book over and over." Writers can improve their own style and plot skills by analyzing the techniques used by authors they admire (as Jacqueline discussed last week). On a less tangible level, reading a great book can be "energizing" (and also sometimes "depressing" because of the "humbling" effect, but that reaction can inspire a writer to "level up" in her own work). Hurley highlights the importance of "getting back in touch with what you loved about reading in the first place" and reminds us that reading "teaches us empathy and fosters wonder."

What about the lament of many people that they don't have time to read? Hurley notes that "relentless engagement with media streams" ate up much of her reading time until she cut back on that activity. Even before the present widespread immersion in social media and Internet news, though, I often heard people claim they didn't have time to read. To me, that's like saying you don't have time to eat, have sex, sleep, or breathe. If you love reading, it's not a chore to fit into a schedule; you just do it. A while back I saw mention of an online "challenge" to read fifty books in a year. My immediate reaction was, "Good grief, that's less than a book a week." I typically read at least three books each week (depending on length, of course), since I always have two (or sometimes more) going at once. I read in waiting rooms, in vehicles when someone else is driving, on the exercise bike, at meals whenever I'm eating alone (most meals except for weekend dinners), in bed, and during commercials if watching a TV show "live" (also during most action scenes, which usually baffle me anyway). I take a book along almost every time I leave the house, just in case. Doesn't everybody?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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