What do you mean, exactly, when you tell me to Read and Write to be an author?

It’s what they don’t tell you that’ll ruin you

Almost every writing-how-to book I’ve read has something about having to read, read, read and write, write, write to be a good author. Few books (nor any classes I’ve taken in classrooms, workshops, online, et cetera) include the two pieces of information without which all the reading and all the writing are…well, maybe not worthless but definitely worth less: How to Read and How to Write.

Reading
Read anything and everything. Read omnivorously. Read trashy novels. Read pulp. Read magazine articles, newspapers. Read onlines. Read prizewinners. Read in and definitely outside your genre.

Here’s what nobody told me; Read for craft, not content.

Pay attention to what you’re reading.

 
Pay attention to how characters are developed, pay attention to how scenes unfold, how things are foreshadowed, pay attention to how mood, atmosphere and tone are constructed to create specific effects. Pay attention to how the author does everything they do to get you to read their story.

Especially pay attention to what they do that makes you stop reading their story.

An example of the former is from Fritz Leiber’s A Pale of Air. I read this story mumbledy-mumbledy years ago and remember literally feeling cold after the first few paragraphs. No idea why and continued blissfully ignorant for ever so long. Take a moment to read the opening and enjoy the chill:

Pa had sent me out to get an extra pail of air. I’d just about scooped it full and most of the warmth had leaked from my fingers when I saw the thing.
You know, at first I thought it was a young lady. Yes, a beautiful young lady’s face all glowing in the dark and looking at me from the fifth floor of the opposite apartment, which hereabouts is the floor just above the white blanket of frozen air. I’d never seen a live young lady before, except in the old magazines—Sis is just a kid and Ma is pretty sick and miserable—and it gave me such a start that I dropped the pail. Who wouldn’t, knowing everyone on Earth was dead except Pa and Ma and Sis and you?

Consider the specific items that lend (to me, at least) the feeling of cold:
Pa had sent me out to get an extra pail of air. I’d just about scooped it full and most of the warmth had leaked from my fingers when I saw the thing.
You know, at first I thought it was a young lady. Yes, a beautiful young lady’s face all glowing in the dark and looking at me from the fifth floor of the opposite apartment, which hereabouts is the floor just above the white blanket of frozen air. I’d never seen a live young lady before, except in the old magazines—Sis is just a kid and Ma is pretty sick and miserable—and it gave me such a start that I dropped the pail. Who wouldn’t, knowing everyone on Earth was dead except Pa and Ma and Sis and you?

None of these items caught me consciously during my first read. Or the second through fifth reads. Somewhere up around read #10 I asked, “Why am I feeling cold?”

StoryTelling – do you have an interesting story to tell?
StoryCrafting – can you tell your story in an interesting way?

 
But that subconscious response is what’s important. If the reader consciously recognizes these elements you’ve lost them as a reader. They’ll get caught up in your artistry and lose focus on the story itself. That “artistry v story” is a reason I love Margaret Atwood‘s writing but barely get through her books. Her craft is more interesting than the story she’s telling (as in StoryCrafting v StoryTelling. The difference being StoryTelling – do you have an interesting story to tell? StoryCrafting – can you tell your story in an interesting way?).

Reading for craft is Reading with Intention (my term). People ask me if reading with intention ruins a book for me. I don’t think it ruins a book for me and it certainly stops me from reading books that are poorly written. It also stops me from watching lots of TV shows and movies: If the storycrafting isn’t there, why watch/read it?

Example: We recently watched an Amazon TV show. The show began with lots of text scrolling up the screen. No idea how long the text scrolled except that it was too long. A competent writer would have put that exposition (scrolling text is “exposition”) in the mouth of a character, thereby developing a character, an environment, creating suspense, moving a plot forward, demonstrating conflict, …

When the lights go down you have their attention. – Billy Wilder
Alternately: When they open your book’s cover you have their attention.

 
Reading “The solar system had been colonized. Mars was now an independent, war-like planet. Open conflict existed between Earth – ruled by the UN – and the Asteroid Belt.” doesn’t engage me. The writer is making statements that I can either accept or not and if I don’t, the writer loses that most precious quantity, the reader/viewer (which they did).

