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Reading to Be a Better Writer

You often hear authors say that being a reader is the first step in becoming a good writer and that is one statement I have taken to heart and found to be true. I have always been a voracious reader. Pizza Hut’s “Book It!” program started my love of reading in earnest as you can never go wrong with the bribe of pizza for an elementary school student. I fell in love with Junie B. Jones, Judy Blume novels, and Nancy Drew. As I got older my taste in books broadened to historical fiction, fantasy, and literary classics. And these past two years in particular have found me reading more than I ever have. I’m already on book 68 of the year and have plans to go buy more tomorrow at the local used book store. I read because I love it, but I also read because I have seen the ways it has improved my writing skills over the years (and not just by reading non-fiction books about the craft.)

As I sat down to write this post, I started to realize that different genres have built different parts of my writing identity:

1. Mystery (forever my favorite genre):

I love getting to the end of a mystery novel and getting slapped across the face with a twist I didn’t see coming at all. The first time I read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, was the first time I couldn’t guess who the killer was and it has stayed in my top 5 books of all time for that very reason. In my own writing, I often try to surprise the audience whether I’m writing a mystery or not. But I also make sure that the twist serves the story. I have read books with incredible twists and books with twists for seemingly no reason and being able to see both sides of that coin has strengthened my own ability to determine how revelations in my writing can impact the reader in a more meaningful way.

2. Literary fiction (close second in my rankings of genres I prefer):

My attention to character building and character dynamics is rooted firmly in my love of literary fiction. If these books don’t have good characters, the book falls flat because the characters drive the plot. Fredrick Backman and Liane Moriarty are two of my favorite current authors (I've read all of their books) because they create nuanced, funny characters who I can picture having a conversation with. I now create elaborate backstories and lists of favorite things for each character before I even start writing. I want to know the people I am writing about and that compulsion comes straight from my love of literary fiction.

3. Fantasy and Science Fiction

I’ve put these together because they have taught me the same thing: worldbuilding. These genres are all about imagination flowing freely onto the page. There are no limitations because often the author is creating the world their story lives in. Whether I am creating a brand new world or writing about a time other than right now, I use the principles found in these genres to help make the places I write about seem tangible. When I read The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time (also in my top 5 of all time) I felt like I was walking through that world with Milo even though it was a fantastical universe. I strive to create that feeling in my own writing.

4. Historical Fiction

One thing that I have found to be true both reading about the past and working with authors who have spent years writing their historical fiction novels is that research and accuracy are important to a reader buying into the story. It is the most tedious part of writing, but one of the most important. No one is going to take a book seriously if someone is talking on an iPhone in 1986. Obviously, that would be a glaring mistake, but it's important to check that every small detail you throw into the story is realistic to the time period and place you have set. Amor Towles is an author who does this brilliantly in the books he writes. I'm instantly transported to the time and place he has chosen to explore. While this may not be the most fun aspect of writing, it can feel like one of the most rewarding.

There are many other things I have learned while reading books throughout the years, but these are the ones that have helped me most recently in working on my novel. I encourage everyone to read, whether you are a writer or not, solely because it opens you up to people, places, and worlds beyond the bubble you live in. Ideas can spark from anywhere, and reading opens you up to more chances of being inspired.

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