To Write, You Must Read

That proposition will probably seem self-evident to most of my readers. But I recently heard an acquaintance who is the author of a fiction manuscript admit that she is “not a reader.”

I have to say, I was flabbergasted. Dumbfounded. Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. To the extent that I couldn’t find words to tell her she must read if she ever wants to succeed as a writer.

As a child, I was so eager to read that I taught myself at age four. I don’t say that to brag, but to emphasize how inconceivable it is to me that anyone would not be interested in reading. So it’s difficult for me to isolate specific reasons that reading fiction is necessary to a fiction writer. Nevertheless, I’m going to try.

1. Reading gives you a feeling for language.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, language is the writer’s medium. Just as a painter has to learn how to use brushes, paints, and canvas, a writer needs to learn how to use words. This knowledge includes everything from the mechanics of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage to the fine shades of meaning and sound.

I’m convinced that my instinctive feeling for proper and improper English is primarily attributable to years of reading writers who were as skilled in wielding words as Leonardo was in wielding a paintbrush. You can learn rules in a classroom, but you can only internalize the depth, breadth, and infinite possibilities of language through reading the work of writers who have used it well.

2. Reading teaches you how to tell a story.

How would you even know what a story is if you don’t read them? Of course, we all hear stories, or watch them in movies. Certain factors are common to stories in any form, but others are specific to written stories. How do you begin a story in words? How do you develop character? How do you portray a character’s inner life? How do you integrate setting into your story? How do you convey your theme? Movies can’t teach you any of these things, because they use different techniques to accomplish them.

This is just the tip of a whole iceberg of what a writer can learn on a technical level through reading.

3. Reading acquaints you with what has already been done.

If you want to write something fresh, you need to know what has already been written. In every genre, certain stories, character types, patterns, and tropes have been done to death. These may well be the first stories, characters, etc. that pop into your mind when you decide to write a book. You can save yourself a lot of trouble if you know up front what to avoid.

On the flip side, wide reading will give you a cultural context that you can employ to enrich your writing. Allusions to your favorite writers—subtle or obvious, conscious or unconscious—will add depth and resonance to your story as they cause your reader to reflect on the connections implied.

4. Reading acquaints you with the conventions of your genre.

This is the argument I most often hear advanced for writers to read, but to my mind it’s the least important. Nevertheless, if you are going to write within an established genre, it is essential to know what readers (and correspondingly, agents and publishers) of that genre expect from a story.

Some genres have more specific requirements than others. My understanding (second-hand, as I neither read nor write in this genre) is that category romance is one of the most restrictive, with rules about word count, character professions and personalities, and in which chapter the hero and heroine must meet, kiss, fight, have sex, etc. Literary fiction is possibly the least restrictive in terms of specific elements, although arguably the most difficult to write well.

5. Reading gives you membership in the most fascinating community of people in the world.

When I open a novel, I’m entering a new world. Not just the world the author has created within the story—though that’s a thrilling experience in itself—but the world of the author him/herself and of all the people who have read the story, are reading it now, or will read it in the future. It’s also the world of everyone who had some kind of impact on the author’s life that contributed to the story being what it is. And it’s the world of all the writers the story’s author read and loved, and the people who read their stories. When I open a novel, I’m only six degrees of separation from the greatest minds ever to live on this planet.

I imagine every reader has had the experience of making a new friend through a book. Maybe the person next to you on the plane asked what you were reading, and that author turned out to be one of your seatmate’s favorites too. Maybe you met someone on Goodreads, or at a bookstore or a library.  Maybe a teacher recommended a book to you, and through that recommendation you discovered your teacher was a kindred spirit after all.

If you try to write without being a reader, you’ll miss out on this community, and the loss will hurt your writing. It will also substantially impair your chances of getting published. Personal connections are just as important in publishing as in any other field. If publishing professionals you meet sense that you’re not a kindred spirit—because you’re not a reader—you likely won’t get far.

6. Reading shows you what can be achieved.

Those striving in any field of endeavor need to be inspired by the greats who have come before them. You need a sense of what is possible so you know what to strive for. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, unless you’re a born genius like Shakespeare or Dickens:

You will never write better than the best authors you read.

