Read. Read. Then Read Some More

Go to any writer’s workshop or seminar and the one consistent piece of advice you’ll hear repeatedly is, “Read.” Writers who don’t read will simply never be successful. How can they be? That’s like being a musician but never listening to music. It’s impossible to learn the craft of writing without seeing it done well…and not so well.

Last week, Linda and I were talking about books we’d read recently. I realized my reading list has been a little eclectic lately. The only fiction I’ve read is Marilyn Pappano’s Copper Lake Secrets and The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, a poetry anthology. Everything else has been non-fiction. Titles include:

Life, the autobiography of Keith Richards, guitarist for the Stones;

The Rite, by Matt Baglio, which is about the making of modern exorcists;

What the Bible Says About Angels, by Dr. David Jeremiah; and

The Story of A Soul, by St. Therese of Lisieux.

Even though these books aren’t fiction, they still have a tale to tell. From each, I’ve learned a great deal about structure, voice, plotting, and imagery, not to mention the life of an iconic rock star, demons, angels, and the journey of the soul.

Read any good books lately?

Got Class?

Susan Shay here.

I don’t know if other writers remember when they first wanted to write, but I don’t. For me, it was one of those things that grew on me. Kind of like mildew. 🙂 It probably came from being a reader.

So I started writing. I worked hard at it, getting up early before anyone else in the house. I’d write, but when I reread it, I saw what I meant to say instead of what was there. I knew there was something wrong, but I didn’t know what. (I sent a story to a women’s magazine, and it came back rejected so fast I nearly tripped over it when I got home from the post office.)

I sent a few pages to one of my sibs–the English major–for help. She helped. “When you read a book, pay attention to how they do it.”

I tried. I really did. But I’m one of those readers who gets caught up in the story. I can’t watch all the commas and periods. And what about those pesky semi-colons? Oy! 

Then one day I saw an announcement about an adult writing class in the town where we lived. I got so excited, I squealed out loud. I told my husband I was going, ran out, plunked down my money and signed on the dotted line.

I’m probably the only woman in the world over the age of twelve who does this, but I get extremely excited when I’m really looking forward to something. If I have to wait several days, it’s ridiculous.

I try to imagine what it’s going to be like and build up scenarios in my head. My imagination gets bigger and bigger.

I convinced myself that all day class was going to be wonderful.

By the time the big day got here, I was so excited I was like an over-inflated beach ball. I drove to the building where the class was being held and all but bounced into the room.

There were seven or eight other wannabes gathered around a long table. I didn’t know anyone there, but I didn’t care. I was going to learn something about writing. After a few moments, the man teaching the class stood up and started talking about . . .

Poetry. 😦

My beach ball got its first pin prick. Thinking back, I remembered seeing poetry listed in the announcement next to fiction writing, but I thought they were kidding. Did anyone really want to take an entire class about how to write poetry?

Yes. And we spent the whole morning on it. I learned two things–

  1. Poetry isn’t supposed to rhyme. (Who knew?)
  2. I did NOT want to write poetry.

I spent the longest morning of my life hearing about poetry. Well, the mornings I spent in labor before my boys were born might have lasted longer, but they weren’t much more painful. 😉

Finally, after lunch, we started the fiction class. All right! Just what I’d been waiting for. I straightened in my chair, clicked my pen and waited for him to drop some wisdom on me.

The guy who taught both classes was a professor at one of the state colleges, fairly young and just a tad condescending. He talked about several topics, and to be honest, I don’t remember a lot of what he said. But one thing he said was that writers should be readers.

For me reading is as basic as breathing, so the man achieved immediate genius status. It didn’t last long.

“Why should you read in genres besides the one in which you want to write?” He waited a few moments. No one answered, so he got us started. “For one thing, reading outside your genre will give your writing depth. Can you think of other reasons?”

When no one else answered, I got brave. “If the genre you’re writing in stops selling for some reason, you’ll be able to switch to another genre more easily.”

The professor gave me a look like he hadn’t noticed anyone sitting in my chair, then barked a short laugh. “If you think you’re going to make a living at writing, you’re going to be very disappointed.”

Okay, that one punch a big hole, all but deflating my ball. Not what I wanted to hear. It might have been true, but I wanted to smack the guy for discouraging any of his students–especially me!

With that remark, he pretty much made sure none of the other students were going to talk it up, so he gave us an assignment. In the next few minutes, we were to write the beginning of a story.

I hadn’t turned in my poem that morning (I didn’t want to fracture the guy’s funny bone) but I scribbled the start of a romance and turned it in. It was about a widower who had been set up on a blind date.

My hero thought about the other blind dates he’d had since his wife had died as he walked through the snow to his friend’s door. Most of his dates had been blue hairs with backsides two ax handles wide, so he was pleasantly surprised when he was let in the front door and saw a pretty, slender woman drinking a glass of wine next to the fireplace in the next room.

It wasn’t brilliant, but it wasn’t too bad for a one page beginner. The best part? It stopped the professor in his tracks. (With his mouth hanging open, he looked a little like a dying fish.)

He liked the opening. Like the characters. And thought my phrase “two ax handles wide” was terribly original.

That’s an old family saying, but I didn’t tell him. I was still itchy from when he laughed at me. 🙂 The class ended with, “Good luck with your career. Have a nice life.”

My class. I’d been so excited about it, and it ended with pffffft. (The last of the air escaping out of my beach ball.)  I was so let down, I nearly cried.  

But I didn’t give up. I found a romance writing class to take a year or so later. I had to drive into T-Town to be part of it, but the teacher did more encouraging than dis-ing. (Even though she scared the tidy whities right off me.) Much better than that first fiasco.

To be honest, I’ve learned tons more from my critique partners than in any class I’ve had in my life. Critiquing and being critiqued is a wonderful way to learn. It’s a lot like taking a class with regular assignments. The difference is, the grade you earn if you’re serious and take suggestions made by well-meaning partners can be a sale.

How about you? Do you take classes (online or in person) to learn more about the craft you love?

Why don’t you share a few of your baby steps?