We writers hear it all the time “Five Books Every Writer Must Read” or “Young writers should read past bedtime and write things down in notebooks when they are supposed to be doing something else.”
And there’s also a lot out there about why we should read (we’ll learn to start in the action, that tragedy makes triumphs greater, or that heroines don’t have to be beautiful).
But how does any of this help me? Why should I spend as much time reading as I do writing?
Because I just keep learning. No matter what I think I know, there’s always so much more to know.
Here’s a few things I learnt in the last four weeks.
1. Being pretentious
I realised how easy it is to think everyone will be patient while I indulge myself in a pretty turn of phrase, a technical explanation, or a long description. Or, as Stephen King says in the foreword of ‘The Gunslinger‘ to think making scenes obscure makes them more exciting, or gives the reader something to re-read with avid interest.
I struggled through The Gunslinger and only persisted because Stephen King is the master and I trust him when he says the books get better. And the purple prose of Distopia did its utmost to detract me from what was a brilliant story.
I can’t wait to attack my own manuscript and make sure I treat my potential readers to a good read, not a lecture on the English language. Stephen King, Robert Kroese: thank you. You both taught me this through your respective brilliance.
2. Scene-sequel structure
I found more beautiful examples on how to put what I’ve learned about scene-sequel into practice. Thea Welsh used a personal style, creating the sense of a private diary, which allowed her to openly disclose coming twists and turns with a natural ease yet stunning effect.
The events in The President’s Wife follow the motivation-reaction sequence in a way I hadn’t considered. Thank you Thea Welsh, I could not have learnt this any better way than by taking the time out to read.
While reading Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend, I was struck by the author’s bravery – wouldn’t the strongly religious find it offensive? Wouldn’t the non-religious find it too biblical?
But I’m wrong, of course, because this book has a huge following.
Moore’s biblical references, while being perfectly true to the Good Book, are melded into conversation and brought to life, with less of a scriptures feel and more of a human-as-Son-of-God feel.
And Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency used passive voice to bring an element of honesty and sweetness to the Batswana characters.
Thank you to Moore and McCall Smith for showing me how to incorporate technicality and specialty into a story without overpowering the story or making it difficult to read.
4 Scene transitions
Marathon Man by William Goldman starts slow. No doubt about it.
But wow when it gets under way at about page 120!
I’m still learning my craft, so I still find it hard to show the suddenness of an event from a character’s point of view. Sure, I can say ‘suddenly’ but that doesn’t make you bite your nails, or sit straighter on your chair.
William Goldman made me sit up and curse out loud in shock. I did not see it coming, yet I had all the facts. I didn’t have to stop and think, or re-read anything, I was just caught up in the sudden excitement. And that wasn’t even close to the climactic moment.
The only other author to do that to me recently is, yep, you guessed it – Stephen King.
This is just one example from The Drawing of the Three: King depicts a drug-runner on a plane. The drug-runner is in the toilet, trying to dispose of the drugs. Airline staff are outside, trying to get him to come out. King first shows the events from the perspective of the airline staff, then from the far more dramatic perspective of the drug-runner.
He could use re-telling to show time running out for the drug-runner. He could ignore the ticking clock and bore us. Instead he uses snippets of overheard conversation and lets me see for myself. I’m on the edge of my seat, my heart racing as I curse the drug-runner for being what he is, and hope like crazy he gets away with it – come on, come on; hurry hurry; not like that you idiot – and I don’t even like this character.
So thank you William Goldman and Stephen King, for showing me how to not use ‘sudden’ to achieve real sudden, and for showing me how to evoke compassion and empathy for even the sleaziest of characters.
What do you think? Have you read anything lately that made you want to master that skill too? I’d love to hear from you!