“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
— Stephen King
I read voraciously as a kid. From an early age, I indulged in the joys of immersing myself in words and the worlds they create. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, and That Scatterbrain Booky by Bernice Thurman Hunter were amongst my favourites up until about the fifth grade. I admit even now that in my independent imaginative play (read: off in my own little world), I imagined being a part of the stories I loved, and holding my favourite characters as some of my best friends. My kindred spirits, as Anne Shirley would put it. Around the time I turned eleven or twelve, I discovered the darkly riveting world of V.C. Andrews when my mother put a copy of My Sweet Audrina on my nightstand. (I’m sure she was thinking, “It’ll take that kid weeks to read this and I’ll get a break from those damn library trips!” …Little did she know.)
Reviewing this trip down memory lane, I don’t blame you if you’re skeptical of the timeline I’ve outlined. Claiming to read adult Gothic horror at eleven years old? Putting aside the horribly inappropriate themes for a pre-teen to be introduced to, Veronica couldn’t possibly have been able to read at that level. I get it. Looking at the reading comprehension of my thirteen-year-old wee man and his classmates now, the skepticism is understandable.
But I am in earnest. You see, I am proud to have been one of a very unusual foursome in my class at that time. Myself, and my friends Katie, Meredith and Laurel were young readers one doesn’t often come across—especially not four at one time. I know this because our teachers, parents, friends’ parents and principal all told us so. Laurel preferred Mary Higgins Clark, Katie was a V.C. fan like me, and Meredith (not being allowed to read the kinds of books she loved) plowed her way through any Johanna Lindsey, Danielle Steele or LaVyrle Spencer I filched from my mother’s reading library on her behalf.
It is no wonder that I grew up to be a writer. Incidentally, my childhood friend Katie also grew up to be a writer—she is a script writer with a popular Netflix television series and now lives in Los Angeles.
They say that practice makes perfect. If you want to be a good writer, you have to write regularly. While there is true, I’d like to point out that there is another piece to the equation of becoming good at something, and that is you need a good teacher. Happily, we authors have an enormous breadth of teachers at our fingertips: books! Other authors. Every book we read gives us the opportunity to learn lessons. Amazing books, bad books, books in our genre, books wildly out of them… the possibilities are endless. Literally. As long as books continue to be written, we will continue to have an endless pool of teachers to learn from.
Read like it’s your job
As Stephen King says, if you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have the time or the tools to write. And since writing is our job, reading should also be our job. But it’s not enough to simply read voraciously. They way I read as a kid is not the way I read now. For better or worse, I find that I am constantly filtering what I read through my critical brain. There is a recognition now that every book I pick up is a chance to learn, whereas when I was a kid, it was simply an escape. Interestingly, when I find that I am beginning to escape into a book, I pull myself out of it with wonder—how did the author do that? Make me escape when I was reading critically just a page ago? And that in itself becomes a learning lesson.
In a post on Well-Storied.com, fantasy fiction writer Kristen Kieffer says, “When we read fiction, we don’t often think about the mechanics behind the story. We don’t analyze the structure of a novel’s plot or the development of its characters, nor do we often meditate on the effectiveness of the author’s prose. We simply read for our own enjoyment, or for the expansion of our minds. To read critically, however, is to do everything that most readers do not. It’s to place ourselves in the shoes of a book reviewer or a critic and dive deep into what did or did not make a particular story tick. Where most readers would simply say that a novel’s ending fell flat, a critic would nail down exactly where the author went wrong.”
There is another part to reading critically. Kristina Adams of The Writer’s Cookbook puts it well when she says: “Reread your favourite books from the genre(s) you write. Ask yourself what you love about it, and what makes it special. What can you learn from it? The more you read from a particular author, the more you’ll notice patterns.”
To give an example, I am currently reading Perfect by Judith McNaught… for the gazillionth time (another book my mother nudged my way when I was in high school). I adore her style of writing. The way she switches back and forth between points of view, but does so seamlessly, is an art that I actively pursue. Her ability to indulge in banter makes me fall in love with her characters so easily. The lovable secondary characters, the multiple storylines in one novel… yes, her humour is sometimes cheesy, but she is a wonderful storyteller.
I am rereading Perfect specifically because this is the kind of quality I want to bring to my latest work in progress, Autumn in Arborwood. My first contemporary romance novel is a story about people. Relationships. Having fun and falling in love—with friends, with family, with place. There is no better author to look to for guidance than Judith McNaught in these strengths.
So, my author friends. Read. Read vastly, frequently and widely. Read critically. Examine the styles you do and don’t like, the plot twists you love and hate. Anything and everything. In the words of William Faulkner, “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”