I think when anyone starts out with the idea that they want to become a writer, they believe that basics like grammar, and prose is what will distinguish you from other books you read or admire. That style and substance are the only things you need to write the next great novel. This to some extent, is true. However, the real question is whether studying the mechanics behind writing is enough?
Will textbooks teach what you need to know to get your story, your manuscript to the level of perfection you seek?
To me, the answer is easily, no. I spent a few good years writing, laying down the groundwork for what I thought was going to be the story I wanted to tell.
The truth for me was that my first few drafts were like reading the Silmarillion. In all seriousness, it took me three hard-fought attempts to get past chapter one in the Silmarillion even though I have no problem being a LOTR nerd. In my own work, maybe there were a lot of good ideas in those drafts, but it was like my story at that point was one giant info dump, and that was not what I had intended.
So what do you do when you hit that wall when textbooks and teachers no longer seem to help the pile of words you’ve written resemble a novel? I knew I had a story, but it lacked the qualities people preach to get readers to turn the page.
At the time, I didn’t really belong to any writing groups. Now, I am part of dozens, and the funny thing is, I see this question come up constantly. To my great surprise, without realizing it, I did exactly what most people recommend in this situation.
To help you better understand your potential audience, you have to read what they are reading. Be one of the readers and a fan of the genre you want to write in! But how can reading someone else’s work help your own? Isn’t that stealing? Unoriginal?
In music, there’s a saying that no song is truly original. That you could play the same few chord structures and sing a dozen different songs. My husband, having been an Arista recording artist, a professional guitar player for decades, has proven that to me over and over.
But the thing is, I began to realize that the chord structures were akin to genres, and the rest of the layers of music distinctive to each song was what made them their own.
So I read, read, and read some more. Not only did I find people to admire and aspire to be, but I also began to see different ways to tell a story effectively, and I learned more in those years of reading than I could have ever learned in a classroom.
Don’t get me wrong, the classes are there for a reason, but a healthy dose of reading will make you a better writer.
It helped me recognize my story’s voice, what it was missing, and what I wanted my story to accomplish in the way I wanted to. That is something I never would have found in a textbook. When I asked myself the tough questions and put those up to the books I was reading, I was amazed at how much more I understood. How seeing it play out in all these stories helped me to see my own with more clarity. Every time I read, I ask myself, did reading this series help? And without hesitation, I can definitively say, yes, it helped. Oddly enough, disliking a series is equally as helpful for me. I ask myself the same question and the answer there is, “heck no… just no.” But in all honesty, I learned things I wanted to avoid. So, again, was it helpful? Yes!
Reading all those stories helped me prune back the millions of roads that my story could have taken until I found the one that was right for me. It helped me find my process and the way to really think about my story in a way that made it my own.
It’s kind of like when Rachel Ray on 30 Minute Meals would say “Get help where you can, but when you get the technique down, you can add your own spices and flair and make it your own.”
So when it comes down to it, the best advice any writer could get, in my opinion, is to read. Read, read, read.