The Reading Part of the Writing Process

Writers are often told to use their lives as material for their writing. Rather than just making up stuff. Mordecai Richler once told me when I was a college student that if we were serious about writing, we should “fail” in school and go out to live life fully–even embrace suffering. Of course, none of us were willing to embrace suffering.Years of writing work teaches you there is no exclusive recipe for success as a writer. You need talent, but outside of that, the recipe usually calls for hard work, life experience, and imagination. But what about reading? Most people will accept that experience is important, and many young, would-be writers have complained to me that their lives were too boring for them to become successful writers. Few of them talked about the great writers they had read and studied as models for what was possible.Author of speculative and fantastical fiction, Michael Libling, has this to say about the ingredients for the writer’s success:

“I’m not sure life experience is a factor. We can all tell stories about our here and now, whatever our age.  What’s lacking, I suspect, is reading and writing experience. Unless you’re a prodigy of sorts, writing “about one thing” is where most writers begin. I did the same for the longest time. To move from wannabe to ‘published’, I gradually recognized the need to make that ‘one thing’ a character-driven thing. It [that realization] certainly made all the difference to me. The second thing was to stop being afraid of exposing myself–my thoughts and feelings and personal history–on the page. The more I allowed that to happen, the better my writing became.

Even when I chose to write about serial killers. Then again, I’ve never written about serial killers; I’ve only written about tortured human beings who have done terrible things. Tropes, plots: without an honest character or two to drive them, they die on the page. But it takes time to accept the fact. Locked rooms, Surprise endings. The denouement needs to be earned. Again, it comes from experience with reading and writing AND observing–and not necessarily from watching movies and t.v. shows. Yet, that’s pretty much what the new generation of writers are invested in. Science fiction is huge, for instance–but only in movies and in t.v. The field is in its final throes when it comes to works in print. I was speaking to a young cousin in CA, who had just received his Masters and was getting into teaching. He was a huge SF fan (HUGE!) and was eager to meet me. Thing was, he had never read Sturgeon, Asimov, Bradbury, or any of them. Not even me. The history of the field began and ended with Star Trek. His entire perception of SF was based on film and comic books. Nice kid, but it was discouraging as hell. Expecially because he was completely satisfied with his attitude.”

I’m not sure I can add anything to what Michael Libling has just said.

At its most succinct, reading as a writer, and not just as a fan, is crucial to your work and success as a writer.


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