Friday, December 01, 2006

The Reading Habits of Writers

Because of NaNoWriMo, I hadn't been reading as much as usual, so the first thing I did after completing word count, was devour a couple of books: Dry by Augusten Burroughs and Panic by Jeff Abbott. Although very different genres, both are fantastic and highly recommended, and it made me realize how much I missed reading!

It amazes me that I still meet writers who, almost proudly, claim that they seldom read. For me, it was my love of reading that made me want to become a writer in the first place. Seeing how authors construct their sentences, weave in the plot layers, develop characters that are relatable yet flawed, was how I cultivated by writing skills. Sure, I sat in workshops, went to critique groups, wrote everyday like breathing, but that would have only taken me so far.

Most writers I meet at Mystery and Thriller conferences, say how they were reading genre fiction since they were kids. Myself, I hadn't heard of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or even James Patterson until I reached college. When I enrolled in classes at Columbia, it was to expand my writing, to try new things and take risks. So, I signed up for Patricia Rosemoor's Suspense Thriller writing class. When I got there, my first semester or freshman year, I listened as all these writers went around the room talking about their favorite authors. What did I do? I took notes, jotting down Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Tess Gerritsen, all the authors I had to read if I wanted to write thrillers. I remember when it was my turn to say which authors I read, I honestly answered that I took the class because I didn't know a damn thing about thriller writing. And I vividly remember Patricia giving me this look that told me, "I hope you know what you're getting yourself into."

More than the class, more than the critique, it was the reading that taught me how to write mysteries. When I read the work of the masters, I learned how to plot, how to develop meaningful characters, and cultivate ideas. I looked at published novels, saw what these authors were doing well and brought it to my own writing. To this day, when I'm struggling with voice or pacing, I pick up a novel and see how others handle it.

In my second year at Columbia, one of my short stories was chosen to be adapted into a movie for the film department, and I was asked if I wanted to write the screenplay. Of course I said, "Hell yeah!" but realized I didn't have the first clue about writing a screenplay. So what did I do? I went online and downloaded scripts to some of my favorite book adaptations, see how the writers handled dialogue, exposition, etc. When I began to get freelance gigs, I didn't have any journalism training, I just read the publications and used the articles as models. And I know that if something else comes up, a writing challenge for which I have minimal experience, I will learn from reading.

To me, any writer that boldly states, "I don't read" is selling themselves short. I understand with the pressures of writing deadlines and other obligations that it is difficult to squeeze in reading time. But the books on the NYT bestseller list are there for a reason. Those authors must be doing something right. Filmmakers watch movies, painters go to art museums, and writers read...or at least they should.

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