The most important thing an aspiring writer can do is to read. And, no, I don’t mean read those stuffy ‘proper English usage’ manuals, or even the myriad ‘how to write’ books on the market. Read, not just in the genera you want to write in, but in every category you can think of. On my reading list this past week, you could have found Misconceptions by Colleen Scott, a Christian suspense novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a Flavia de Luce mystery novel by Allen Bradly, Anthony Esolen’s Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of your Child, and A Young Woman after God’s Own Heart by Elizabeth George. You will notice that these are either nonfiction works, or at least they are set in the real world. And yet I write mostly fantasy fiction.
The reason avid readers make great writers is that they can learn many tricks of the trade, as it were, from their favorite books. Good readers reading the work of good writers can pick up a lot. How does this author build up suspense from chapter to chapter or from sentence to sentence? How would the meaning of the story change if one word was interchanged with a synonym or one sentence slightly reworded? How do the characters grow, and how does the story show that? Even poorly written stories can serve to teach us how not to do things.
I never really studied fiction writing. Reading and experimenting taught me everything I know. I began writing on great big pieces of paper from sketchpads, pulling them out and taping them together into ‘books’, drawing the pictures with markers and writing the words in misshapen boxes in the corners. At first, I wrote about Super Mario and Zelda and people from The Lord of the Rings, characters I knew. Original characters came later, and then they filled endless files on the computer, little bits and pieces of scenes, word ‘sketches’ of people. Even if you don’t write, or don’t want to, reading is important. The great writers, such as Dickens and Shakespeare, have plenty to tell us about human nature. More contemporary authors, like Terry Pratchett and N. D. Wilson, have wry observations about modern life for us to contemplate, or retell old stories in new, exciting ways. And even now, in an age of flashing screens and blaring music, a printed book, ink on paper, bound by two covers, still has its place as one of the most powerful means of communication in the world.