We’re all unique.
When I decided to get serious about this writing thing I started reading books and blogs and discussion forums about writing, sitting at the proverbial feet of the masters and soaking up their hard-earned wisdom. And what I realized at the end of the day is that there is no “right way” to write.
As a born and bred skeptic, I doubt anything anyone tells me. So, for me, all of that research was just gathering ideas and seeing if there were any commonalities amongst all the different perspectives. I didn’t take it as gospel.
But I also know that I’m fairly unique in my unbridled arrogance. And, reading some of the comments of the other neophytes like myself, I saw that some were either taking the advice they found literally or were seeking guidance from others on issues that only they can answer.
So, for any of you out there trying to find your way into this writing thing, below are my own completely personal, highly subjective views on the matter. (Keep in mind that I am not published, so really have no basis for what I’m about to say).
I ran across a series of posts by a very successful author that basically said that you must be well-versed in the classics to the point that you can quote them verbatim if you ever want to be a successful author. (Perhaps an extreme interpretation of what he actually said, but this is how I remember it). As I may have mentioned before, I’ve read a lot of books in my life. A lot. And I’ve read a wide range of books.
But I’m going to make a confession here – I have not read all of Shakespeare. I can’t even remember the plots to the Shakespearean plays I did read (all for school I might add). But, guess what? I have read most of Tolstoy’s works and most of Dostoyevsky’s and a lot of Borges and Neruda and a ton of H.G. Wells and Asimov and a whole slew of Tom Clancyesque books and hundreds and hundreds of other books, including many, many books, both good and bad, in my chosen genre. And I think that’s enough to get started in this whole writing thing.
Perhaps, ten years from now, when I’m still unpublished, I will hang my head in shame and admit that, if only I had read Moby Dick sooner, I too could have been a published author. I hope not. But, if that day comes, I will come on here, say a mea culpa, and go spend a year of my life reading the classics. (Not to say that the classics aren’t good or aren’t worth reading and that I don’t try to fit a few into my schedule now and then.)
Personally, I don’t think you can be a good writer if you don’t read. It may be possible, though, so let me amend that statement. I don’t think I would have been able to start writing without having read as much as I have over the years. From reading, I’ve learned what I like and what I don’t like in books. And, even if I can’t quote for you the plots of most of those books, I have absorbed into my sub-conscious the themes of those books. And I’ve learned about the various ways in which people live and interact through my reading (and real-life observation, of course). Every word I write is a reaction to every word I’ve read, so the more I read the wider the breadth of experience I can draw on.
To me, advice that you must read the classics is akin to telling someone that the only people worth knowing are those in power. It’s useful sometimes to know the president of the company, but it can be a hell of a lot more useful to know his secretary. And if what you really need is someone to deal with the leaky toilet on your floor, it may be even better to know the maintenance man. (A weird analogy, I know.) The point is this – read as much as you can from as many different cultures and genres as you can. And by that I mean, books that you will actually pick up, read word for word, and finish. Don’t spend six weeks struggling for motivation to read your way through Les Miserables (a book I happen to have enjoyed, especially for the random digressions) when you can read the whole Twilight series in a weekend.
Find books that you enjoy and enjoy them. Don’t try to fit someone else’s mold. (Can you believe I just looked that word, mold, up? The moments of doubt we writers face…and there were probably a slew of words above I should have actually double-checked. Ah well.) Expand your experience in whatever way works for you and realize that no one has all of the answers. Even the most successful person in the world can only tell you what worked for him or the people he knows (and that’s only if he bothers to listen to those he knows…but that’s a whole different topic for another day).
(Oh, and once you’ve found books you enjoy, ruin all the fun for yourself and go back through them trying to figure out what it was that the author did to make the book enjoyable. Or don’t. Maybe if you read enough books you enjoy and you’re that type of person, the lessons will sink into your mind without that going back and destroying it for yourself step.)
This post is getting a little long, so I’m going to end it here, but there will someday be a #2, #3, etc. Just not today.