This follows on from my article on starting out as a writer. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s probably worth reading that first. For many of us, reading can actually be the hard part. It takes a little discipline in our busy lives to choose something to read and then actually sit down and read it. The distraction of TV, family life, that social media feed of pinging notifications can all eat into your day and then, before you know it, the day is gone and you’re reaching over to flick out the light.
Oh well, there’s always tomorrow. And that book looked really thick, how will I ever find the time to read all that?
“And anyway, I am wanting to be a writer, what’s the point of reading?” That’s a valid point and to be fair, I used to think the same way. Until I got serious about reading again. By serious, I don’t mean beating myself up over it and punishing myself if I didn’t read. For me personally, it was more about rediscovering the fun and joy of reading.
And reading more made me into a better writer.
So why does reading more help you to become a better writer? Because it exposes your mind to other author’s styles, other ways of writing, vocabulary, pace and so many other things. This happens at a subconscious level. I’m not for a second suggesting that you should sit and read a novel with a notebook and pen alongside you. It’s more that the process of reading, apart from being very pleasurable, helps to develop your mindset, helps you to start thinking like a writer.
It’s not about theft, stealing another writer’s style or plagiarism. It’s about influences that mix together to create a style all of your own. Just trying to copy another successful writer won’t work. If you think that reading The Hobbit over and over will make you into the next Tolkien, knock yourself out. But you’ll find that you’re too late. Tolkien already did that one.
As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself, all others are taken.”
That doesn’t mean you will be utterly untouched by what you read, more that the different things you come across will all go together into a mix that helps you to grow and evolve as a writer.
I look back at some stuff I wrote a few years ago and I don’t like it. I’m sure that in years to come, I will look back at this article and shake my head. But right now, this is where I am. We are all changing and evolving as we develop into better writers.
And it’s totally fine for you to do the same. But to do that, you need to expose yourself to other people’s work.
You’ll read stuff that you really like and other stuff that’s not you at all. It all helps you to build more confidence to say to the world, “This is who I am.”
My own reading history is punctuated with a black hole of more than a decade where I didn’t read much fiction at all. I still read stuff. Far too many magazines with hindsight. Non fiction books and others but very, very little fiction.
As a kid, I grew up reading Ian Fleming’s original Bond, Alastair McLean’s books such as Where Eagles Dare and others such as Craig Thomas’ Firefox.
I read Major John Smith saying “Broadsword calling Danny Boy” before I heard Richard Burton say it.
And I had a vision of Gant, the pilot in Firefox before Eastwood took the role. Great books.
Probably the biggest impact on me was Brian Lecomber. A brilliant aerobatic pilot, sadly no longer with us. He wrote three flying thrillers that were superb, which I read over and over. He also wrote for aviation magazines on flying various aircraft and he was one of the rare writers who could bring his fiction story telling skills into the non fiction arena and tell the story of flying things like Hunter jets, helicopters and the Extra 300 all in the same entertaining way. Like Mel Nichols, he put you in the co-pilot seat and you came along for the ride.
I am saddened that he only wrote three books. I feel there was much more he had to say.
So you need to read stuff.
The Good Stuff you find will inspire you and stay with you. The chances are that it will influence your style of writing at some point going forwards. It will also help you realise how to set the scene, set the pace.
Some writers like to build the scene gently, others like to grab you by the hair and get your attention. I tend to write that way, as most of my writing historically has been automotive editorial where you only have 2,000 words. And a large slice of that will be what I consider to be the boring stuff like how much power it as, how big the bloody wheels are. I like to promise the reader that we will be spending the minimum time on that and that we will be going for a drive together. So for example, here’s an excerpt from a Total 911 story I wrote for editor Lee Sibley
Second gear, just before the apex of the tightly radiused turn. Squeeze the power and wait for the 930 Turbo to spin up and deliver boost. 2,500 and nothing is happening. 3,000 and still nothing of significance, in fact it’s feeling like a slightly flat normally aspirated Porsche. 3,500 and finally we’re feeling the shove between the shoulder blades, the boost gauge below the rev counter is stirring. And suddenly, that softly sprung rear is squatting down and the nose is lifting and we’re being pushed hard at the horizon. The revs rise at a disproportionate rate to what was happening a second ago and I’m readying for that long throw 915 shift across the gate and that looong shove forwards into third gear, hoping that I can shift it briskly enough that the engine doesn’t fall off boost and that everything is still spinning.
