Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Importance of Reading

It's important, as an aspiring author or even a well published one, to read on a regular basis. Some would say it's important to read everything you can get your hands on, and while that would be optimal, some of us do live rather full lives. That being said, I find that I simply can't read everything come across. Most fictional books I have no problem finishing, even if I consider the writing horrendous, as there are valuable lessons to be learned. But when it comes to non-fiction I find that I can only stomach text that expresses the point clearly and concisely without overusing complex words to state simple points. Some authors, it seems, take great enjoyment in making the reading process complicated. Whereas flowery words and sentiments find their place in fiction, over-complicated points in non-fiction cause me to lose interest in the subject matter. I tend to think the author likes using complex words to seem smart on the subject, rather than allowing their insight and knowledge express their expertise. This could very well just be a fault in me as a reader, but if I were to ever write non-fiction material I would be sure to avoid the vary things that usually cause me to lose interest. Since I normally gravitate towards writing that romances the subject matter and delivers information with a side of light-hearted humor, I would likely take that approach.
The point is, without reading and finding our likes and dislikes, how can we grow as authors? There are lessons in life, as well as in writing, that we can learn from our experiences. But why burden ourselves with setbacks when there is so much we can learn from reading? I once read a book that I found to be horrible but finished it with relative bliss simply because there was something new to learn at each turn of the storyline. The main characters themselves experienced abnormal growth and periods of utter stagnation while new characters were introduced, given a whole page to expand on their background, and then fell on the sword of their foes and were tossed aside within the context of the very next page; a phenomenon that occurred frequently. It was so strange. The main characters seemed almost clairvoyant at times, detecting impossible plot twists without a second thought one moment but were dumb as rocks the next. At every round of battle we met someone new climbing over the walls, we learned about his family back home, his friends, why he joined the enemy forces, and then he was dead. It trivialized death, it numbed the whole idea that the characters, even the minor ones, were people. After a while I just didn't care anymore. It overpowered the imagination, it intruded on what was mine as a reader.
Without reading that book I may have made the same mistake, thinking I was doing something clever, giving a face to the untold masses of wave after wave of enemy forces. Instead, I know the value of subtle suggestion and leaving my readers something to flesh out on their own. True war is nothing to write home about, there's nothing romantic about it. What we write is a romanticized version of something gruesome and inhumane, but war is a big part of what humanity is and where humanity has been. To write about it, to bring the reader to the battlefront, we must approach with caution, with finesse. Reading can teach us what works and what doesn't.
It isn't just battle that we can learn about; it's love, it's madness, it's casual dinner conversations between friends, the dying words of our enemies. It's the hilarious one-liners that come at precisely the right moment, it's the insight and intelligence of our characters, it's taking a normal situation and making it extraordinary... it's what makes us love to read and what makes our readers read and love. We can learn to make a sinister man beautiful and a beautiful woman sinister.
Reading, like writing, is a lifelong journey. We learn what works and what does not. We stand outside of our own work and learn to approach each situation, each scene with care.

What was the last book you learned a lot from? Did you learn more from what the author wrote well or what they did poorly on? Or both?

Writing Exercise:


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