Read, Write, Learn

On my way in to work this morning, I heard a commercial for Bic on the radio. It was a “conversation” about “get writing,” with a Bic pen, and how writing can help your creativity, your reading capability, and something else I can’t think of at the moment.

I grinned after I heard it because I had just been thinking about what I was going to write today, and ‘reading and writing’ was right up there. So I decided the commercial had made up my mind for me.

Reading and writing go together in the most obvious, passive ways. You read a sentence you’ve just written, whether during an exam or on your own, you read instructions on a manual, you write notes to people at work or to clients, inner-office notes. They’re hand in hand, no matter what the circumstance, pleasure or production.

It goes too, without saying, that the more you do, the better it expands your mind and your ability. The more books you read, the more style you take in of other authors, the more vocabulary you learn, the more you see and understand with different possibilities and your imagination just expands and expands. This can help non-fiction as well as fiction.

I will admit that there is a set of books that transformed my reading, and helped transform my writing. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson is not only a gorgeous trilogy of thrillers– murder, police, and politics respectively– but it has so many themes and underlying messages that it was like literal headcandy for me. It is the most recommended set of books by me, and I think that will continue on for quite a while. Stieg Larsson had created an incredible set of characters with dynamics that blew my mind and development that was beautiful to watch. The situations he put them in, the mystery he wove, the little hooks and callbacks, every little detail was perfect.

To me, he was the first story teller I had really fallen in love with, and he helped me see the intricacies of the art a hell of a lot better.

When you shut the book completely after finding out a major plot twist, I think the author is doing their job incredibly well. I still remember how shocking that was to find out.

In that, you can see what difference reading makes for us. Seeing things in vivid detail brings out certain points and elements that maybe we hadn’t noticed before. It makes you pay attention, it brings you in and doesn’t let you go.

This goes for all good stories. They show us what we need or want to see, they open our eyes and give details we didn’t think of to put emphasis on before. They teach us. They show us the way. They help us become better writers, the way we want to become.

They also help us become story-snobs. When you read a story that hasn’t utilized all of its elements for good, is obvious and not terribly cohesive, you can tell, but even that can help us. “What not to do,” in some cases, and for example: Fifty Shades of Grey.

I’ll roll this lesson in too because I’m thinking about it. On the topic of Fifty Shades, and as I mentioned before, vocabulary and word choice is important in that it helps shapes the story, it helps us bring out the color in the story. It brings the images in our head to the forefront on a page.

I always joked that you can tell when an author learned a new word or found a new word they liked, because you’d see it more in the book in a certain section. I’d always vowed to write in a way that I wasn’t so repetitious, to have good word flow and sentence structure that was as colorful as the rainbow and then some. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s more difficult than I realized at first. Writing a book with no repetition within it whatsoever, 3-400 words of constant flow can be difficult. The trick, at least, is to make sure that you’re varying the word choice, keep it going.

One trick I learned was not to use the same word twice in the same paragraph, articles and some nouns excluded. ‘As’ and ‘just’ especially only should be used once.

Let me go back to Fifty Shades, where I’ve heard– and briefly seen– the word choice is about as staggering as it can get. It is an easy read, quick, something you can simply devour if you’re in the mood for it, because who really worries about vocabulary when you’re taking in literary porn?

For those who are more picky about what they read, who read for a good story and stimulation just as well, the word choice that the author uses can be what kills the mood and the desire to read more. If it’s poor, badly executed, it doesn’t engage, and it’s more of “meh,” reaction than an “ooh, 2:00 a.m? Who cares!” reaction.

On the other hand, that could bring up the topic of reading level. What we like and what we can take in. I couldn’t get past the first chapter of Dante’s Inferno eight years ago without falling asleep. Shakespeare was just as daunting. This is where we can improve by reading more, finding where our level is and going from there. Sort of like a video game, if you want to think of it like that. The more you read, the more you understand, and the better you do.

Still, there are books that exist at a decent reading level that manage to dazzle without being hard to understand.

I wonder now, after writing so much, how well I could read Dante’s Inferno. Though I still have trouble with older books that have thick, more antiquated vocabularies. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has been a slow read for me, but no less exciting. If nothing else, I can see the images that Jules Verne has written out so well, much better than I used to. And Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was a hard read back seven years ago just as well, but the more I write, the more I read, the more I’ve developed my ability and my apprehension (comprehension?).

I will say that there’s a sweet spot for vocabulary plus reader understanding. You can still have an intricate story that’s easy to read; take Harry Potter for example, which started as a sort of children’s book and continued on to the higher dredges of young adult (that’s my interpretation, at least, I could be wrong), and still continues to be one of the most read series by the target audience. At least, to my knowledge, for fiction writing, there is that good level of word choice plus intricacy plus good story telling skill.

We all have our preferences of what to read, just as much as we do for what we write. I’d still fall asleep reading non-fiction books, but that doesn’t mean they’re written poorly, and it doesn’t mean it’s not on my reading level, it’s just not what I’m interested in. So there is that difference: interest versus reading comprehension versus vocabulary used and flow of words versus personal taste.  Some enjoy books that others find mundane, and there’s an audience still for time travel and science fiction just as much as there is for Twilight fan fiction and so on. If we all had the same level and comprehension and taste, this would be a much shorter post.

Don’t be afraid if you’re intimidated by something. If you can’t read it, or it’s not engaging your interest enough that you’re having to read and re-read whole paragraphs, don’t force it. Come back to it later or not. There’s no pressure on what you have to read; if you want to read, don’t make yourself read what you think others will enjoy hearing you talk about. Find something you like and run with it.

The same goes for writing. Don’t force yourself to write science fiction if you’d rather write about Victorian era wizards, or steampunk rabbits with bayonets that shoot ethereal nets at ghosts. Find where you’re most comfortable, and just go for it. There’s an audience for it somewhere, I guarantee it.

-The Novice Wordsmith

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