I’ve said it before, but it’s time to say it again. If you want to be a writer, you need to read. You need to read a lot. And, once you know what type of writing you want to do, you need to read books in that specific area.
I was talking to my mom about this the other day. I felt comfortable writing a multiple viewpoint third person novel because I’ve read so many books with multiple viewpoints written in third person. (At least three or four in the last month or so. Extrapolate that over 25+ years of reading, take into consideration that I used to read five books in a weekend at a certain age, carry the whatever = A LOT.)
Now, it’s quite possible that I’m delusional and my book sucks and I didn’t pull it off. I don’t think that’s the case. I think my viewpoints and tenses are just fine. (My book’s weakness is the story itself. Because that’s all me. The story I’m trying to tell isn’t something I pulled from other books. And it’s not perfect. I’m not a perfect writer – never will be.)
Reading all those other books gave me a framework for what’s possible. How long should chapters be? When can you change point of view? How do you change point of view? How do you ground your reader in the current point of view when you do change? How much should you describe the scene? How do you handle dialogue? What about thoughts?
The more you read, the more you see what worked or didn’t work. And it’s purely subjective. I picked up a YA book in the store yesterday with chapters that were three sentences long. Not my style. But it works for a certain audience. There was another series of books that were written like one long chat session.
It’s all about figuring out what works for you as a writer. How can you tell the story you need to tell? (And, yes, one the audience will like. Perhaps I’m slowly moving away from the write the book you need to write in the way you need to write it camp, because I’m beginning to realize that doesn’t always work for everyone. But I still think it’s better to write the book you want to write than to not be able to write because you’re frozen by trying to please others and fit into a mold that doesn’t work for you.)
Let’s use a food analogy. If all you’ve ever done is eat hamburgers and fries, you have a very limited idea of what food is and how it can be combined in different ways. Same thing if all you’ve ever done is eat raw fruit and vegetables. Or only ever eaten foie gras and figs. (Which was hella good the one time I tried it, btw).
The best way to learn flavor combinations and what’s possible is to get out there and try everything you can find. Eat from street vendors, eat foreign foods, eat at dive restaurants and fancy restaurants. Eat anything you can find.
Because then, when you find yourself in the kitchen looking at a recipe, you can think – well, I really don’t like cilantro, but cumin might add a nice little kick to this dish, so I think I’ll take this recipe and change it a bit.
And you get something great. Because you understand how things work.
And what you cook at the end of the day may be very different from what I cook. But neither of us would be very good cooks if all we had as a frame of reference was hamburgers and fries.
So, if you want to be a writer – READ! (If you want to be a cook – EAT!) And make sure there’s variety to it, too. Don’t just read books by one author or in one series. It’s not enough.