Reading for your Writing Work
By Jen Cornick
I am a writer. Therefore, my job is to write. To sit at my computer all day long. To put pen to paper until my wrist is cramped and my fingers feel like they will never again lie flat. That is my job; whether it is a blog post, an essay for a museum catalogue, a magazine article, or a short story I am sure will never see publication. But there are days, weeks even, where sitting down to a blank page makes my stomach go cold and my bones churn in my skin.
I want the comfort of a page already covered in words. I just want to read.
And, it turns out, that is also part of my job.
Every workshop I have ever attended, every blog written by a journalist more successful than me, every interview given by a writer I adore – all of them – say that reading is just as much a part of writer’s job as writing.
But there are days, like this one, when I feel like reading is too self-indulgent an activity. Where I have a writing to-do list a mile long. Write a blog for one organization, update website content for another, submit a proposal for future work, make the changes to my story suggested during Writers’ Lab Live, apply for that narrative designer job, pitch a new series of articles.
So, I have to think of it differently. As building a skill-set that will help me with all of my other writing.
Out of my comfort zone
I have a certain set of authors I love. We all have them. Opening a book written by one of them is a true indulgence – to the point where I read Pride and Prejudice every year on my birthday. My favourite writers are Austen, Sedaris, Swift, Pope, Vonnegut, Voltaire, James (P.D. not Henry), and Moliere. They all taught me to be sarcastic, ironic, biting, and even, bitter.
But what about the rest of story-telling? The tension, the world-building, the human feeling (still struggling with this one) that makes readers come back for more.
Those I am learning from others. And some of them more than a little surprising.
Reading Horror for the Feelings
Don’t scoff. It is true. Horror writers write more than just fear. They need their readers to believe, which means they need to relate to the characters; take their fear as their own. But a reader doesn’t automatically do that. That relationship needs to be built over time and through other feelings.
One of my favourite books for just feeling something, anything other than the long day spent at my keyboard is Stephen King’s Bag of Bones. Mike Noonan is a writer. And he loves his wife. His poignant and lush memories of her are the fuel for his debilitating grief when she dies, suddenly. And the reader feels with him as he shares how they used to eat oranges in bed, their happiness over her pregnancy, and even, the way they fought.
The reader connects to Kyra and Mattie when Mike does because of the connection we have to him. We are ready to champion their cause as much as his because he likes them. And then, when the horror and fear set in, when the story takes a turn for the worse, we feel that too.
So, don’t discount a good ghost story for getting you to feel a sudden rush of … adoration, the paralysis of … sadness, or breath-stopping, heart-pounding feeling of … nostalgia.
Reading Mystery Novels for World-Building
When we think about world-building we automatically go to science fiction or fantasy. We think about carefully constructed alien planets, futuristic utopias, or worlds where humans co-exist with fairies and dinosaurs. We do not think about detectives wandering the streets in our everyday, humdrum world.
But they have to make a reader see. Every. Single. Detail. Because they all might be important. Or maybe not.
On my first trip to Edinburgh, I was walking down a street that seemed curiously familiar. I knew the shaded windows, the peeling paint on the doorframes, the way the cobbles were uneven near the grating. I understood how the light would shine and where the shadows would fall almost as well as my own street. I knew where I was. In a city I had never seen before. But I had imagined it. This street, in particular. Fleshmarket Close.
Ian Rankin described everything so well, so perfectly that when, a decade after I read the book, I finally found myself there, I knew. And I could point to exactly where they found the bodies.
P.D. James the Queen of Mystery is also the Duchess of Description. In A Shroud for a Nightingale Miss Beale drives to the John Carpendar Hospital to inspect the Nursing School and, ultimately, witness the first of the murders there. She drives through a commuter community where wives are dropping their husbands at the station, the sidewalks are crowded, and the traffic lights are far too long and there are far too many of them when Miss Beale has an appointment to keep. The reader learns all about this community, their habits, their daily schedule, the social mores of their existence. All the essentials of life in this made-up little town while Miss Beale drives through it in a few paragraphs.
So, turn to mystery writers to see how to construct a world that is believable, recognizable, and easy to imagine because of the perfect attention to detail. So, if you want to understand how to describe traffic patterns … in outer space, the way shadow falls … on a magical artifact, or a cat skulking in … the witch’s garden then the mystery writer has you covered.
Reading Romance for the Tension
I can already hear you saying it. Thrillers is where you should learn about tension; Dan Brown and Robert Harris. They know all about tension. They keep us riveted with their complicated plots and their characters who just won’t quit until the job is done. Until the question is answered and the plot is foiled.
But a bomb about to explode does not immediately inject tension into a story. Tension is about push and pull, cat and mouse, villain and hero. It is the delicate thread that connects two characters and pulls the reader through the narrative.
Which is why we must turn to romance.
Those who know me well know that I have a cupboard of shame in my bookcase. It is the home to every mass market paperback in my library. Time-travelling Vikings who are also Navy Seals in the future falling in love – cupboard of shame. A Duke in Mayfair proposing on a whim to a seamstress – cupboard of shame. A vet with magical healing powers who falls in love with a local emergency dispatcher – cupboard of shame. Despite the absurdity of their individual premises, romance novelists lure their readers in and keep them coming back for more.
We all know the characters are going to fall in love. We know this as surely as we know insects live in basements and that bread will always fall jam side down. There is the meet-cute then the will-they-won’t-they push and pull between our heroine and her love interest. The realization of their feelings and the pursuit against all odds. They make us turn every page, even knowing that half way through the book is when they will finally sleep together. But what will drive them apart for that brief period two-thirds of the way through the book, you will have to turn the page to find out.
The romance writer keeps you turning pages without having to use dramatic cliff-hangers or five sub-plots, each more complicated than the last. It is just pure tension between two characters. So, if you want to know how chase down a … serial killer, dance with an … enemy spy, or can’t sleep because … the cosmic horror in the basement, romance writers are the place to turn.
Where can I learn more…
We all have our favourite books and they all taught us something important. They all influence our writing. So, in addition to being sarcastic, ironic, biting, and even, bitter my stories are tense, filled with moody environments, and packed full of feelings.
And remember, reading is just as important as writing if you are a writer.
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Reading is not my hobby, I am pretty sure it forms a vital part of my autonomic nervous system. I am never without a book and I will read anything, including cereal boxes. My journalism has appeared in Metropole: Vienna In English, Impact Hub Vienna, Ted x Vienna, and the EU Observer.
Find out more about Jennifer by visiting her blog: The Curiosity Cabinet
Great piece, Jen. I love the romance cupboard of shame,
Some fantastic reading advice, Jen. Thank you for sharing it. Can you recommend a good mystery book with a good dose of humour?
Absolutely! Richard Osmond’s The Thursday Murder Club is fantastically funny. But you can find a biting wit in the pages of P.D. James and Agatha Christie (any of their books are amazing).
I agree – definitely read out of your comfort zone. You never know what you’ll end up with. Chances are, it’ll be brilliant!