Wednesday, August 8, 2012

On Writing: Fill Your Brain with Books

    There’s not a day that goes by, likely not even a half day, that I do not sit down somewhere with a book. I keep a book on my bedside table, one in my bag, one in my home office, and, usually, a couple in the living room. I even listen to books on my iPod while I’m driving.
    I keep them all going at once, dog-earing corners and setting them aside until the next time I’m nearby. As I write this, The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan is cued up on my iPod, The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi is hanging out near my bed, the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 is in my living room, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith waits near the chair in my study, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig bangs around in my bag and Content-Area Writing by Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman and Nancy Steineke keeps me company in my school office. When I finish a book, it goes into a big pile in the corner of my bedroom. About once a year, the books in the pile get put into boxes, where they wait for me to build new bookshelves.

    I also subscribe to four or five magazines, read six newspapers online, and use the Google Reader aggregator to read about two dozen blogs and other online media.
    I’ve been a reader as long as I can remember. Summers, the public library was my babysitter; my dad used to drop me off there on the way to work and pick me up on the way home. Anytime I got my allowance in those days, $2 every two weeks for chores, I had a decision to make: I could get a Coke, a candy bar and two comic books for that amount, or I could get a paperback. Usually, I got the paperback.  When I started making more money, through odd jobs and, eventually, after-school gigs, I bought more books.  I was cheap so I usually bought the longest book I could find in the genre I wanted; that way I could get the most reading time for my dollar.
    I read to relax, escape, learn new things, and to find models for my own writing. Recently, when working on my short story, Gus Grissom and the Mercury Men, I came to the page where I needed to start a big space battle. I poked the keys for awhile but was forced to admit I had no idea what I was doing; I’d never written a space battle before. I asked some of my writer friends for advice and they suggested I read X-Wing: Rogue Squadron by Michael Stackpole. I picked it up and, sure enough, there was my model space battle. I read over Stackpole’s scenes a bunch of times to help me figure out the best way to pace and frame my own scenes with short sentences, active verbs, and minimal dialogue. It was a big help.
     Hopefully, all writers and would-be writers are readers, too. The idea is to fill your brain with words, ideas, professional models and inspiration. You cannot make good writing out of a diet of television, video games and FaceBook. Hopefully, you read outside your genres and tastes. You like books about sparkly vampires and ghostly girlfriends? Great. To bring something new to those themes and tropes, you have to get outside of them. Otherwise, you are just repeating what you’ve already read.  Reading broadly is the only way to learn how to write well.
      But you don’t have to take my word for it:

Other Writers on Reading

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
— Stephen King, author of Carrie, The Stand, Cujo, and dozens more.
“Read 1,000 pages for every one you try to write.”
Sherman Alexie, author of War Dances, The Toughest Indian in the World, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and more.
“A good writing style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb half a dozen topflight authors every year.”
F Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby and more
“There are many rules of good writing, but the best way to find them is to be a good reader.”
Stephen Ambrose, author of Band of Brothers, D-Day, The Vast Land
“Books…if you’re going to be anything, they are vital in life.”
Roald Dahl, author of The Big Friendly Giant, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and more.
“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading; a man will turn over half a library in order to make one book.”
Samuel Johnson, author of The Dictionary of the English Language

“The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.”
Mark Twain, author of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and more.


  1. Way to mention two of my favorite books dancing around in your bag and living room, and then follow up with a library sitter. I think they tried to clone and mutate an x-man of you and messed up and got this not-bald Xavier you now know as Gimpy.

    I know I'd draw the librarian's ire flipping over half a library from time to time.

    I also like the part about going outside genre; reminds me of making music--I played so much metal, but listened to so much jazz and fusion.

    Always excellent. Stay epic.

    1. It's possible they made a few improvements to the clone, too. I bet you can grow a full beard.

      Have you read "Red Mars"? Did we talk about that?

  2. Excellent words, Rob. I'm a one story at a time kind of person, though. Just carry around the same book until it's finished, then move on. :)

    1. Too much risk of leaving the book at work, or in the car, or dropping it in the lake, KG. But, I swear, when your books hit the market, I will read them exclusively.

  3. I don't read books nearly as much as I used to, but I find my writing's a lot better when I do. Internet articles and comments, my main reading diet, are not very literary.

    1. I share your pain, JaQ. I read a lot of books, but many of them are bubblegum. I need to push myself to read more things of quality.

  4. thanks for sharing.