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Reading to Improve Your Writing

Honghu W
Flickr Creative Commons: Honghu W

Usually I don’t read fiction when I’m in the middle of writing fiction. Like many writers, I don’t want to get distracted from my story by another story, or get swept up into a different world when I’m struggling to create a world of my own. I also don’t want another writer’s style or rhythm to creep inadvertently into my own writing. But this time around, as I’ve been working on my fourth novel, I’ve been reading like crazy, eight books in the last six weeks. And it has helped me more than I can say with my novel-in-progress. As the author Jennifer Egan says, “Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work.” Here’s what I’ve learned:

Simplify. I’ve been struggling with the plot of my current novel. When I recently wrote a summary/outline, I was overwhelmed. It felt like a lot of people doing a lot of different things, but I wasn’t quite sure how to fix it. Then I read Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. It’s a story about a woman recovering from surgery whose estranged mother comes to stay with her. As they talk over the course of several days in Lucy’s hospital room, all the stories that have shaped Lucy’s life bubble to the surface.

It’s a deceptively simple book, a book in which things said and unsaid between a mother and daughter come to reveal everything about who Lucy is, the longings and struggles that have defined her, and her yearnings about who she still wants to be. After reading the book, I saw that I needed to whittle my own story down to its most essential elements, cutting out certain characters and extraneous plot lines. It allowed me to see the story at the heart of my story, which had been there all along but hidden underneath layers of too much stuff.

Change it up. I write character-driven fiction, and I tend to read books like that, too (witness Lucy Barton, above). But the 8 books I’ve read so far this year include two memoirs, two works of non-fiction, one crime thriller, one work of historical fiction, and one futuristic/dystopian novel. Non-fiction and crime thrillers aren’t found often in my TBR pile, and dystopian fiction is waaaay outside my comfort zone. But reading outside my usual genre gave me a considerable jumpstart in my own writing. I stayed up late to finish Allison Leotta’s The Last Good Girl and was reminded how important it is to construct a smart plot that moves along at a steady—or fast!—pace and that can still surprise readers at the end [full disclosure: Allison is a member of my critique group].

Two other books—Winston Graham’s Poldark and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven— showed me how to create rich, believable fictional worlds, made even more real by small details that make them sing. In Poldark, Demelza, a country girl staying in a fine house for the first time, can’t get over the birds on the patterned curtains, “like mistle thrushes, only the specks are the wrong color…If they wish to paint spots on birds on curtains, why don’t they paint the spots the right color? No bird ever had pink spots.” The birds on the curtains detail brings us immediately and visually into the fine house in 1780’s Cornwall, into the heart and soul of the character, who has spent her life roaming the woods and meadows and has a vivid curiosity.

And in Station Eleven, where a flu pandemic has wiped out 99.9% of the world’s population, those left behind don’t only struggle to survive, they also marvel at the world now lost to them: “Clark had always been fond of beautiful objects, and in his present state of mind, all objects were beautiful…Consider the snow globe. Consider the mind that invented those miniature storms, the factory worker who turned sheets of plastic into white flakes of snow, the hand that drew the plan for the miniature Severn City with its church steeple and city hall, the assembly-line worker who watched the globe glide past on a conveyer belt somewhere in China. Consider the white gloves on the hands of the woman who inserted the snow globes into boxes, to be packed into larger boxes, crates, shipping containers. Consider the card games played below decks in the evenings on the ship carrying the containers across the ocean, a hand stubbing out a cigarette in an overflowing ashtray, a haze of blue smoke in dim light, the cadences of a half dozen languages united by common profanities, the sailors’ dreams of land and women, these men for whom the ocean was a gray-line horizon to be traversed in ships the size of overturned skyscrapers….” The details put the reader directly into a world so transformed that every ordinary occurrence has become a thing of wonder, a miracle. The sense of loss in this new world is palpable.

Nourish your non-writing life. In Painting as a Pastime, Winston Churchill writes, “But reading and book-love in all their forms suffer from one serious defect: they are too nearly akin to the ordinary daily round of the brain-worker to give that element of change and contrast essential to real relief.” Churchill took up painting at age 40, and painted more than 500 works over the next 48 years. Reading his little book encouraged me to take up painting with pastels, and it’s provided me with a creative outlet I can turn to when I’m stuck or need a break from writing fiction. Whatever your pleasure—music, carpentry, tennis, cooking—don’t neglect it. Your writing will be the better for your indulgence.

Science fiction author H.P. Lovecraft wrote: “All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.” https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/01/11/h-p-lovecraft-advice-on-writing/ [1]

So, writers, go forth and read. It may be the nourishment you need.

When has reading helped your writing? How?

About Kathleen McCleary [2]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.