How to Further Your Craft by Developing a Personal Reading List by Brad Windhauser
When I was pursuing a writing degree at UCSD, one of my professors—from whom I learned a lot and for whom I had a lot of respect—suggested to my class that the only benefit to pursuing a graduate degree in writing was that it allowed you more time to write. I.e., you wouldn’t learn anything.
I wish I hadn’t believed him, although the time between my Bachelor’s and my Master’s was only a few years, I had believed that the way to become a better writer was ALL about spending more time writing. That turned out not to be true. In fact, it turned out to be really wrong. As I learned by pursuing a Master’s (and then an MFA) in creative writing, there was much I needed to do to learn and hone my craft—and not all of it was related to being in a classroom. I also needed to do a whole lot of reading and spend a whole lot of time studying sentences.
So what did my Master’s do for my writing that I couldn’t have accomplished elsewhere? First, it put me in touch with other writers. This is key—you need their input and you need to see how other writers approach a story, characters, etc. You can get this from reading professional stories but it helps to surround yourself with people at (or slightly above) your level.
This was not the point in my career when I needed to be measuring myself against Hemingway or Faulkner stories.
Once I was in my Master’s program, my advisor called me out on how I wasn’t reading enough (my work showed this glaringly) and, more specifically, I wasn’t reading enough (or any) contemporary fiction. Sure, the classics are great—they’re classics for several reasons—but a writer can’t act like nothing has been written since then.
Writers need to develop their own reading list, one that will provide a foundation of the typical conventions used in fiction (good books in general) as well as a survey of the authors who are adept at the use of particular tools (books that excel at character development, for example).
Although it took a while to embrace this particular direction, once I did, I saw how reading directly impacted my developing writing skills. It is crucial for a writer to spend time READING books, preferably current ones (I covered this topic in depth in a previous post: http://wp.me/p2erKe-gR).
But where does one start selecting books? It helps to know what type of fiction you write and then discover books along the same lines: get a feel for how other authors craft stories using an approach you would like to foster. Also look for books that handle similar content: how do five different authors cover couples in crisis? Being parents? War? Life in a small town? You get the idea…
The key here is to not only read these books but PROCESS HOW they are written. Examine the author’s choices. Why did she or he make the decisions he or she did? How might the text have turned out differently if something different had been used?
You should also mix whatever list you develop with classics and popular books (think best sellers). For the classics, pick four or five books that fulfill one category you want to study. Which authors are known for how they develop plot? What about authors known for the character development? Use of setting? Use of the senses—you HAVE read Proust, haven’t you? What about dialogue-driven narratives?
And then seek out the more experimental approaches.
A good Pynchon novel may frustrate and make you work harder than other books, but what do you notice about how his approach differs from a typical approach to narrative? THINK about your reactions as they happen. Understanding why and when you reacted a certain way at a certain point in a novel will help you isolate it and perhaps develop it for your own purposes.
This might feel like you’re sucking the life out of what perhaps made you want to be a writer in the first place—you LIKE reading. Thinking too much as you read will break the book’s spell (and kill the joy this activity bring you). But this is just something you have to do.
Sure, there is sheer pleasure in reading Hemingway’s “The Three Day Blow,” eavesdropping on the banter between the two male characters. But when you sign up for being a writer, you need to take that appreciation to a different level, and if you’re not paying attention to what each round of dialogue offers this particular story as you read it story—how it builds the foundation of their relationship, offers their value-set and morals, eventually moves into “the point”—you’re missing an opportunity to get to the heart of what writing is about: how does an artist marshal details in order to create meaning on the page?
But for all the benefits of a deep reading list (and all the other things writers need to do to get better at their craft), there is much to be said for the one thing my professor did stress: writers need to write. Everything else you do will matter little if the skills you encounter in the books you read hone don’t surface in the work you produce.
So how do you translate everything you read to your own work and do you really do this?
Think of it this way: if you go shopping and eye a shirt you think you like—you get close to it, angle it towards the light, perhaps even hold it against you, run your hands along the fabric, building an appreciation for how it feels—nothing replaces actually trying it on in order to see how it fits you. You need to try out what you have discovered in other works.
Easy, right? Actually, no. But it’s necessary.
So if you want to replicate the type of dialogue a writer like Hemingway uses, go back to the text and take notes. What happens in this exchange? What does it achieve? Do this for every line in the scene. Then map this outline into a story of your own. Replicate the steps Hemingway uses in order to build your own work. This might feel tedious. Writing is about feeling, right, and spontaneity? Writing shouldn’t be this planned….
In your early drafts, let it flow. In your revision, however, once you have determined what your story is trying to do, go back in and, like a pro, use the tools you have learned in order to sharpen the focus of each character, each line of dialogue and your scenes—and eventually your story—will benefit.
The best way to appreciate these types of tools is to analyze them in the works of others, and if you’re not reading (or not reading enough) you’re missing a huge opportunity to further your craft.