Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Reading is Fundamental
By Valerie Serdy
2002, Valerie Serdy
Holly Lisle recently ran a survey on her site asking folks to pick the
most important non-writing skill a writer could have. The list included such obvious choices as editing and
critiquing, but the listing for reading baffled me.
How is reading a skill writers need, I wondered?
What does reading even mean to a writer?
Critically analyzing every sentence and paragraph, or simply enjoying a
After giving it some thought and a good conversation in chat, I realized
that all of my reading affects how and what I write. Non-fiction teaches me new things and gives me new ideas.
That was obvious, but less
obvious was how reading fiction changed my writing.
I don't read critically; I read to enjoy a story.
However, every once in a while a writer does something truly wonderful
(or truly stupid) and I am thrown out of the story in an attempt to understand
what they have done. These are the times I've learned something about the way I
write, the way I want to write, or the way I don't want to write.
For example, one of my favorite fantasy writers today is Barbara Hambly.
I love her lyrical, almost-casual descriptions.
Her color vocabulary is astonishing.
Light is apricot; a black and yellow dress is jet and jonquil. Scents are placed so precisely I've never felt they were
added just to complete a laundry-list description.
I simply do not get bored reading her descriptions, though I might skip
another author's descriptive paragraphs. In
my own writing, I try to emulate Hambly's ability to describe something simply
but in a way that is unusual or provides a dream-like quality to a piece.
I also love Hambly's dialogue. To
my recollection, her writing has never included a pair of talking heads.
Her characters eat, dice, drink, and think while talking.
And while I love that her dialogue is never boring, there have been
instances where so much happens between person A speaking and person B speaking
that I have had to backtrack a paragraph or two to remind myself that I am still
reading an on-going conversation. I've
thought sometimes that Hambly's characters must always pause for five to ten
seconds before opening their mouths to speak.
Enter Roger Zelazny. His
dialogue quite often continues for a page or more with nary a dialog tag to be
seen. Usually, this is not a
problem because his characters speak with such different styles that it is easy
to distinguish them. However, a
well-placed "he said" would certainly alleviate my confusion at times.
My response? Take the best
each writer has to offer. Use
Zelazny's ability to create varied styles of vocabulary and manners of speaking
to identify individual characters, and then add in Hambly's ability to keep
dialog from becoming boring by providing a glimpse into what each character is
doing or thinking while speaking.
While I have learned and chosen to emulate specific techniques through my
reading, my writing has also been influenced in much larger, less easily
I fell in love with the first two books of Robert Jordan's Wheel of
Time series. I slowly became
disillusioned with books three and four and quit the series shortly thereafter.
It felt like the plot had gotten away from Jordan and had become ungainly
and scattered. When I
finished a book, I asked
myself, "What happened?" I
never want anyone to read my own work and wonder the same thing, and this has
deeply affected my revising. As I
go through each chapter I ask myself, "What happened?" If I can only say, well, the main character wallowed about in
self-pity for a while before going to eat dinner, I cut that chapter completely
or at least shorten it considerably. I've
also begun outlining what should happen in each chapter to make sure the
conflict continues to build, action continues to move forward, and I never have
to ask myself, "What happened?"
Other fantasy series have also affected my writing.
I started Kate Elliot's Jaran series and fell in love with Tess,
the main character. I eagerly grabbed books two and three and am now stalled
somewhere in the middle of book four. The
problem? I fell in love with Tess
and as the series progressed and the plot got bigger, less and less of the story
was about her. I found myself
counting the pages till her next scene.
Bait and switch. I fell in
love with one character, only to have that character moved out of the spotlight.
Again, this affects my revision as I try to make sure no secondary
character starts to outshine my protagonist.
I've also avoided adding a prologue that might star different characters
than the body of the novel.
Reading widely has done two other things for me:
It has guided the ideas that I actually turn into stories and warned me
of clichés. After reading an
article about the Shanghai Armoury Tower, I desperately wanted to write an SF
story with some kind of moral point about growing up in a completely enclosed
space. However, my reading has
shown me that this idea was old back when science fiction was young and almost
every story had a moral point to make about the use of technology.
That story has been placed on the backburner until I can come up with a
more original spin.
Every genre has its cachet of clichés, but it seems sometimes that
fantasy especially revels in producing novels that feel just the same as the one
before. Main characters sharing
similar backgrounds (usually orphans) wandering through a typical landscape
riding a typical horse gathering typical plot coupons until they have travailed
enough to vanquish the Big Bad at the end.
Reading widely in the genre in which I plan to write alerts me to these
clichés and allows me to banish them from my own writing.
Reading is fundamental. I
would never have discovered that without taking the time to think about Holly's
survey. Through my casual reading
I've discovered what stories to write and which to put on the backburner to wait
for a fresher viewpoint. By reading
constantly and widely in a particular genre, I've learned the clichés to avoid
in my own writing. By reading
outside my genre, I've learned new skills and gathered new ideas to add to my
stories. By reading everything,
I've learned techniques I'd like to emulate and those I wish to avoid.
I can't think of any writing skill in my bag of tricks that has done so
much for me with so little effort. I
finally understand why Stephen King recommends writers read at least four hours
So what's next on your list to read?