Sometimes I pick up a book, read it cover to cover, and wonder if I’ll ever be that good. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably done the same thing.
It’s essentially a depressing blow to my ego, and I begin to feel hopeless about writing in general. Like, what’s the point of writing if there are others that are better than me? Who will buy my book when they can spend their money on better stories? I could never write/plot/develop characters/scenes/emotions that well.
It’s the mark of any artist, that desire to just give up, because your work is never any good in your eyes. But before you go off the deep end, delete all your files or shove your hard copies into a shredder with the end of a broomstick, just hold on a minute and listen to me. Because despair never got anyone anywhere.
Here’s what you don’t do to combat despair.
Don’t read books that are worse than yours.
Yeah, I know. It’s so tempting to go on Amazon, find crappy free downloads, download them, and read them with a sense of relief and reassurance. I often think, If I’m not that bad, I’m doing pretty okay.
This character is so unrealistic.
This is the most boring plot ever. Nothing even happens in this book!
The writing style is DOA.
No wonder they didn’t get traditionally published!
(And most mind-boggling of all) How they hell did they get so many five-star reviews??
I’ll go read the one- and two-star reviews and have a good laugh. Some of these reviews are better-written than the book itself. Then, if I’m still feeling a bit down, I’ll go and read the one-and two-star reviews of awesome books by traditionally published writers (believe me, they exist). The Girl on the Train was very entertaining to me. I had to read it all the way through as quickly as I could. I was so into it. And as of the moment I’m writing this post, there are about 3,400 one-star reviews (I did some quick math). I am amazed that such an entertaining book can be rated so low. Some people, frankly, seem determined to hate a good book.
Since I’m in a pretty good mood right now, I feel bad that Paula Hawkins’ book got such low ratings. But when I’m feeling pretty dark and depressed, my relief and reassurance deepens. Now I can relax a bit—after wasting my writing time gleefully enjoying the contempt poured on other writers’ books by disappointed, disgusted, irritated readers.
NO! Don’t get sucked into this. It’s bad in and of itself, but more importantly, it doesn’t make you a better writer.
Don’t read how-to books.
Do I get better by reading how-to books? Books that tell me how to plot, develop characters, and scenes? Books on story themes, deeper messages, foreshadowing, metaphors, and the like?
I don’t believe they do. Here’s why.
To put it simply, these books are all theory. Studying theory is useful, to be sure. For example, how-to books on writing are useful for putting names to writing devices/methods that you didn’t how to name. But theory is useless without practicality. The difference between studying theory and studying the result of theory is the difference between learning music theory and listening to music itself. When you listen to music itself, it moves you in ways cold and dead theory never can. Anyone who tripped over a crack in the sidewalk and skinned the heels of their hands can tell you gravity is much more effective than anything you can actually study about it.
Don’t just write.
This might seem counterintuitive, but it’s absolutely true. If you’ve ever attempted NaNoWriMo, (National Novel Writing Month) you know what it’s like to attempt to write 50K words in 30 days. You also know that your writing begins to flounder about two weeks in, and starts turning pale and flat. Anyway, that’s what happened to me. When I write, and only write, my writing begins to feel like it’s holding its breath and dying to draw air. When you hold your breath, at first it’s easy to think about other stuff. But as the seconds tick on, the only thing you start to notice is how much you really, really need air. In writing, your sentences become stilted, lacking vitality and variation. Your metaphors and similes become labored, boring. The words just don’t come easily anymore, because in only allowing yourself to write, you’ve forgotten the most important thing you need to better your craft.
Here’s what I’m getting at.
The #1 thing you need to do to be a better writer is read books—
—books that are better than yours.
Yeah, that’s right. Read books by authors that are better than you. You don’t have to read the classics (although you probably must, at least once, especially if you read something like The Yellow Wallpaper or Catcher in the Rye and didn’t really have the chance to appreciate it). That’s not what I mean. I mean just more experienced writers in general. And that means modern, traditionally published ones, like Stephen King or Gillian Flynn or Michael Connelly or John Grisham or J.K Rowling. It doesn’t matter if you write in their genre or not. Just read ones that are better than you. The ones that make you go, I wish I could write like that.
The importance of reading others’ books is one I cannot stress enough. When you read a book, you feel something. When you read a book, and can’t put it down, you’re feeling what you want to feel when you read a book, you’re feeling engagement. That’s exactly what you want for your own readers.
You can observe, by example, precisely what made you feel that way, and think of ways to emulate that. You simply don’t get that in a how-to book.
There are other things that theory can’t teach you. Like how to pace a book. They might be able to give you a formula, but each book deserves its own pace. Each book has a unique story, and needs a unique pace.
Books and plot are all about pacing. Get the pace wrong, and it doesn’t matter how good your writing style is, your story just falls flat. And pace doesn’t just cover the whole plot, from cover to cover, it covers individual scenes, dialogue and the way it flows naturally in a good book, laying out the setting in an organic way and not dumping all of it one shot. In other words, the overall progression and unfolding of a scene. An action scene unfolds differently from a suspense scene. They’re paced differently, the focus of the character is on different things, some things are drawn out, but others overlooked for the sake of the story and the reader. A how-to book can’t teach you these things. Only a good writer can, by example.
You also learn other things, like vivid imagery you’d never, ever hear from another good writer. Reading others’ stark imagery sparks your own imagination. I read this phrase recently in a Stephen King books’ opening, “Darker than woodchuck’s asshole.” Wow. No one (hopefully) has ever examined how dark this location is, but everyone knows exactly what he means. Just this phrase alone promises an interesting read.
Themes are also something that how-to books examine, but there’s no better way to examine themes than just reading a book. It’s more fun that way, anyway. You can do your own themes consciously within your books, but it’s so much better when it happens organically. Like for example, if a central theme in a book is fear of death. The writer can explore this with a character who maybe is obsessed with death. Maybe he goes to wakes of people he doesn’t even know. Gets a job at a funeral home. Takes pictures of dead bodies. In fearing death, he’s unconsciously trying to understand it better to assuage that fear. Maybe he has a scrape with death and that makes him rethink everything. Maybe his grandmother, to whom he’s very attached, is really sick and going to die any time. In order to avoid a death so close to him, in order to keep that horrible fear at bay, he pulls away from his grandmother, whom he loves very much, but fears her death.
I pulled this example out of thin air, but that tiny bit of development happened naturally. There was no pre-planning involved, no outlining. It’s much more interesting to let writing happen this way too, a form of exploration.
So do yourself a favor.
Go find a book by a favorite author. Even one you’ve read before. Crack it open to page one, and just read. After reading a good book, you’ll find your words flow more easily, more vividly, and your writing will be more powerful.
One good book can conjure another.
And finally, after doing all that reading, don’t forget the #2 most important thing to becoming a better writer…
…And that is, of course, remembering to write.
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