Why Fiction?

This list is far from comprehensive, and it doesn’t even touch on the most basic point of all: Why would anyone who doesn’t love reading fiction even want to write it? If it’s because you have a message to convey, a point to make, there are many better ways of doing that than through fiction. Fiction is (ideally) art, and art does not exist for the purpose of conveying a message or making a point. Art doesn’t so much answer questions as ask them. If you think you have answers, hire a co-writer or ghostwriter and write a nonfiction book, or a blog, or go on the radio and speak your mind.

But please, don’t waste your time writing fiction.

P.S. My apologies for the blog silence the last couple of weeks. Health issues have been limiting my working hours, and I can’t prioritize the blog over my fiction or my day job.

Prologues in Novels: Not All Created Equal

I’ve seen a lot of back and forth, up and down about prologues in novels: Are they the kiss of death with agents and editors? Or are they the most useful writing trick since the dialogue tag?

My answer would be yes. Or no. Depending on what kind of prologue it is and what it’s meant to accomplish.

Prologues are not created equal. Some kinds of prologues enrich a story so much they could even be considered essential. Other kinds are mere cheap tricks that need to be abandoned in favor of good, solid writing.

The Bad Prologue

Here are a couple of examples of the egregrious, dispensable prologue and their possible alternatives:

  • A scene is lifted from the middle of the story—usually a shocking or suspenseful scene—and plunked down at the beginning as a prologue. The reader is then taken back in time in chapter 1 and has to read large chunks of material before he can find out what happens after the prologue.

The cure: Make your first chapter intriguing enough that the reader wants to read on, even without having the book’s greatest moment of suspense dangled in front of him like a carrot.

  • The prologue is nothing more than backstory, generally told rather than shown.

The cure: Weave what backstory is really necessary (usually not much) throughout the initial chapters, using dialogue, narration, and perhaps a judicious amount of flashback. (Flashback consists of fully realized scenes, not straight narration.)

The Good Prologue

Useful, enriching prologues, on the other hand, are usually distinct from the body of the story in one or more of several ways: time, character, setting, point of view, even tone and style. They can also function as framing devices for a story within a story.

  • Time: C. S. Lakin, in her fairy tale, The Wolf of Tebron, uses a prologue to show crucial events that take place a generation before the main story begins. (This differs from the bad backstory prologue in that it is written as a fully realized series of scenes, not as “telling.”)
  • Characters: In certain kinds of murder mysteries, it is considered legitimate to include a prologue that depicts the actual crime, focusing on the criminal and the victim. The focus of the narrative then shifts to the detective(s) for the rest of the book. TV mysteries (such as Inspector Lewis, my current favorite) often follow this format for the first murder. (This is not usually done in cozies or in classic British detective fiction; there one generally gets to know and loathe the victim before he or she is bumped off.)
  • Setting: My own prologue to The Vestibule of Heaven is narrated from, well, the vestibule of heaven, whereas the story proper takes place on earth. This prologue also serves to give the reader some essential information about the first-person narrator that could not be conveyed as effectively within a normal story scene.
  • Point of View: In several of the Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling uses a prologue written from another character’s point of view to let the reader in on events of which Harry cannot be a witness.
  • Framing Device: The prologue of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi purports to be written by a third party who has discovered Pi’s story and brought it to the world.

Prologues like these accomplish a genuine purpose in a way that is ultimately more elegant than any other possible solution.

That, to me, is the acid test: Is your prologue an elegant solution or a cheesy shortcut? If the latter (she says, cracking her editorial whip), get back to work and come up with the most elegant solution for your particular story.

What are some examples of prologues you either love or love to hate?

The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life (review)

I’ve just finished reading a book called The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas (Sellers Publishing, 2011). It’s a beautifully designed mixture of excerpts from the letters, writings, and talks of a dozen classic female authors with summary meditations from Ms. Atlas. And it’s charming, surprising, inspiring, and an all-around must-read for any female author. Non-writing admirers of these ladies will also enjoy an intimate glimpse behind the scenes of their genius.

