Writers are imitators. At its heart, our job is to watch the world, listen to it, feel it, and then reproduce it using the tools of language. We writers are readers, too.
That is why we tend to “write what we know.” Human beings are built for input, and what we put into our minds likely comes out in our writing.
That is why it's important to choose our reading carefully. Choose the right literature and you'll be infinitely inspired to create wonderful work.
But choose the wrong reading material and you'll find yourself struggling to an audience.
Writers Are Readers
There's a cliche that “writers are readers,” and it exists for good reason. Writers are people who love the cycle of storytelling. It goes something like this.
Person reads a story and loves it. Person imagines a similar story in his or her own head. Person sits down to write that story. New person reads the new story. Repeat.
If you are a writer, you are probably a reader, too. And most writer-readers look to their literature for inspiration.
But you must be cautious when choosing inspiration.
When Pleasure Reading Affects Our Writing
Most writers flourish within a specific genre, or small group of genres. Yet they often like reading outside these genres. I know I do.
And while pleasure reading can extend to any form or genre, business reading needs to be focused and specific. Again, human beings are creatures built on input, and whatever goes in tends to come out in some form.
Here's an example.
As a younger writer, I fell in love with the work of Cormac McCarthy. The first book of his I read was The Road, a desolate, heart-breaking story of a father and son trying to find somewhere to call home. I was amazed at the quality of McCarthy's prose, and before long it began to appear in my writing.
Unfortunately, I had no idea how to grow a career with desolate, heart-breaking stories!
I wanted to write books that readers couldn't put down because they were so immersed in the stories. But by mimicking The Road, I focused instead on the beautifull stark prose and McCarthy's long-form style, two storytelling elements that I would never recommend to a new author trying to build an audience.
(On a side note, The Road contains a beautiful story. But I was so impressed by the “shiny objects” of his limitless vocabular and gutsy “one long chapter” choice that I neglected to study the core relationship and journey that makes the book so special.)
So instead of becoming the next Cormac McCarthy, I just produced moody material that didn't take readers on a journey.
This is a great case of my pleasure reading interferring with my writing. I was much younger then, and reading a wildly talented author made me want to be just like him.
But I didn't know what genre I wanted to write in, nor did I appreciate just how important genre was to building a trusting relationship with my readers.
When Business Reading Affects Our Writing
I recently read a book that also affected my writing. But this time, I sought out a book I knew would help my writing. I read it as a thrilled reader and attentive student-writer.
The book was Star of the North by D.B. John, a white-knuckle thriller the centers on North Korea and its secretive regime's dirty deeds. Paired with what I've learned from Shawn Coyne and The Story Grid, my reading of Star of the North was like taking a masterclass on structure.
One might think that because D.B. John's story is a thriller, the kind one will buy in an airport or at the front of Barnes & Noble, that the prose suffers. This couldn't be farther from the truth. In addition to being an example of great macro and micro structure, Star is beautifully and powerfully written. I read each page, my heart thumping with same jealousy I felt when I read The Road.
So what's the difference between The Road and Star of the North? Should you immediately download one on Kindle and shun the other? Of course not!
It all has to do with why you read one and the other.
What to Read for to Help Your Writing
Knowing your genre is essential. It's the first thing editors look for, according to editor and author Shawn Coyne. If you don't know your genre, and how to fulfill it and innovate its conventions, then your book probably won't work.
With this in mind, you must approach your reading with the same considerations. Is the book you're reading in your genre? Is it in a different sub-genre? These similarities and differences make a big difference.
Because what you put inside your head is going to come out somehow — unless you choose to compartmentalize it.
If you want to write something imagistic, grinding, and literary like The Road, then dig right in. Study it. Analyze it. And do your best to tell your own story, complete with its own three-act journey, in the same genre-specific way.
And if you want to write something thrilling, fast-paced, and similiarly vivid like Star of the North, then dig in all the same.
But know why you are digging in.
Are you digging in as a detached reader? Is it like being a professional tennis player, marveling at the talent of a professional football player?
Or are you diving deep to apprentice a master? Are you reading to soak up as much skill knowledge as possible, and to practice replicating it in your own work?
As an avid reader, and a passionate writer, it's important to know why you're picking up a book and putting its words in your head.
Read With Caution, but Read a Lot
Don't let the message of this article mislead you. Writers are readers, so keep reading, and read a lot!
But always be of two minds when you read, sorting everything you read into two categories: Pleasure and Business.
And as you mature as a storyteller you'll find yourself able to use more and more for Business than ever before. This is a sign of wisdom, recognizing the interrelatedness of ALL stories, and using those similarities for the good of your readers.
Happy (careful) reading, and happy writing!
What book have you read that has most influenced your own writing? Let us know in the comments.
Today, your challenge is to let your reading impact your writing.
First, pick up a nearby book, preferably one you're currently reading or have read before. Take five minutes to read a few pages. Notice how the scenes progress, how the language flows, and all the elements that draw you into the story.
Think of one element you want to emulate. It might be the prose, the dialogue, the characters, or something else entirely. Then, take ten minutes to write your own scene, inspired by the author you just read. Try to recreate that element as much as possible.
When you're done, share the book you read and your writing practice in the comments. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you won't be able to put down. Read his latest story at his website. David is a Language Arts teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle-doer, husband, and father of two awesome children.