Exposition is economical (important for visual mediums) but also the least effective means for engaging readers/viewers. Exposition is acceptable once your story’s been established and the reader’s accepted it. Starting a story with declarative sentences (exposition) is a big risk, especially in speculative fiction because most readers/viewers are coming with lots of preconceptions about your speculations. Give them a reason to enter your reality willingly. George Lucas provided an easy visual solution in the original Star Wars; lots of scrolling text in the foreground, a space battle in the background. Those (at the time) amazing visuals kept moviegoers locked on the scrolling text, ie, give them a reason to read and they will.

In literature, declarative statements can be put in the mouth of a character. Imagine a gruff, middle-aged, male voice saying “The solar system had been colonized for three generations by the time my people left Earth for the Asteroid belt. We left because the UN ruled the planet like a too-tight collar on a sweating man’s neck. The Asteroid Belt was The Old West: You could homestead if you’re watchful of the outlaws, but the marshals and sheriffs worked overtime and you could get a good posse together if the Stations were transmitting. I just married when Mars broke away and went renegade, at least that’s how Earth and the rest of the planets saw it, and that’s what brought trouble to my little corner of the sky.”

You learn a good chunk about the character, a plot line, the setting, et cetera, in there. Add the visuals (this was an Amazon TV show, remember?) of the planets, asteroids, a frontier hovel being blasted, spaceships chasing each other, shoot-em-ups and I’m there.

Now imagine those same lines delivered by a sweet, teenaged, female voice with the same visuals. A completely different story emerges. Does it take more words? Yes. Does the reader/viewer learn and experience more of the story? Yes.

Take every opportunity to show the reader/viewer character, conflict, setting, et cetera.

Writing
You can sit and write, write, write and gets lots of words down on paper but without that “Reading with Intention” part, I’ll bet all that writing is worthless worthless worthless.

Once you learn to Read with Intention it’s time to Write with Intention. Write specifically to make a reader feel cold, to make them thirsty, to sexually arouse them, to make them distrust their neighbor, to make them laugh, cry, respond emotionally, to feel, to engage, to act, and the best yet, to keep reading your story.

Right now, my “Writing with Intention” is different from writing to produce a story. Example: I spend some mornings creating similes –

    Light as

  • the dust on a shelf
  • grasshopper wings
  • a whisper among the trees
  • the rustling of leaves on a calm summer day
  • the sand on a frozen beachhead
  • the music of the soul
  • the sound of rain high in the sky
  • the scent of lemons on a holiday cake
  • an unwritten poem
  • moonlight on ocean water
    Silent as

  • the deep, cold Atlantic
  • an unscored symphony
  • a Saharan night
  • a thrice burned forest
  • an angel’s wings
  • an ex-lover’s phone
  • a dead child’s cry
  • a promise unbroken
  • licorice in tea
  • unpolished shoes

Some suck. Some are okay. Some are gems (“Silent as a Saharan night” stands out, me thinks. “Silent as an ex-lover’s phone” is also good and conjures up completely different feelings in me). I may never use these. They are practice. This blog post is practice. I practice writing so my writing looks less like practice.

Remember reading stuff to figure out why and how it doesn’t work? Check your stuff for those whys and hows and fix them. Practice removing them from your thinking when you’re writing. Practice the hows and whys that worked, that made you feel, emote, react, think. Another great Margaret Atwoodism is “Fail Better.” I prefer “Write Better” because the goal is clearly stated – write better!

I’ve heard lots of writing instructors/coaches/teachers say “Write x hours every day”. They’ll also say be prepared to throw away lots of what you write. One of Margaret Atwood’s great lines is “The wastebasket is your friend.” That advice is self-defeating to me. It can lead to a belief that what you’re writing is okay so just keep at your current level, don’t work at improving your craft.

Perhaps I’m the only one dim enough to separate Practice from Writing. I’ll practice 5,000 shots at the basket so that I can make the shot during a game. I’ll practice Bach for years so that I can play Bach on stage. To me there’s a difference between practicing my craft and writing a story.

So definitely read, read, read and write, write, write.

Just remember to put that “…with Intention” part in there.