Reading & Writing
By Victor DiGenti
Listening to Richard Paul Evans and William F. Nolan at the recent FWA Conference, I was struck by the fact they had traveled such diverse roads to success. Evans made publishing history with his 1993 book, The Christmas Box, which set sales records and was later purchased at auction by Simon & Schuster for $4.5 million. Not bad for a book he’d initially self-published.
Nolan began as a teenager writing and selling science-fiction and pulp stories to magazines. He went on to have a remarkable career penning hundreds of stories, articles, novels, screenplays, books of poetry and essays during a career that’s lasted fifty years.
Other authors have different tales to tell. Some labored long and hard, accumulating enough rejection slips to fuel a steam engine, before finally selling their first short story or book. Others had seemingly miraculous breakthroughs. Take Khaled Hosseini, for example. This Afghan refugee found an agent and a publisher within weeks of sending out a query letter for his very first book, the phenomenal bestseller—The Kite Runner.
Yet all of these writers have something in common. Of course they learned how to improve their work by writing and rewriting, but more basic is the fact they are all readers. Nothing surprising there. I would guess that most of us became writers because of our love for the written word. If you’re like me, you grew up with your nose in a book. I devoured anything with printed words on it, including the backs of cereal boxes. Still do, although I’ve learned to be more discriminating in my more advanced years. Too many books, not enough time.
This point was driven home several years ago as I was hawking my first Windrusher book at a cat show. A Hemingway-look-alike approached my table and I commented that I thought he looked like he knew a good book when he saw it. With that rather presumptuous introduction, I handed him my book. Typically, I prattle on while the potential customer reviews the back cover matter. But he turned immediately to the first page and began reading so I remained silent. After a minute, he closed the book and said, “Okay, I’ll take it.”
I was a bit flabbergasted. He needed no coaxing or convincing. I said, “You made up your mind without hearing my sales pitch.”
Here’s what he told me: “I’m an English teacher, and I tell my students if they’re not hooked by the first page to put it down and find another book that grabs their interest. There are too many good books waiting to be read to waste our time being bored.”
Hopefully, my book continued to hold his attention, but to get back to my original point, we became writers because we love to read. Unfortunately, reading is becoming a lost art as more and more people turn their attention from the printed page to video games, the computer, and television for their recreational interests. Recently, the National Endowment for the Arts released an analysis of studies conducted on America’s reading habits over the years and found that, at every age, we’re reading less.
The NEA studied data from private, government and university surveys and concluded the demands of school, work and family, plus the preponderance of other forms of entertainment, has marginalized recreational reading in this country. Among the findings: Only 38% of adults in 2006 said they had spent time reading a book for pleasure the previous day. 65% of college freshmen in 2005 said they read little or nothing for pleasure. And 30% of 13-year-olds in 2004 said they read for fun “almost every day.” This was down from 35% in 1984.
Despite this rather bleak assessment, as writers we must continue reading in order to learn and grow. In a Writer’s Digest interview, Mark Winegardner, creative writing professor at FSU and the author of two Godfather sequels said that, “…if you’re not reading 200 to 300 novels for every one you try to write you might as well forget it.”
Now that may be a little extreme. I can’t imagine having the time to complete a novel if I had to first read 200 books. The point he was making is still valid, though. By reading analytically we can learn what makes a book effective as works of fiction (or maybe why they’re not so effective). The further along we are in our own craft, the easier it will become to spot good technique or an author’s shortcomings.
Clumsy or disingenuous dialogue will jump out at you. Poor characterization or clunky writing will take you out of the story while a good writer transports us from our hum-drum lives to a fantasy world that takes place on the pages. James N. Frey, the author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel, calls it the “fictive dream,” which describes the power of a great plot.
By reading other writers, we continue to sharpen our own writing tools. In fact, we can use our reading skills proactively by using the following exercise to improve our plotting skills. In his book, Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell instructs his readers to select a half-dozen novels of the type we want to write and invest the time to not only read them but to outline the scenes in each one.
Bell suggests that after we read each one for pleasure to go back and read them again using your writer’s eye. He tells us to use index cards—one per scene—to record the setting, the POV character, a two-line scene summary, and the type of scene. His book labels scenes as action scenes, reaction scenes, etc. And finally, whether the ending of the scene made you want to read on and why or why not.
This is a lot of work, but it’s the kind of exercise that will pay great dividends to help us understand the basics of plot and structure. As you review the cards, remembering how the scenes unfolded and how the story grew into a cohesive unit, Bell tells us, “…you’re going to have an incredibly powerful new sense of plot bubbling in your brain.”
I once described this exercise in a craft presentation and was told by one of the writers in attendance that, “That sounds a lot like plagiarism.”
Ah, yes, but there is a difference, I replied. “Plagiarism is when you steal from one author. But when you steal from many, it’s called research.”
This article first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. My column, The First Million Words, has appeared in the magazine since 2006.