Wednesday, April 7, 2021

If You Want To Be a Better Author, Broaden Your Reading Horizons

One of the most common pieces of advice that gets flung at writers from an early age is that we need to be good readers. It seems obvious on the surface. If you want to learn how to create a finished product, then you need to understand the process behind it, and to get an idea of how all the different parts fit together to make it function. If you want to be a mechanic, you learn how cars work. If you want to be a carpenter, you study woodworking. If you want to be an author, you eat stories until you can identify the themes and metaphors with your eyes closed.

Seriously, folks, keep your diet varied.

This next statement is something that a lot of folks aren't going to want to hear, and there's probably some people who are going to want to argue with it. However, if you want to really grow as a creator, you need to read books in as many other genres and styles as you can; particularly well-known stories that have left an imprint on the world of writing and whose DNA shows up in a variety of other works that took inspiration from them.

You don't have to like these stories, and a lot of the time you can get away with reading the cliff notes version rather than the full text, but you need to at least be aware of the influential stories that are floating around out there. Especially because there's nothing new under the sun, and your book is going to have people placing it in literary family trees... whether you knew your idea was related to what came before, or not.

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Become a Better Story Chef

If you've ever watched a popular cooking show, then you've likely seen that whoever the master chef is tends to have a wide variety of skills and recipes to draw on. They understand not just how to make a specific dish, but what makes the flavors work together, what techniques need to be used to bring it out, and what you can do to transform a failure into a success. They can break a meal down to its component parts, change around elements, and combine different traditions and spices to create entrees and appetizers with a twist.

Being an author is like that, but with words and ideas instead of rib tips, sauces, and spices.

Different tools, same idea.

Whether you're writing romance or fantasy, sci-fi or horror, you need to understand all the tools you have at your disposal. The best way to do that is to look at how others did it (especially those who are considered to have written lasting/popular works), and to study the methods they used to achieve their results. What was it about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that makes the monster so horrifying, yet relatable? What makes the comedy really work in The Ransom of Red Chief, and how could it be used to tell a darker, more serious story if that was what you wanted? What are the differences between Robert E. Howard, Tolkien, and Moorcock, and how do their unique styles and flourishes create their particular tones and worlds?

You don't need to be able to break things down into academic terms, either. No one is going to challenge you to attach an appendix to your novel explaining the styles, influences, and techniques you were drawing on (though if you can, it gives you something to talk about in interviews, and on panels at conventions). However, there is nothing worse than thinking you have a new, unique idea, stewing on it for weeks, months, or even years, only to find that when you talk to a writing group (or worse, and editor) that your story is actually really similar to a piece that's been around for decades, and is considered a staple in its genre.

As I said in There Are No New Stories To Tell (But That Shouldn't Stop You From Writing), there are always going to be tales your work shares DNA with. Hell, if someone were to sit down and crack the cover on my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife they'd probably feel like they were getting something composed by Louis L'amour by way of Robert Howard. However, there's a difference between creating an accidental homage because you didn't know any better, and making a deliberate choice to invoke a certain feeling and style in your story.

Because it's entirely possible that just chucking a bunch of spices into a dish, setting the heat at what sort of sounds like a good temperature, and letting it simmer will produce an amazing end product. However, if you've read about the recipes used in different genres, experienced the dishes created by other authors, and you understand what makes the process work, you're a lot less likely to reach that positive end via luck and accident.

You're also a lot more likely to be able to do it at will, rather than hoping good fortune guides your hands.

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That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my most recent short story collection The Rejects!
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