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Reading to become a better writer

The more you read the better your writing becomes

A sure-fire way to inspire your writing is to read more

Reading is hands-down the best way to learn the craft of writing. You absorb different authors’ styles, voices, plotting and pacing. You learn new ways to put words together, get new ideas for using dialogue, metaphor, and beats. You discover what you like, what you love, what leaves you unmoved, what you absolutely can’t stand. You grow your vocabulary. You get lost in the story…or you wonder where the story is. You become attached to characters, developing such empathy for them that you find yourself thinking about them when you’re not even reading the book. Or, on the flip side, you wonder why a character seems flat, or completely unlikeable, or just so incredibly annoying. You spot inconsistencies, typos, bad grammar, and weak editing. Every book has something to teach us.

I like to practice taking on a favorite author’s style. For example, after obsessively reading most of Henning Mankell’s books, I had the opportunity to travel to Sweden. I wrote page after page of a dark, brooding story while there, shamelessly copying Mankell’s voice and having a blast doing it. Consciously taking on a writer’s voice is a great exercise. It teaches you to try putting together words in ways you’ve never done it before. It stretches the limits of your use of language.

I don’t have one genre I prefer to read above all others. My favorites are historical fiction, mysteries, thrillers, fantasy, literary fiction, memoir, and creative nonfiction, with the occasional dabble into paranormal romance and action.

photo by Kate Williams

I force myself to jump way out of my comfort zone from time to time and read genres that don’t interest me much (such as science fiction or horror), just to see what makes certain books popular. I also like to read popular books that have been panned for their writing to see why people still buy the books. I have to say if a story is compelling, I’ll forgive bad writing. But if the story is lackluster AND the writing is bad, I’m outta there.

While I’m on the subject of good/bad stories and writing: this is all subjective. Art, whether it’s a book or a painting or a sculpture or a movie, isn’t designed to appeal to everyone. What I love about books is that every writer’s voice and story are different, and every reader’s personal views and history are different. One book can have as many haters as it does fans, because it affects each of us in a unique way. After writing a novel myself, I am humbled by the amount of work that it takes to build an entire book from idea to publication. Now, as I’m reading, I ask myself exactly why I like or dislike a book. What would I try to emulate in my own writing? What would I avoid like the plague?

Who helps you find your voice?

I relied on many writers to help me create The Girl from Oto. Some of my key influences were Geraldine Brooks (for her dual historical-modern narratives in People of the Book), Anthony Doerr (for imagery and language and short chapters), George R.R. Martin (for his multiple point-of-view story structure), Charles Frazier (for his authentic use of Civil War-era language and settings in Cold Mountain, plus he nailed the hero’s journey…click here to learn how he did it), and Patti Smith (for her beautiful writing in Just Kids).

There are also certain authors I turn to again and again for inspiration. Their words never fail to help me find my way again when I doubt myself and my writing. They include Wallace Stegner, Anne Lamott (here’s some classic Lamott), Barbara Kingsolver, and Ann Patchett, among others. And I love Henning Mankell not just for his crime mysteries but for his excellent stand-alone novels like The Man from Beijing and The White Lioness. The Man from Beijing has an unusual modern-historical narrative structure that helped inspire The Girl from Oto.

Sometimes I go through a phase when I just can’t finish a novel. It usually has to do with other aspects of my life consuming my time and energy beyond normal limits.

Photo by Rita Morais

During those times, I read magazines and chapters of novels and bits of nonfiction books, and worry: what if my attention span has dissolved into dust? Will I ever care about reading anything longer than a New Yorker article again? Should I just let myself go and turn exclusively to People magazine? Eventually I get my groove back, though. Every time.

As I work on the sequel to The Girl from Oto, the drive to read novels—particularly historical ones—is gaining momentum within me. I’m reading at least one novel a week and sometimes more. I just read a true gem of a book: News of the World, by Paulette Jiles. Now I can’t wait to read the rest of her historical novels. That delicious feeling of anticipation I used to get as a child after checking out a pile of books at my local library still consumes me. It’s a lifelong love.

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