Thursday, April 17, 2008

Why should you read?

Would you allow a surgeon to operate on you if he hadn’t watched many surgeries being performed and if he didn’t read medical journals?

Would you allow a stockbroker to invest your money if she didn’t keep up with the financial market?

While these might seem like no-brainers, I’ve come across writers who didn’t read, either in their genre or otherwise. They justified this in various ways – they didn’t have enough time, or they deliberately avoided books in their genre because they didn’t want their work to be too influenced by that of others. I was taken aback by this at first, since I can’t imagine not reading, but this gave me a chance to think about why reading is a good idea.

1. Reading shows you the playing field. A writer who reads only Tolkien and DragonLance before starting a story might well have the impression that successful fantasy novels are set in a land resembling medieval Europe and that parties of adventurers (including a beautiful elf, a gruff dwarf and a mysterious magician) must set out to fight a Great Evil. Such a writer may not realize just how far the envelope can be pushed, just how wide the borders of fantasy can be. They are as wide as a mind, but that mind cannot grow in a vacuum. Nor can it be nourished by itself alone.

Could reading extensively lead to other books overly influencing your own? I don’t think so. Everything you read goes into your mind, but if you have a writer’s mind and a writer’s imagination, what you read doesn’t emerge in the same shape and form (the brain is like the digestive system that way). It’s possible to be influenced by another writer in a positive way, without copying what they write. I love the wonderfully alien, familiar-yet-strange food that people eat in Jack Vance’s books, and I sometimes have my characters eating similarly odd meals, but I make up my own dishes. Writers who are concerned that they might inadvertently plagiarize might keep copies of the books close at hand, or make notes of the exact inspiration so that they don’t repeat it.

2. Reading improves your style. From Dean Koontz’s early work, including Midnight, Whispers and The Voice of the Night, I learned not to use said-bookisms. From Ayn Rand’s novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, I learned to avoid cliches and the generic when it came to descriptions. This can backfire – my favorite fantasy novel is Watership Down, so when I wrote my first fantasy, I started every chapter with a stanza or more of poetry, which quickly grew out of hand. But reading (and especially reading critically, examining what works and what doesn’t) will nearly always produce better writing.

3. Reading gives you ideas. I could never have come up with my stories if I had shut myself off in the literary equivalent of the sensory deprivation chamber. After reading an Anne Bishop novel, I thought that while a male prostitute forced to service hundreds of women could still be made sympathetic and sexy, that might be more challenging if the prostitute were a woman – and the heroine. At once I had the main characters of Before the Storm.

This advantage transcends genre and extends to non-fiction as well. One of the books I’ve read recently is Survival of the Sickest, which examines the effects that diseases have on us and on evolution. But it also digresses into a description of a parasitic wasp that stings a spider, laying an egg on it before flying away. I expected the wasp larva to eat the spider. Nothing surprising about that.
What startled me was that the larva (while literally feeding off the spider’s living body) makes the spider spin a cocoon where the larva can safely turn into a wasp. That was amazing. I’d never before read about parasitism which could alter a host’s natural, fundamental behavior to that extent – uninfected spiders spin webs, not cocoons. I immediately decided to use that in a story or novel, except that instead of a wasp, I’ll have humanoids or even animals who attach themselves to people, forcing those people to engage in abnormal actions that further the parasite’s reproductive goals.*

4. Reading helps you to query successfully. Many agents want to know who your target audience is. Replying “people who like fantasy” is probably not going to work. Being specific, by including people who enjoy dark fantasy a la Jacqueline Carey or realistic epics like A Song of Ice and Fire, is more professional and more helpful.

The last reason, which is so simple that I’m not going to give it a number of its own, is that reading is just plain fun. I can understand not having a lot of time, since I’m gone from home for half the day, but I read library books on my commute. That’s part of my training as a writer.

*Bernard Taylor used the humanoid version of the cuckoo in a brilliant horror novel called The Godsend.

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