It’s been said a thousand times (and I’m just talking about me saying it) – if you wanna write fiction, you gotta read. Without that, you’re a doctor who didn’t go to school, an oil painter who never sketched, a race-car driver who never got behind the wheel. You can give it a go, but the results aren’t going to be good.
But is it important what you read?
Yes and no. Reading anything is better than nothing. Reading everything you can get your hands on is ideal – a writer reads for pleasure, takes pleasure in reading, wants to read. But it’s important to read fiction if you want to write fiction. It’s also important to read non-fiction, for pleasure and for research. It’s important to read in the genre you’re writing in, and outside that genre.
Think of it as your brain’s diet. You need variety, you need the main course – good fiction – and you need the occasional sugar rush of terrible fiction.
The good news is, you can’t really eat too much on the Brain Diet. I suppose you could read so much you forget to write, but most writers find that reading just makes them want to write more. Most of us also have to have other jobs, so there’s always a time crunch, but reading is easier to make time for than writing. You can read on the toilet, on the bus, at meals, during commercials, on the treadmill, on your ten-minute break. It’s harder to squeeze writing into that, although some find it doable.
There’s more good news. That sugar rush of terrible fiction is good for you, too. It helps you to know what you like and what you don’t like, and why. I’d classify good TV and movies as sugar rush, also – they can help tell you what works visually, and what plotting and characterization boil down to in the short form, but they aren’t enough, by themselves, to help you internalize the guidelines of good fiction in written form.
So read. Read mindfully, considering what works for you and doesn’t and how you’d express that if you needed to. Read voraciously. Read out loud – it helps you understand what dialogue is meant to do. Listen to audiobooks. Read good fiction, read bad fiction, read nonfiction, read everything you can. Never stop.
Next week: Who’s Reading You?