Monday, April 11, 2016

Writing Advice Examined: Read a lot and write a lot.

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

I didn't keep a tally, but I would guess  the piece of writing advice most often repeated to me as a budding novelist was to read, read, read, and write, write, write.

That kind of annoyed me.

It didn't take special talent to read a lot and write a lot. Anybody could do that. What I wanted to be told, really, was a list of specific things I could do that would turn me into a great writer. Things like, "Read this book, do this with your prose, and make sure your dialogue sounds this way."

What I wanted, to put it succinctly, was a shortcut.

But as I mulled over advice that initially seemed overly simplistic, it started to make sense to me. Just because anybody could do it, didn't mean that everybody would. Same as most people know how to be healthy and save money, but that doesn't mean they do it.



I also saw how the same principle applied to other professions. If someone wants to be a professional baseball player, they play a lot of baseball and they watch a lot of baseball. Right? Before you can fine-tune your skills to a professional caliber, you first must have the skills that come from regularly doing whatever it is. You don't teach someone how to be a great violin player. You teach them how to play violin, and the combination of their practice and talent grows them into greatness.

Read, read, read:

If you disagree that reading a lot hones your abilities as a story teller, feel free to say so in the comments, but I'm guessing most of us understand that we learn from seeing others do something well. (Or not well. More on that in a moment.)

Instead I want to talk about a few writerly obstacles that often get in the way of reading:

You can't enjoy the book because you want to edit it: Reading used to be my escape. It was like going on mini-vacations throughout the day. But the more I learned about writing, the harder it became to read without getting distracted. How come she can use adverbs in her books but my critique partners are always making me cut mine? This character is so flat, why didn't her editor have her change it?

With some practice, I learned to either turn that voice off and enjoy the book or stop reading it and find something I liked better.

You can't enjoy the book because it makes you jealous: The inner dialogue for this one sounds more like this: Wow, I didn't see that twist coming at all. That was so great. Oh, so is that descriptive phrase. I never would have thought to describe it like that. Who am I kidding? I'm never going to be a writer!

After I'm done feeling sorry for myself, I reach out to someone for a pep talk and then get to work learning from this writer by studying his or her book. Not so I can sound exactly like them, but so I can apply their wisdom to what I'm doing.

It messes with your storytelling voice: It's hard for me to read in my genre while I'm working on a first draft. This messes with my voice big time. I've skirted around that by only reading books in my genre when I'm editing or between projects.

Who has the time?: While we all go through seasons where we don't have much free time, I'm shocked by the professional writers I meet who say they hardly ever read anymore. Especially in this day and age of audio books and Kindle apps on your phone. I hate to judge another writer's choices, but I know that I've grown a lot in the last few years just from reading certain novels.

I have also implemented a "no sucky books" policy for myself. If I'm not enjoying a book, I save myself the time and stop reading. BUT before I can start something new, I have to figure out several concrete reasons why I didn't connect with the book. (The heroine wasn't active enough, I didn't understand the motivations, etc.) That way I'm still learning.

Write, write write.

I've told this story before so if you've been hanging around Go Teen Writers for very long, you've likely heard it.

I've loved writing since first grade, but when I was a senior in high school I took a creative writing class and really got serious. I started getting up early to write and would often pass out chapters of my books to my friends.

One day, I handed a play I'd written as a class assignment to my best friend for her to read over and give me her thoughts. (Which was code for, "Read this and tell me how brilliant it is.") She begrudgingly took it from me, read for about 30 seconds, and then slapped it back on my desk with a groan and a, "I'm just not in the mood for your romantic crap right now."

(I need to pause to say three things. 1. There was already tension about other issues between this friend and me, so this was only partly about my writing. 2. As stated above, I was handing this to her not really wanting a critique, but wanting to be told how great I was. I was feeling pretty impressed with myself during those days, and I'm sure I was completely obnoxious to be around. 3. Even though what followed was a bitter falling out that lasted for years, this friend and I have since felt deeply embarrassed for the way we behaved, apologized, and forgiven each other.)

I fumed. Vicious notes were passed between us, including one where my friend told me that she didn't think I should try to be a novelist because my stories weren't good. I said nasty, hurtful stuff too, and then in a Scarlet O'Hara style inner dialogue, I swore to myself, I will never let anyone read my work. I will never put myself in a place where I have to go through this again. 

What does this have to do with the idea that you should write a lot if you want to become a writer?

Because what happened after this is that I wrote a lot. I wrote a story that was a thinly veiled retelling of the demise of our friendship (so, yes, Ellie Sweet is basically teenage me). Then I wrote another one. Then a third. By now my friends had all gone off to college, and I was "alone" in Kansas City with all this hurt and anger rattling around in me.

For years, I wrote and wrote and wrote, and I didn't show anyone because I didn't want to get hurt again.

At some point I realized that being a published author meant letting people read your stuff. By that time it had been years since I'd let anyone read anything of mine. I had been writing for years without any regard for genre or what others might think (they weren't going to see it anyway!) and you know what I emerged with?

A voice.

The voice needed tuning. I had a tendency to write passive, I used dialogue tags way too much, and my stories tended to wander around the 2/3 mark, but the voice was there.

There are lots of  how-to articles on writing. We write them on Go Teen Writers too. They're helpful, but they're not a substitution for doing.

