Every Thursday I write a little piece for people who are thinking of writing books or for people who have writers in their lives. A collection of things that a writer’s life is not complete without. To continue in my series in Things Writers Need, here are some of my thoughts on one of the most important things in any writer’s life: books.
Nobody takes up soccer because they think it’d be nifty to kick a ball around without using their hands for an hour and a half. They take it up because they watch a game or two and think it looks like fun and they start to practice and they get decent at kicking the ball around and that’s how we get soccer teams now.
Nobody takes up stand-up comedy because they think it’d be nifty to stand in front of a crowd and ramble about whatever minutiae are going on in his or her life at the time while a bunch of strangers sip overpriced drinks or shout abuse. No, they see other comedians on TV or on stage and they appreciate the humor they see on display and they practice telling jokes to their friends and one day they step up to an open mic and that’s how we get stand-up comedians.
Writing is maybe a little different in that I think there may be an intrinsic desire to write things down and tell stories; something encoded in our DNA that makes us want to pass tales on to the rest of our clan. But people don’t set out to write hundreds of pages without seeing it done several times, learning the intricacy of storytelling, learning the way characters can sprout fully-formed from mere words, learning the way an otherwise rational adult can develop a really unhealthy relationship with a collection of pulverized wood and ink: taking it to bed at night, carrying it around in a purse, caressing and holding its pages, staring into its face for hours and hours and hours on end.
Any great writer was a great reader first. You can’t run before you walk. You can’t write before you read. Writers learn to love writing by reading lots and lots of books, and they learn to write by reading lots and lots of high-quality books on all sorts of things. So, a writer needs books.
Think about your favorite book. It changed your life, or at the very least, changed the way you thought about the world, right? If writers want to write books that can do the same for others, we have to learn from the masters, we have to imitate their work, we have to transmogrify their talent and their teaching into our own twisted wonderful creation.
Reading is the lifeblood of the writer. In order to keep up the steady flow of words out of our brain-holes, we need a just-as-steady flow of words in the other side. Words are weird, words are a paradox. You can never lose a word, but you can sure as hell use one until it’s so tired it can no longer lift its own head. They’re a renewable resource, but you can only carry so much at a time. I can only juggle a couple of story ideas in my head before they start knocking each other out through the ears. And sure, I can write down every idea that comes to me, but that doesn’t necessarily help me. The idea I jot down in February because it sounds brilliant looks like a puddle of mushy dogsharknado by the time I get around to wanting to write it in June. These ideas have an expiration date, I think; a use-by warning that causes them to decay the longer they’re left on the shelf.
So if words and story ideas can go bad like so much Aldi produce, how does one keep fresh stock on the shelves? You go to the grocery store, naturally. But not Aldi — their produce goes bad in just a few days. No, you need the good stuff; you go to Publix, or the farmer’s market. You go to books.
In reading and pondering the intricacies of the last book I read (The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde) I had no less than three ideas for new stories of my own, riffing off of elements found in Fforde’s book from genetically engineered pets to holding works of art hostage. They might have been crap ideas, but I had them, and a lot of writing I think is in the exercise; it’s about the journey, as they say, rather than the destination. I also rekindled a bit of my love for science fiction and the ridiculous, which I think is at the core of my contemporary writer self. It was a welcome discovery after the detour into YA lit I’ve had over the last couple of years. The heavy tropes and weighty themes of Dystopian Futures and Society Must Be Saved and The Chosen Ones have weighed on me and made my writing a little bleak, a little encumbered, a little melodramatic, perhaps. (I’m talking about the Divergents, the Matcheds, the Hunger Gameses which have been so popular in recent years. It’s good stuff, but man, it ain’t uplifting. Pity the children being raised on this stuff!)
Now, that’s not to say there’s nothing to gain from those books. Far from it. No, in every book there’s something to be learned, even if all you learn is that you don’t want to write a story like the one you just read, ever. (I’m looking at you, Wuthering Heights.) It’s a foolish student that turns aside the tutelage of his predecessors. Writers need books like football players need to review tape. Like babies need mothers’ milk. Like a hurricane needs an area of warm, high pressure air moving into an area of cool, low pressure air.
Now, every writer out there has their preferences and tendencies. One will gravitate toward sprawling works of incredibly detailed interpersonally linked tales of fantasy, a la Game of Thrones. Another will splash around in the deep and impenetrable waters of gritty crime and mystery stories in the vein of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Still another will lounge in the comforting pages of a classic romance like Pride and Prejudice. But tendencies and preferences aside, I think it’s necessary for all writers to consume all types of literature at least occasionally.
I’ll grant that attempting to read books in all genres is a perhaps insurmountable task just given the volume of what’s out there. You could read a book a week for a year and still leave out some of the obscure genres like, oh I dunno, Interstellar Revenge Comedy Romance. And maybe that’s a genre best left untapped (or maybe I just got an idea for a story…). But I think it’s far too easy to stay in your own little cabin in the woods, reading books you know you’ll like before you read them, never sampling the waters in the streams and ponds that crisscross the landscape.
I think a good book is going to have lots of elements of lots of different genres and stories; a little something for everybody. It’s an anemic adventure story if there isn’t a little bit of romance along the way. No science fiction yarn is complete without a good solid dose of gritty down-to-earth human interest at the bottom of it. Thrillers go amiss if there isn’t a little bit of a fantasy element in there; a bit of something that plays outside the rules of reality. And I don’t know a single story in any genre, no matter how dark or dismal or defeatist, that wouldn’t be better off for at least a little dose of humor. We must bring balance to the force, and if we want to bring balance, we must ourselves be balanced.
So, the writer needs a steady diet of books. We need books that we like and books that we hate. Great books and terrible books. Books we can read cover-to-cover twenty times and books we can’t penetrate beyond the first chapter. Books that uplift and books that depress. Books that make you want to run out of your front door and start hugging people and books that make you want to nuke the planet from orbit. We need to read it all so that we can write all of it into our own stories. Writers are tasked with communicating the unending message of the human condition to those who will come after us; we don’t have the right to leave any of it out. We have to read as much as we can so that we can tell our own stories as completely as possible.
If you’re a writer, you need a library card, or you need Amazon’s new book-rental service, or you need a bookstore in your neighborhood that will let you park in an armchair and read for hours at a time, or you need a friend with a crapton of books that you can borrow. If you’re a friend of a writer, you can never go wrong by buying that friend a book. Doesn’t matter what kind, what genre, what author; buy them a book. But for god’s sake, don’t give them a gift card, don’t just buy something off Oprah’s Book Club or whatever… pick out a book that you like or a book that you think they’ll like or hell, just pick out a book with an interesting cover. They’ll read it just the same, and maybe on the next thing they write, they’ll credit you with putting that book in their hands that inspired the new story.
What book has most influenced you as a writer? As a person? What would be your desert-island book? If you could make one book required reading for everybody in the world, what would it be?