I was approached a while ago at a book fair by a woman, who after chatting about my books for a while, said her son wanted to be a writer and asked what advice I had for him. I don’t remember what I told her, but it felt inadequate, so I went home and wrote up “Five Tips for a Beginning Writer”. I will look at one tip in each post.
1. Read. Read a lot. Read some more.
Probably the most important thing a writer can do—other than the act of writing itself—is to read. Every author is first and foremost a reader. It’s the best way to learn the craft.
But you need to read like a writer.
What does that mean?
Think of the apprentice to a master carpenter. How does he learn the craft? There is some direct instruction by the master, but for the most part the apprentice follows the master and watches him work. He sees the master choosing the mahogany and asks why that particular piece? He watches the master plane, carve and sand it, noting which tools and techniques the master chooses and why. He watches and learns how the master seamlessly joins the various pieces to build the cabinet. He learns by watching the master work.
Now if you are the apprentice, your reading material is the work of the master craftsman. Enjoy the story, but pay attention to the craft as you go. Ask yourself why the author chose to begin her story when she did? Why not at another time or place? There are an infinite number of possibilities. Why that one? Why did he chose that particular point of view? How does she handle dialogue? Are the descriptive passages lean and factual, or are they lyrical and poetic? How does that affect the story?
Everything the author puts on the page—down to the very word—is a conscious decision. As a writer, we need to understand why the author decided on that particular word, phrase, or scene and how it enhances (or detracts from the story).
Read everything. Read the classics,. Read today’s popular authors. Read histories, newspapers, magazines, self—help books. Read advertising copy. Every one is the polished work of someone good enough to be published. Read books that aren’t quite as good. Search out and learn from that author’s mistakes. Take notes. Memorize passages you find particularly good and ask yourself why it’s good. (Or not). What did the author do that made it so good? (Or not).
This is how we, as writers, learn our craft.