Looking back, it’s Brian Lecomber and Mel Nichol that set that style in me:
“The old Gypsy Major coughed, snarled asthmatically for a second, the picked up it’s even bellow as gravity resumed and pshed fuel in the direction of the carburettor. Earth and sky rotated back to their proper positions as I trod energetically on the rudder to keep the nose up. Slow rolls are not a Tiger Month’s favourite manoeuvre.”
The opening paragraph of Turn Killer.
I haven’t read that paperback in quite literally decades. Yet the desire to grab your attention is something that I still carry with me.
Should you perhaps stop reading the subject you’re writing about?
I stopped reading other automotive stuff a long time ago. These days I rarely read other people’s car writing. I don’t do anything like as much automotive writing as I used to. No reason why, simply I guess that I don’t go looking for it like I used to. There’s one or two titles and editors that I still love working with, but on the whole, there are only so many ways to talk about a 1,000bhp Skyline before you’re done with it.
So I stopped reading other automotive stuff simply because I think I got to the point that I had seen every version of a car feature I could imagine. And there was precious little new stuff coming out.
This isn’t going to make me all that popular, but most automotive stuff is generic and written without passion and feeling. With one or two truly stellar and notable exceptions, it’s kinda average at best. The good guys know who they are, they won’t object to me saying this. If you’re affronted by it, it’s probably you.
The automotive Gold Standard for me remains Mel Nichols. When I am writing on the subject and I feel a little jaded, I reach out and read a couple of his features from that book ‘And the Revs Keep Rising’ and it makes me feel better again.
Reading stretches you as a writer. Especially if you read genres you haven’t read before.
“So how do I find the time to read?” you’re asking.
You need to develop a method. Nothing set in stone or penitent, simply times of the day or week when you pick up something and read it. The prodigious readers have a book with them all the time and dip into it at the strangest of times. Stephen King says that he always has a book with him and that he will read whenever there’s a pause in his day, whether that’s a dentist waiting room, a taxi ride or even the supermarket queue.
Personally, I can’t do that. On train journeys and flights I like to look out of the window. I get grumpy if I don’t have a window seat on train or plane. So I read at other times, as I need a longer period of time to settle in. If it’s something I am trying to learn, a non-fiction, then early evening is good. And I’m finding that a fiction book later in the evening is a good way to stop my brain from thinking about work quite so much and I’m able to enjoy someone’s story so much more at that time of day.
You can tip things in your favour by having a book to hand. If you’re like Stephen King who can read anywhere he has a moment, then a Kindle could well become your best friend. If you have an iPad the Kindle app is a good way to get access to eBooks without having to carry around yet another device.
I also read books in print too. Which way around, paper or ebook, really depends upon chance to a degree. If I see a book that catches my eye in a store, I’ll probably buy it. And if I suddenly wish I could buy and read a book right now, now, now, then the Kindle app is a good way to solve my impatience. I also buy eBooks that Iam told about or read about that I definitely wish to read, though perhaps not now.
Having them there, queued to go means that I will certainly get around to reading them at some point.
You will develop your own ideas on reading as you go along. Indeed, you quite possibly already read quite a lot anyway. Let us know in the comments below if you have a particularly interesting place to read.
All of the Superstar Millionaire writers are avid readers. They consume dozens and dozens of books each year. If it works for them, it can work for us. And it can be a pretty pleasurable thing too.