Great writer comes from writing a lot. There's no shortcut.

Read today. Write today. Repeat it tomorrow. 



28 comments:

  1. Thank you for the helpful post! It's amazingly helpful! This will help. I do read tons. No exceptions.
    Thanks ton!
    Gianna

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    1. I never become jealous of a book. When I read, I just want to write to provide more wonderful books. So, yes. I am never jealous of books. :)

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    2. I wish the same was true for me, Gianna!

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    3. I do love parts of the book (any book) when you have to stop and say "wow". I do my best to create those moments.

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  2. I guess you could call it an unofficial motto between me and some of my closest friends was "read, read, read all day" because that's what we liked to do.
    And that voice when your reading? Found his twin living in my brain. Just this weekend i was reading one of my favourite books (Hating Alison Ashley) and I discovered our characters are waaaay too similar. I freaked. But I'm okay now.
    And a few posts ago you asked about best writing advice. I only remembered this recently. This is for those struggling with novel leangth. "A story is as long as a piece of string".
    Also, is anyone else super excited for the new Harry Potter?

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    1. I'm glad you've worked through your freak out. I've had a few of those moments!

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    2. I also don't let anyone read my writing because I worry they'll think it is bad.

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    3. I think boundaries about when we'll show people are work and when we won't are very healthy. Out of my pain, I leaned too far one direction, but I still don't show anyone my first drafts. Those first drafts are for me, and it's just not fair to show them to others because I'm not yet ready for criticism.

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  3. Fabulous advice!! I'm sadly in a stage where I don't read for fun as much as I used to--but I've also decided that reading for an hour and a half to my kids every day still counts. Because we're reading some fabulous classics in school that are teaching me a lot. And by "not as much as I used to" I mean only a few books a month rather than one a week. Still respectable, LOL.

    But writing a lot--YES. I wrote during college much like you did in that "alone" stage. Just for me, whatever I wanted, no one looking over my shoulder. I tried different genres, I explored my writing loves, and I emerged with a voice too. =)

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    1. My reading pace has slowed considerably as well. I've had to make peace with it :)

      I feel so fortunate to have had those writing alone years. They were super lonely, and I have no desire to go back to them, but they played a big part in me getting published when I did.

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    2. Awww... I hate when that happens!! I read every day- at least fifteen minutes depending how much time I have to read. Probably closer to a half an hour. (during later hours of the day around when I go to sleep). On weekends, I read probably an hour. I write as much as possible-not including my schoolwork.

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  4. Awesome awesome advice :) I definitely notice my voice becoming slightly like whatever I'm reading, so I definitely do the same thing with varying genres depending what I'm working on.

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  5. I used to try to write without reading very often. I'm so glad I got over that habit, but I definitely understand why one should try to read within their genre (I do not recommend reading books that take place in medieval times while writing a western lol)

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    1. Yes, I'm very careful about what I read when I'm writing a first draft!

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  6. Reading a lot and writing a lot--YES. There's really no substitute for those two, if you want to become a better writer.

    I've consciously tried to make more time for reading fiction--even though I'm in college and really busy with reading NONfiction--because I've found it helps me stay in touch with my "inner writer," if that makes sense :-)

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    1. Totally makes sense. And college is a VERY hard time to read for pleasure - especially if you're in a class that requires a lot of reading. I struggled with that even in high school when I was in AP English. Summer break is a great time to catch up :)

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  7. Excellent post, and probably one of the most relatable too! That cheered up my first Monday back at school... Thanks for the advice! :)

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    1. I'm glad it came at such a good time, Charlotte :)

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  8. This post is perfect and applies to me wonderfully. I'm currently reading Jane Eyre and I find myself SUPER frustrated because... well, Charlotte Bronte xD And you can't get much better than that. I have to remind myself to e n j o y the book and just read; especially in this month of NaNo insanity!

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    1. The Bronte sisters are some of my faves :)

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  9. I agree! I find that reading especially helps, as it's in seeing how to do something well that I think I learn best. I find this is true for other things as well, such as photography. When I first started taking pictures, they were pretty bad, but after following a few top-notch Instagram accounts and analyzing their photography I found myself improving! Excellent article, as always <3

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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    1. Thanks, Ellie! Like you, I've found a lot of value in exposing myself to those who are a few steps (or a few thousand steps!) ahead of me in an area where I'm trying to grow.

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  10. Thanks for the advice!! You know, eating chocolate helps. Lol.

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  11. I definitely struggle with the 'jealous' part. I have been reading a lot lately (I've finsihed 6 books within two weeks) and they're all so GREAT. Definitely doesn't help my already low self esteem about my writing! I need to take this advice and try to read a book without editing it or being 'woe is me'! Thank you Mrs. Morrill! (Ps I used to be on this website all the time forever ago. Then I stopped writing because of above reasons. But I'm really praying about careers and I believe God wants me to write. Still praying about that a lot but I'm glad to be back here!!

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    1. We're so glad to have you back :) We'll do our best to come alongside and encourage you wherever writing may take you!

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  12. I so agree with you! I read on average a book a week; the classic binge-reader, and I find that if I stop reading for a while my writing takes a tumble. When you forget how a good book should sound, it's easy to get into a slump.

    M.A.

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