Writers Write — and Read

It’s harder than ever to become a writer.

Not because of all the doom and gloom about the death of the novel, print vs. electronic books, big publishers vs. self-publishing, or Amazon vs. everyone. The problem is that many kids today (girls and boys) not only aren’t reading, but they don’t have access to books. Good writers are born from a lifetime love of reading.

It’s not a matter of kids and teens choosing to play video games, or watch TV, or go online instead of picking up a book — books simply are not in their lives as much as they should be. I was recently invited to talk to a couple of English classes at my old high school about my writing. I was honored, and even more so when I discovered what a hardship it was for the school to afford an author visit and books on their limited budget, which does not include much money even for school books. Or for a school newspaper or literary journal. Or a full-time librarian. These kinds of budgetary cutbacks in school and public libraries is an epidemic.

LegoMovie_Poster_200x300Back in my day, we had all those things. (Although one committed English teacher did sometimes have to resort to photocopying Marlowe, in an early form of book piracy.) I’m a product of every school library, every book we studied in class, every librarian who either recommended good reads to me or quietly looked the other way while I explored on my own. I’m a published author because of English teachers like Mrs. Fein, Mrs. Post, Mrs. Halpern, Mr. Riti, and Mr. Valk.

My author bio says that I was “raised by a single mom and a public library” for a reason: I was lucky enough to live a 10-minute walk from my local library (and I’m not exaggerating when I say I had to walk home up a huge hill in 100-degree weather carrying an armload of books, but it was worth it.) I was lucky because I had family and teachers who nurtured my love for reading and gave me the tools to turn that love into something else: a desire to write books of my own one day.

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I was also fortunate to have other positive influences in my life like Reading Rainbow, which reinforced reading as a good thing; even at the time, I stood out for reading so much. Many people of a certain age remember the show’s theme song fondly. It talks about the amazing and varied experiences readers can have in the pages of a book, but the lyrics are also motivational for what readers can accomplish in life: “Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high.” “I can go anywhere!” “I can be anything!” Those are important messages to give young people. Happily, Reading Rainbow is making a comeback and will be able to reach new generations via computers and mobile devices.

At my former high school, where kids no longer have a creative outlet or writing instruction, one student asked me if I needed a college degree to become a writer. Though I was a little embarrassed, because college is important to getting most good jobs these days, I was also truthful. “No,” I said. “I learned how to write by reading books.” By reading, you naturally gain a knowledge of proper grammar (even if you don’t know the names of the rules or how to parse a sentence) and story structure and pacing, and you begin to develop a prose style and your own voice. Yes, you can take classes and join workshops or critique groups, and I think those are useful things. But to build a solid foundation with words, an active imagination, and a lifelong devotion to consuming and creating stories, you have to read.

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So my best advice, forever and always, to kids in school, aspiring writers, and published authors is READ. Read anything. Read everything. Read genres you love and books you think you’ll hate. Read young adult and middle grade and books intended for adults, even if you aren’t meant to understand them. Pick up literary bestsellers and mysteries and science fiction. Try urban fantasy and new adult. Read non fiction and fanfiction, comics and read magazines — and yes, the internet. Read for pleasure. Read for research. Read for inspiration. Read to learn how other authors write well, and to learn what you shouldn’t do. Just read.

So… What are you reading now? (Other than this blog post.) Me, I’m finishing up my friend Rajan Khanna’s excellent debut science fiction novel, Falling Sky, out in October from Pyr. In the comments below, tell us about what’s on your eReader, in your bag, or on your night stand.

  

8 Responses to Writers Write — and Read

  1. Cheri Roman Jun 20 2014 at 8:11 am #

    Great advice! Reading is the foundation of nearly all other learning. If you can read, you can broaden your learning and experience in ways that would otherwise be impossible.

  2. Patrick Stahl Jun 20 2014 at 9:18 am #

    Right now I’m reading LoTR (because I’m a terrible fantasy writer for having not read it already) and Lockstep (by Karl Shroeder). I’m also listening to the novella Forsworn, written by Brian McClellan.

  3. Erin Bowman
    Erin Bowman Jun 20 2014 at 10:03 am #

    Dude, this was such a fantastic post! I remember walking to the library growing up as well. And watching Reading Rainbow at home or in school. Reading (and libraries) seemed like such a integral part of growing up, and it breaks my heart to hear how many schools and libraries are experiencing budget cuts and lay-offs. (Like you, I hear about these often while booking author visits.)

    At the moment, I’m reading an ARC of HEIR OF FIRE by PubCrawl alumn Sarah Maas. But then I’ll be moving on to some contemporary novels. All I’ve been reading lately is fantasy, and it’s time to mix things up. 🙂

  4. ChristinaLi Jun 20 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    Love the pic of you and the TARDIS! I just took my kids to two libraries yesterday here in the Chicago area. We are so blessed! Growing up, books were a haven for me. I can’t imagine growing up without them.
    The good thing about the advent of ebooks is that they are so much cheaper. Perhaps more libraries can get these as an alternative to cut down on costs? Kids can download books into their phones. I know, it’s different from holding a ‘real’ book in your hands, but the story hasn’t changed!
    Anyway, currently, I’m reading several books at once including book 2 of the Maximum Ride series and Mastermind, how to think like Sherlock Holmes.

  5. Jennifer McGinnis Jun 20 2014 at 1:17 pm #

    Reading is essential! All of my kids were avid readers, and I expect will be so again after the hectic life of raising small children. They read to their children, though, and a large part of what they are reading to their children are the books that I read to them when they were little, because I’ve passed them down. A few still exist from when I was little!

    Currently on my MP3 player is the audible book version of Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub; currently by my bedside is the paperback version of Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson (the first of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series); currently in my Kindle is a short book on how to write scary scenes; and currently I am reading, chapter by chapter, numerous books by critiquing partners Pam, Sam, Meghan, Jem, Rav, Ben, Jefferson, and Cormac. Wow, putting that all down, how is it I still have time to WRITE? But I do!

  6. thejordache
    thejordache Jun 20 2014 at 2:43 pm #

    This is such a great post. My public school libraries were how I found many of my favorite books from childhood.

    Right now I’m reading OUT OF THE EASY for my book club. Book clubs are a great way for me to remember to read published books outside of the books I work on at work. It’s a way for me to make the time to read something new.

  7. Alex Jun 23 2014 at 12:17 am #

    It is so true that a love of writing is initially born from a love of stories and reading. At my elementary school we had a Bingo-style incentive system in which we had to read books in different genres in order to fill our paper boards. We were encouraged to read one book or at least 100 pages per week. My school also incorporated Writers’ Workshop into the curriculum and encouraged all of us to write and invent stories. We continue to need encouragement like that in our schools today!

    I’m currently finishing up Anna Karenina and learning from Tolstoy how to provide copious detail without detracting from the essential story.

  8. Sandy Jun 25 2014 at 1:24 pm #

    On my iPad I am currently reading Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Lying on my bed is Midnight City by J. Barton Mitchell.

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