Welcome readers, to another installment of Being a Better Writer’s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice! We are rolling right along and into week six of this feature, and the cliche advice just keeps coming.
Okay, really quick let’s have a brief aside here for the new folks who haven’t encountered Being a Better Writer or the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice before. What on Earth is this?
Pretty straightforward, really. The Summer of Cliche Writing Advice is a feature running this summer on Being a Better Writer. BaBW, by the way, is exactly what it sounds like on the tin. It’s a weekly dose of writing advice on a variety of topics, from pacing, to plotting, to character development (sorry, had to break the alliteration there). Running every Monday save holidays for almost six years now, it totals hundreds of articles to browse through and learn from.
The Summer of Cliche Writing Advice, on the other hand, is a special temporary feature. If you’ve ever told someone that you’re writing a book, or even thinking about it, you’ve doubtlessly had the experience of “Oh, well be sure you do …” followed by some bit of quick, cliche advice that seems to follow writers like a lawyer follows an ambulance. Even if it’s your second, or third, or twelfth book, you’re practically guaranteed to have one of this cliche sayings tossed at you, usually from folks that have never written anything, but they heard it somewhere. Sands, my part-time job did a book launch for a world-famous author a year or so ago, and I would fully expect that had anyone in the office talked with them, they would have immediately started spouting off this sort of advice.
It’s pervasive. It’s everywhere. Social media, random conversations. If you announce you’re writing, you’re going to hear something like “Oh, show don’t tell,” “nothing new under the sun,” or “kill your darlings.”
So here’s what the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice is all about answering: Are any of these sayings actually useful? Because one of the problems with one-line, easily repeated advice is that over time it can come to mean the opposite of what the original saying went for. It either loses context, meaning … or maybe it doesn’t?
That’s the trick. With all these easily and oft-repeated sayings out there, how do we know which ones are worth paying attention to and which ones aren’t? Are they all good? All bad? Somewhere in the middle? Well, the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice is here to answer that question as we tackle saying after saying, digging into it, seeing what makes it tick, and how much of it is really worth paying attention to. And as for this week?
Want to be a writer? Read a Book.
Look, I’ll come out and say it up front. This is great advice for a writer of any skill. If you want to be a writer and know what makes writing tick, know what people are reading, know what others are doing, you need to read. A lot.
This would seem like common sense, I’ll admit. And it may seem like I don’t have much to add here, but … Well, let me put it this way: I’ve encountered a shockingly large number of first time writers who want to be writers who have held that they don’t read, don’t want to read, and won’t read, while still trying to write a book that they think other people will read.
This … doesn’t work. At all. It simply doesn’t. Can’t. And won’t. But … these new writers seem certain that it will.
Well, again, it won’t. Comparatively, this is about as foolhardy an idea as trying to make a movie with a smartphone camera while not knowing anything about scripting, framing, camera movements, or even what movies are like and still expecting to be able to go in and outdo a professional that’s been practicing the craft for decades. It just won’t work. Ever. Best case scenario, you’ll end up with something like Manos: The Hands of Fate, which will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. And even that creator knew something about filmmaking and had seen some films in his time.
But … the idea persists that one can write a book without knowing anything about other books, reading them, or even enjoying reading them. For a variety of reasons, all of which are pretty much easily disproven. Which is what we’re going to do now, because “Go read a book” is really good advice, a rarity when it comes to these cliche sayings, so we’re going to defend it like it’s the last bastion of good taste.
So, I’ve met a few of these folks over the years that need this advice, and I’ve heard their excuses. From “I don’t want to influence my book with someone else’s style” to “I don’t like to read” or even to “I just don’t have time.” Among others. But if I may be blunt, these are all lines of thought that are going to hurt any chances the speaker has of being a good writer. Let’s look at them.
“I don’t want to influence my book with someone else’s style.” Yeah, if this is actually a problem, you’ve not written or read enough. You need to go back to doing both.
Look, it’s true that every author has a unique style. That includes you. Me. Everyone. But I have my particular style because I spent years developing it … and also decades reading other authors works and seeing their styles. This excuse is like saying you want to be a pro basketball player, but don’t want to watch any games or study the players because “you’ll play just like them.” Completely missing the point that they play the way they do because that’s the way the game is played. They dribble because that’s the rule, they move the way they do to get to the basket without being cut off, etc etc.
In not reading, you miss out on learning all of that. You miss out in seeing how authors tackle tough situations of character or comedy. You miss out on seeing how they make you care about characters, or settings, or events. On how they pace out the bits and pieces of a story so that you’re sucked in but still following a complex plot easily in your head.
And because you’ve missed out on it, you’ll have no idea how to approach any of it in your own work.
Let’s go back to the sports analogy. How many high school sport players will see a pro player try a complicated but effective move and then try to replicate it on their own? They’re practice it and pull it off in a game of their own to try and gain an advantage.
Sands, I remember listening to an interview with a college football coach who was dumbfounded when his players ran a play he’d never seen before to win a game, that he later learned they’d discovered playing online games of Madden. There, the play was a popular one in very specific circumstances, so when that moment arrived in a real game, the players went with it and kept the advantage over the other team.
Well, writing has a lot of ‘clutch moments’ like that. Character insight. Plotting. Pacing. Dealing with tough questions or pivotal moments. Even finales. And if you don’t know what other authors do to both make it through those moments and keep the audience involved, well … how are you going to figure all that out on your own?
