Daily Archives: September 18, 2012

Lessons Learned from Reading

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how important it is to read if you want to be a writer.  You can’t understand how to put a story together if you’ve never read one; without some idea of how to sustain and structure a novel, all you’ll end up with is a good idea that dies on its feet after the first few pages.  Some authors have particular strengths – perhaps they write dialogue well, or maybe they have a notable knack for imagery, or whatever.  No ‘How to Write’ book is going to teach you more than reading a novel by an especially gifted writer. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.  I’ve been reading since the age of three – a long time ago now, let me assure you – and I’m not bored of it yet!

It’s hard to find time to read as much as I would like, but I look upon it as an investment, now, as well as enjoyment.  I’ve just finished reading a book that has taught me a lot about how to write, not because of its particular touches of genius but because, in my opinion, it’s full of things I really don’t think should have made it into the final cut.  It made me realise how much you can learn from a book which is badly written – in some ways, I think this book has been more instructive than any of the excellent books I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying.

The book, firstly, is filled with info-dumping.  There are several instances of it on display in this particular book – I found myself reading twenty or thirty pages in a row, all exactly the same – the heroine thinking deep thoughts, explaining things to herself (and, by extension, to the reader).  The author even went to the difficulty of telling us what the characters were saying, without recounting the dialogue, which baffled me completely.  Why would you write something like this:  ‘And then Mary said that Pat had seen him that morning at the post office and he’d looked fine, and Jack answered her by saying that someone else had seen him last week and he’d looked awful‘ and so on, instead of just using a dialogue structure?  Recounting dialogue like that is confusing, and you can lose track of which character is speaking.  If you use dialogue, something like this could work much better:  ‘I saw him just this morning at the post office, you know,’ sniffed Mary, adjusting her headscarf as she spoke.  ‘He looked grand, not a bother on him.’  Jack considered this, stirring his tea thoughtfully.  ‘I forget who I was talking to, now,’ he said, eventually, ‘but whoever it was said they saw him last week and he was like death warmed up.’  Jack took a healthy slurp of tea, watching with glee as Mary pursed her lips in distaste.

I’m not saying I’m Dostoevsky or anything, but I think the dialogue works a lot better.  It’s a lot easier to know who is speaking, and it’s just more interesting to read.  It’s very off-putting to look at page after page of unbroken prose.  (Normally I’d put each line of dialogue on a separate line, too, which makes it even clearer; apologies for the layout).

I also had the issue of the main character in this book not seeming real.  I read the book as a collection of things that happened to a flat personality – it’s like the author was using his character as a tool to make a point.  On one page she’s saying unkind things about her Pollyanna-ish best friend, and telling us she’s jealous of her friend’s beauty, and then five or ten pages later she’s suddenly telling us how much she loves this friend.  Something very profound must have happened in between but we learn nothing of it!  She flip-flops between hating and loving nearly all the other main characters on a regular basis, without giving us any insight into her thought processes, and we find ourselves reading paragraph after paragraph of pointless digression on very minor plot points.  This last irritant wouldn’t be too annoying if the author didn’t then skip over opportunities to describe things like market scenes, or a battle on a river, or a refugee camp where our characters are made welcome.  All these things – which could be so interesting – are dismissed in a few lines.  Our heroine is crossing through the Badlands, as they’re called, and actually tells us what she’s seeing is indescribable!  I restrained myself from throwing the book across the room at that point, but it was a struggle.  The character is supposed to be the cosseted, spoiled daughter of a very powerful man, but nothing about her – not her dialogue (such as it is), nor her thoughts, nor the language she chooses to use, support this.  If the author wanted a masterclass in how to write a character who is the stuck-up daughter of a very powerful man, he should have read the amazing ‘Noughts and Crosses’, by Malorie Blackman.

It’s wonderful to be able to engage in my favourite hobby, while at the same time learning lots about the skills which will, hopefully, help me to make my writing better.  I just hope I’ll pick a more enjoyable book next time!