You Don’t What?

This article was written by Susan Sundwall.

Now that I’ve signed a book contract and have let friends, family, strangers and my dentist know about it, I’m getting requests. Others are asking me to look at their writing. I love it. Except, on occasion, when the subject of reading comes up and I’m left gaping. It goes something like this.

“Of course, I’d be happy to read your story. It’s great getting to know other writers.”

“Thank you. It would mean so much to get a real writer’s opinion.”

“Who are some of your favorite authors; who do you read?” I always ask. I like to know a little of what this eager new writer reads so I can critique with some understanding of what has influenced his or her style and voice.

“Well, I don’t read that much. I did have to slog through ‘The Glass Menagerie’ in high school, though. Boy, that Tennessee guy sure used a lot of words, didn’t he? Oh, and I did some reading in college. Mostly comic books.”

It throws me for a loop every time I get a response like this. I always hope my face doesn’t give me away while inside I’m screaming, “You don’t what! What are you thinking?” I’m tempted, and sometimes give in to telling them of the advise I got when I first began writing. Like so many, I chose writing for children thinking that would be the easier road. The advise I heard in many quarters was this . . . read at least one thousand children’s books before you put pen to paper. I thought then and think now that it’s a staggering number and I didn’t go crazy maxing out my Visa at the bookstore buying up every Junie B. Jones and Winnie the Pooh book in stock. But merely hearing that advise made me realize how far I had yet to go.

Next you might expect me to reveal how awful the stories are from those non-readers. Nope. That’s not necessarily the case. Most people who really want to write already have a strong sense of story. Something inside is busting to get out. What a terrific starting point. The next step is to actually get it down on paper. It takes some doing to progress that far and I applaud the effort. But then comes the fly in the ointment. I call it ‘the idea.’

The idea of writing has universal appeal. In every place you can imagine the story teller is sought after and revered. Just look at the industries built around the idea. Movies, televison, video games, Broadway plays and musicals, and once upon a time, radio. We are stimulated day and night with the idea these venues present and they are taken in primarily with the senses. None of them requires much in the way of reading. But in some souls the stimulation goes beyond watching or listening. It goes to the powerful desire to do something similar.“I have this great story . . . “ it begins.

Of course in these venues the idea has come to fruition through hard work, dissapointment, harsh criticism, more disappontment, perseverance, and then . . . then . . . triumph. Somebody wrote, re-wrote, re-wrote and eventually triumphed with their movie or television script, book, or play and each somebody was a reader. A monster reader, I’ll wager. And that’s what some new writers fail to understand. They’ve got a story, they’ve written it down but no one gets to home plate by skipping first base – reading.

Reading gives us the basics. On some subliminal level it teaches about word flow, effective use of simile, pacing, story arc, character development, powerful inner dialog, word choice and syntax, and so much more. Then, by an oddly ordained process we barely understand it carries over into the writing we call our own. Who in the world would not do this?

When writers ask me to critique I know they’ve been infected by the idea. I know how that feels and it pulls me towards them. And even though I’m often told that they don’t read-much- I smile when asked to ‘take a look and tell me what you think’ and I read this trusting person’s work. I tell them to take my comments with a grain of salt; I’m just an ordinary person. Really. I tell them where I think they’ve done well and what needs a little work. I put edits in red, offer words of encouragment and tell them where they might find markets and an audience. But most of all I tell them to go and read.

You have a story to tell. Wonderful. You’ve come to the point of wanting someone to read it. Great. But if you’re serious about this writing thing please find works in your genre and read them – lots of them. Go back and stand on first base for a while. It will benefit your own writing immeasurably.

So, what is your genre and how many books in that genre have you read? Go ahead – count ‘em up, I’d love to know!

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Susan writes freelance, is an award winning poet, and new mystery writer. Her book, The Red Shoelace Killer – A Minnie Markwood Mystery, will be available on November 1st, 2012. She’s also managed to write and sell some stories for children, but that was not an easy road! Visit her blog at www.susansundwall.blogspot.com to see what else she’s up to. She loves your comments.

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Photo: Some rights reserved by Bilal Kamoon.

9 Replies to “You Don’t What?”

  1. Your post is so true. The best way to learn to write is to read, read, and read some more. Reading the genre you want to write is like free knowledge (well not free unless you get the books from the library. But certainly cheaper than grad school!)