Now look, I get that some might be worried about an author’s “style” seeping into their own. That just means you need more experience. If you’re an empty enough cup of talent (no offense) that you start mimicking the first author you come across, it’s because you’ve not developed enough to avoid being overwhelmed by another’s style. You read their book, and now your cup is full of their work, not your own.
But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read their book. It means you should read more books. Lots of them! And write more. And as you do both, you’ll add new things, but also take some out and start mixing your own flavors in. Eventually, you’ll be left with a cup that’s you. There will be traces of other authors in there … but that’s how it always is. Every author started out reading someone else and learning from them.
Start reading. Keep writing. Mix your own talent.
“I don’t like reading.” I have, in all seriousness, heard this more than once. And it’s another one that needs a blunt answer: This may not be for you. Like at all. If you can’t find a single book you enjoy enough to read, well … Yeah, you’re in the wrong place, trying to do the wrong thing.
Now, the explanation I hear for this often is “Well, I don’t like to read, so I’m going to write a book that I like to read.” And in some ways, I see that perspective.
But at the same time, you should be reading anyway to find the elements of other books that you enjoy and see how they’re done. And if you can’t find a single book that has something you like … you’re in the wrong business.
Let’s go back to sports for our comparison, and bring up golf. Now look. You may be the kind of person who finds golf really boring and wants to make their own sport. So you don’t golf. But you do like some aspects, so you buy a club, set up an obstacle course with a brightly colored ball … and hey presto, you’ve made mini-golf! Elements of golf, but with the elements you liked from it combined with the new bits you wanted.
This is kind of how all books work, in a way. I wouldn’t write Colony, for example, if there was already another book like it out there. But there isn’t. So I wrote it. This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy similar books. I do! But I wanted to write a book that was my own as well.
Basically, what this boils down to is “If you can’t like anything from it, then you won’t enjoy working in it.” If you don’t like basketball, don’t become a basketball coach or player. If you don’t like documentaries, don’t become a documentary filmmaker.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I see the logic there. It’s this idea of “Well, maybe I can make something new in here that appeals to me but is part of this thing I don’t like.” But the problem with this line of thinking is it doesn’t stop to consider that maybe the parts that aren’t enjoyed are the core of what makes that thing, well, that thing.
If I were to “redesign” basketball, for instance, it wouldn’t be basketball anymore. Most of the elements that fans of basketball enjoy would probably be gone. I would like it … but it wouldn’t be basketball anymore.
Same with writing something. Books are generally enjoyed for a variety of reasons. And if you don’t like any of those reasons, enough that you can’t find a single book that entertains you in some fashion, well … At best, what you write may be something that you enjoy, but has no audience among others because they’re busy reading a lot of other stuff that they enjoy already.
That’s assuming also that you don’t end up disliking yourself for creating something that you yourself don’t enjoy. If you don’t enjoy reading at all, and legitimately cannot find something you can enjoy reading … Writing just likely isn’t for you. Writers read.
“I can’t find the time.” Blunt and painful but true: You won’t make the time because you’re not committed enough. Look, I write a ton. I also work a second, part-time job. And yet, I’ve finished two books in the last few weeks. I read on my breaks at my part-time and during other moments of downtime when away from work. Right before bed (sometimes this backfires). Sands, I’ll read during the wait to matchmake with other players in a game. My book is right there, I pick it up, and I read.
Even outside of spare moments, I read where I can. I don’t watch much TV. But I read a lot. TV time? Sacrificed for reading.
Not just because I enjoy it. But because it’s good to keep up with what other authors have written or are releasing. To see how they handle things. Every so often I’ll read a passage or a chapter and think “Oh, that was neat!”
Look, the truth of the matter is that we all make the time. We choose our priorities. If anyone wants to be a writer, they will find the time to read. If they can’t find the time to do that, they definitely won’t be able to find the time to write.
Okay, so that takes care of some of the general reasons a lot of these folks give as to why they don’t. And even though we talked a bit about why one should in countering those, I still want to elaborate a bit further on it.
Plain and simple, it’s good for a writer to read. You’ll learn new words, see new ways of approaching situations and ideas. I would not be the writer I am today if not for all the reading I did growing up, seeing everything from the comedic timing of Gordon Korman to the mystery and misdirection of Timothy Zahn.
That doesn’t mean that my books are just like theirs. It just means that I learned from them. And I still do.
The same applies for any author. All of us read to see what other people are doing, see what stories they’re telling. And because, well, we enjoy it.
Which brings me to the last thing not brought up above. Reading a book while writing is a great thing to do as it’s a goal marker. Believe me, there have been days where I am slamming my head against my desk in spirit (and a few times literally) trying to get through a scene and wondering why I’m even bothering. But reading another book is a reminder to me of why. Just as I enjoy the latest book I read, it is the product of another author out there slamming their head against a desk. But they persevered, and now I have that book in my hands.
Books are inspirational to writers in way of driving us forward. They aren’t just fun windows into a new world, but reminders of what we can achieve if we just get back to it! They can help give that push to strive forward. And one day, our books may be those that give new young writers that same push.
Okay, so that said in the end, is the cliche advice of “read a book” a good one for young authors? YES! And old ones! And middle-aged ones! ALL writers should be reading! This is great advice, and honestly on of those bits that despite being cliche and commonly repeated, hopefully never goes away.
So go ahead and keep saying it. Just don’t forget to follow your own advice.
Good luck. Now get writing.