Writing Fiction – the value of reading

7The value of reading novels and short stories

A writer has permanent access to the best teaching: in novels and short stories. In terms of technique, nothing is or can be hidden: it’s all there on the page. It’s up to the person reading as a writer to ‘unpack’ how a novel has been made.

Starting out, and throughout a writer’s career, seeing how other people do things is invaluable. Writing without reading is to write in the dark: it might work, but it’s an unnecessary handicap. Being well-read isn’t just about quantity but more a question of immersion, and familiarising yourself with how books feel. Reading is another way of developing the ‘habit’ of writing.

Books are a great comfort to any writer: you can see how others have faced the same problems you face. When you’re reading as a writer, even people’s ‘mistakes’ are invaluable. If you think a book doesn’t work, just articulating why will be useful.

Editing

Editing your writing is very important – some would say the most important aspect of writing. It’s often said that anyone can write but only writers can edit. Once that you have written your first draft and left it to settle for a while, you will need to go back and reflect on what you have written, and make changes accordingly.

  • Don’t be afraid to cut large parts of it if necessary.

  • You might find that when you have got into the story you can go back and cut out the opening sentences. Some openings may well have been used as a way to get into writing the story, or a particular passage, but the story might be more vibrant and enticing without them.

  • Remember that you are aiming to develop a character who is complex and not too predictable.

  • Remember that you are aiming to make the story as interesting and intriguing for the reader as you can.

  • Reflect on all your reading and any tricks or techniques that you see in the novels and stories that might help you.

Also reflect on the reading you’ve done that displays techniques and approaches that don’t seem, to you, to be working.

Writing book reviews

Noticing details about the construction of language, plot and story in what you read will help form your own writing taste and style. Note why you like or dislike about the books you’ve read; what you think works or doesn’t work. This ongoing engagement with your reading will feed into your writing practice. Even the simplest observations might be valuable. For example:

  • How long is the short story or novel?

  • Are there chapters? Sections? Parts?

  • If it’s a short story, how is it structured?

  • When and where is it set, do/how do these things appear to matter, and how are they conveyed?

  • From whose point of view is the story being told? Is it the story of one, or more than one of the characters?

  • Is there dialogue? If so, what does it contribute to the story? What does it tell you of the characters?

  • Is the language modern, plain, elaborate, colloquial?

  • Are there short or long sentences?

  • Are the sentences ‘properly formed’, or broken down? For example, ‘Get this. Bravery. That wasn’t even in it. Heroism? Maybe that was nearer the mark.’

  • Would you say that the story was a ‘page-turner’?

  • Is it full of ‘researched facts’?

  • Is there much ‘internal’ psychological or emotional detail, or is most of the novel or story taken up with ‘external’ events or description?

  • How do you learn of the main characters?

  • Are the minor characters sufficiently clear or too flat?

  • In your opinion, is it clearly aimed at a certain type of reader

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