    I would add that listening to audio books allows one to make use of time otherwise wasted – like commuting. I always have two books going, one I listen to on my commute and the other I read at bedtime. Just don’t try to do two by the same author at the same time. It can get confusing!

    Thanks for golden insight.

  2. We’re definitely kindred spirits on this topic. I’ve taught numerous workshops where the participants want to write The Great American Whatever and yet haven’t cracked a book since back when it was required reading to get a grade. When I point out that it’s essential to know what the competition is doing, I generally get a response of, “What competition? My idea is way better than anything anyone else has ever done!” This same level of ignorance and arrogance is also reflected in the volume of screenplays I review as a film consultant. Yes, yes, they love movies and think that writing one is pretty easy stuff – so easy, in fact, that they don’t find it necessary to even learn the rules of correct formatting, the protocols of registering their intellectual property, or the common courtesies of pitching their projects to agents and prospective producers. There further seems to be an assumption that if someone has found success in the publishing industry, they’re “free” to read the manuscripts of anyone and everyone who is just starting out and give them advice. I can’t tell you how many times aspiring writers have been ruffled when I tell them I charge for these services. The usual response? “Oh I’m not in a big hurry. You can read it in your free time and get back to me.”

    1. Christina, thank you for your comments. My oldest son, along with a partner, has undertaken the task of turning a book into a screenplay. I helped them as much as I could, but to their credit, these two guys worked over a year doing it right. It’s sitting at SONY right now. The reward of diligence is potentially great. Both are power readers. And do charge for your services. It keeps you sane. =0)

  3. I really needed to read this article. I know that I need to read more, but this has pushed me to do so. I like to write fantasy, and I definitely need to read more works in that genre. I know one of the reasons I haven’t been writing more is because I have been feeling this urge to read more- it’s important. I want to read the books written by the great writers of my genre, and I feel that if I don’t, regardless of how well I could write my book, there will be a touch of inspiration missing. Thanks for writing this!

    1. j. – You’re quite welcome. Fantasy must be such fun to write! I’m a big fan of Tolkien (have read The Hobbit and LOTR trilogy 3X each) and a few others. I admire them so much especially since In know fantasy writing is something I could never pull off.

  4. Nice article, Susan.

    It’s a variation on one of the very first pieces of advice I ran across when I decided to ‘become a writer.’ [I have credentials in business and technical and web content writing, but not as a ‘published’ author, except on a very small scale.] That was back in the pre-Internet days.

    I’ve relied on it every since. I can’t quite tell you how many books I’ve read in the romance genre [my current genre aspiration being Christian romance], but I can tell you that at one of the visits of the counselor I’m seeing about stress and loss related issues, she literally choked when my answer to her “how many books do you read?” was “at least one a day, usually.” [Although I’m currently only a part-time business schedule. I’d find it hard to maintain that pace with full-time work plus a commute as a schedule, which does happen at times.]

    Sadly, reading is becoming a lost art. A friend of mine who has taught creative writing as an adjunct lecturer at universities was stunned when she found most of her students didn’t read at all. The administration even stepped in and limited the length of the assignments for BOTH reading and writing she was allowed to make. It was something she had a hard time comprehending in a class of students who proclaimed intentions to work in one way or another in writing as professionals!

    She’s about ten years younger than me; but also pre-Internet in her writing efforts. She found that mentality quite foreign, but told me it’s becoming more and more common as time moves forward [and this conversation was probably a good ten years ago.]

  5. My goodness, Christine, a book a day is a monumental task. Bravo! And thank you for your thoughtful comments and insight. I, too, am saddened by the lack of interest in reading among the young. But I take heart whenever a phenomenon like Harry Potter or Hunger Games comes along to give this lost art a boost. However good stories are delivered there will always be an audience somewhere. I wish you well.

  6. Hi Susan,
    Congrats on the contract!:) What’s the genre?

    I write a lot of romantic dramas and romantic comedies. I can’t remember all the books, but my list of beloved authors include (but aren’t limited to): Katie Fforde, Sophie Kinsella, Jenny Colgan, Melissa Nathan, Belinda Jones, Maggie Alderson…OK, I might need to read more men in this genre:) I also adore (legal) thrillers (I’ve read more than 20 books by Grisham alone). The problem is, I’m a bit more critical (of my writing) when it comes to creating a page-turning thriller.

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