Friday, January 06, 2012

Tips for Writers: Read

You are what you read. When I started my MFA program, someone offered this bit of advice: “Read good stuff.” If you want to be a great writer, read great writers. The expectation is that experiencing good work on the page will help as you try to generate your own work. You’ll see how sentences are formed, how language can be used, what craft techniques are effective, etc. And if you’re reading modern greats, you’ll also see what critics and readers are responding to these days, what publishers are buying, and what’s already been done.

A corollary to this advice is “Don’t read bad stuff,” and I think it’s equally valuable. I think the problem with bad writing, for a beginning or emerging writer, is that it gives you the wrong impression. Dan Brown isn’t successful because he writes great sentences, for example, and anyone who tries to imitate his writing is doomed. Read Brown for plot, maybe. Likewise for Grisham and some others. But try to ignore the writing while you’re doing it.

But I suppose there’s another corollary: “Read what you want to write.” Not that anyone intentionally wants to write bad stuff, but if you want to write fantasy, you should read fantasy. If you want to write thrillers, read thrillers. The reason I write mostly literary fiction is because I read mostly literary fiction. I sometimes worry that taking my reading across genres will be bad for my writing. And it might be, if I’m not careful.

More than ever, lately everything I read feels like something I can learn from. I just finished Alice Hoffman’s The Probable Future (an audiobook, listening in the car), and while her style is definitely not something I’ll imitate (a bit flowery for me), and I rarely use an omniscient voice, I did feel that she drilled pretty deep into her character’s feelings, and that’s something I could do better. I also recently read Ellen Meister’s The Other Life, and I was paying attention to point of view there, as well.

But there’s another aspect of learning, and that’s understanding the market. I’m reading the latest issue of Mid-American Review. I know the editors there and I’ve submitted a few times, but I’ve never had anything accepted. I’ve read the magazine before, I think this time I finally understand why my stuff hasn’t worked there. But it reinforces the notion for me that if you’re going to submit to a magazine, read that magazine first to get a sense of what they’re looking for. It’s key.

By the way, you can order a copy of the blank journal on Etsy, which is where I found the picture: You Are What You Read Journal


Joe Levens said...

This is a good article, Cliff. Thanks. One minor embellishment I might add, just my opinion. Yes, read the lit mags to get a sense of whether your work is compatible. But I think once you start talking about the top literary tiers, provided a writer is writing good literary work, it is pretty much a crap-shoot. I would not wrestle too much with whether the high-end mags are right in this case. Just send it. You never know.

Clifford Garstang said...

You're certainly right, Joe. MOST good magazines aren't terribly narrow, and will be interested in good work of all kinds. However, some magazines do have a quirk to them, and it pays to know what they are.

Andrea (Andee) Beltran said...

Timeless advice! I've been doing a lot more reading than writing lately...Thanks for the post and the link to the unique journal!