Before a Writer Writes
Everyone's heard the phrase, "Writers write." And of course they do. If they didn't, nothing would ever get written, and no one would ever perfect his/her craft. However, there's something all writers of fiction need to do extensively before, and while, they write - read.
There are several good reasons why a writer should read extensively, and not all of them have to do with a writer's love for books or great literature, though certainly most writers do love these things.
When a writer keeps up with his reading, he learns what's currently being published. He knows how well he'll have to write in order to see his work in print. (Really, though, a writer should strive for perfection each and every time. One will rarely achieve it, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't try. Conversely, one should never "slack off" just because other writers are doing so.)
Theme and subject matter in fiction are often a matter of what year a writer's living in. Sometimes, coming-of-age stories are "in" and sometimes they're terribly out of fashion, with the result that no editor of any magazine would give one a second glance, no matter how well written. The same with, oh, comedy crime capers, for example, something I love to write. Right now, this genre is "out," though if one's already an established author, he or she might be able to include one in an anthology. I believe Stephen King did. (I, having not achieved the clout of King, or anywhere near his money making abilities, had to self-publish my comic crime caper, which was preferable, at least to me, over letter the characters I'd so lovingly created "die" so unceremoniously. LOL Now, I read, and now I know better.)
Writers often have the same ideas, though they develop them differently. You don't want to work weeks or months on a short story or even years perfecting a novel only to find it's rejected because a similar one was just published. This won't happen if you keep up on what's going on in the world of publishing. It won't happen if you read, and read extensively.
Another reason writers should read extensively is to learn the elements of their craft. Art can come naturally, but we should never stop perfecting our craft. By reading, and reading daily, and by analyzing what's read, writers can learn how other writers solved problems, how they "married" art to craft, kept reader interest high, or made skillful use of imagery.
William Faulkner's short story, "A Rose for Emily" is a true masterpiece. One can learn so much just from studying it's two or three thousand words or so. Faulkner uses foreshadowing so skillfully that we're fully prepared for that shocker of an ending, and we accept it as something that really could have happened, not "shock for shock's sake." And the character of Miss Emily is very well developed, despite the story's short length. After reaching that profound final paragraph, we shake our heads and say to ourselves, "Yes, Emily Grierson could have done that. I can see it."
As a fiction writer, it's your job to make readers believe in your world just as much as Faulkner made readers believe in the world of Emily Grierson. One of the worst things for a writer is for a reader to finish a short story or novel and say, "Well, that could have never happened." Readers want so much to believe. Do your job and make them.
If you're having trouble with your beginning, your middle, or your ending, just pull out a volume of short stories and learn how other writers did it. Something is bound to help.
Writers also get ideas from other writers. No, this isn't plagiarism, as long as it's just an idea, and it happens all the time. The beginning of Anne Rice's novel, Violin, is taken straight from Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," but still, it's developed in an entirely different way, and so it became Rice's and Rice's alone, at least in the context of Violin. It could, under certain conditions, become yours as well. While we're reading, we often run across an image or a phrase that inspires us to write something in a completely different way, and sometimes even write it better.
(Note - After reading this blog entry, which is also cross-posted on Literary Corner Cafe, Anne Rice, herself was gracious enough to leave me a comment telling me that while I was probably right about the beginning of Violin being inspired by "A Rose for Emily," she, herself felt that Violin was inspired more by Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.)
I've met a lot of beginning writers who say, "Since I started writing, I don't have time to read." Baloney! Reading should be a requirement of the writing life. In fact, if writers don't read, and read extensively, they'll never become truly great writers, maybe not even good writers.
So, if you're a writer, by all means, write, and try to write daily. But read as well. Read voraciously. Consider novels and short stories "required reading" just as you considered your college course textbooks "required reading."
Remember, there's really no such thing as a writer who's "too well read." Or, one who doesn't have enough time to read. :)