The authors—Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Madeleine L’Engle, L. M. Montgomery, Anaïs Nin, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf—offer comments from dry to bitter to encouraging to ecstatic on subjects ranging from becoming a writer to conquering inner demons to combining writing with motherhood to rejection, acceptance, and money to handling success.

Some of their situations are notably unlike our own. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th, it seems to have been significantly easier to make a living by writing than it is now—even for a woman. Not to say these women didn’t work hard—they were their own slavedrivers, for the most part. But in that milieu, hard work, excellence, and persistence were almost sure to pay off eventually, whereas now there are no guarantees even for the most dedicated genius.

And on the flip side, these women all faced active discrimination the likes of which have almost disappeared from the current literary scene. (Atlas does quote one statistic that claims male writers still make significantly more money than female writers, but I think it would be hard to make a case that they have any easier a time getting published or are favored by readers or reviewers.)

But when it comes to matters of the pen and of the heart, all these literary ladies are completely kindred spirits to women writing today. They struggled with other responsibilities, feelings of self-doubt, sometimes opposition from family and friends. They endured rejection, personal and artistic misunderstanding, and the dark side of fame.

Some of them wrote from the heart, while others wrote what their market demanded and produced wildly popular classics—to their own complete surprise (e.g. Little Women, Anne of Green Gables). Some, notably Virginia Woolf, were literary pioneers who were never entirely confident as to whether their work was genius or garbage. Some made a handsome fortune in their lifetimes; others barely got by. But all have a lot to say that can help contemporary writers through all the rough spots of our writing lives.

(One caveat for the terminally particular like myself: This book has a lot of typos. I find that odd given the number of people credited in the acknowledgements who had a hand in making the book—was none of them a proofreader? However, the beauty of the design and the content made up for the typos in my estimation. And that’s saying a lot.)

I found the book quite inspiring. All these famous writers were regular gals—they put their petticoats on one leg at a time like anyone else. They started from nothing, with nothing but a dream and the boldness to pursue it, and they earned a permanent place in the literary pantheon. It gives me hope that if I work hard enough, I may someday be able to do the same.

Playing God in Fiction

Ask a group of fiction writers why they enjoy writing fiction, and chances are a substantial chunk of the answers will have something to do with how much fun it is to create our own little worlds and play God in them. As long as we’re playing God, we may as well do it right—treat our characters the way God treats us.

1. Pull them out of their comfort zone.

Think back to when you first committed your life to God. You probably had a lovely little honeymoon phase when everything was sweetness and light. But then things started to get stickier. As you drew closer to God, He began to peel back the layers of your personality to show you things about yourself you’d much rather not have known. He began pushing you to be a better, braver, more trusting, more risk-taking, more loving, more sacrificing person than you ever believed you could be.

And that’s just what a good writer does to her characters. If we left them in their comfort zone, there would be no story. Take any story you like, even the sweetest stories of childhood, like Winnie the Pooh. We have Pooh pursued by angry bees or stuck in Rabbit’s front door or falling into a pit meant for Heffalumps. We have Piglet facing his terror of Heffalumps to rescue Pooh, or giving up his house to Owl. Definitely out of their comfort zones.

And if you look at more grown-up literature, you have Frodo leaving the comfort of the Shire and ultimately heading into Mordor. You have Fanny Price leaving her family to face all the terrifying grandeur of Mansfield Park. You have Anna Karenina’s placid if less-than-contented life turned upside down by passion. Comfort zone? That’s for those left behind.

2. Give them free will.

Non-writers tend to think writers are a little nuts, or at least exaggerating, when we talk about our characters as if they’re independent entities: “My character just won’t behave.” “I thought I was going to write X, but my character wanted to do Y.” “My characters are taking over the story—I have no idea where it’s going.”

If you write fiction and you’ve never had such an experience, you may be keeping your characters on too tight a rein. Yes, you created them, but now they exist in their own right—in some bizarre mystical sense we can’t quite understand. If you want your story to ring true, to be the best it can be, you need to give them their head. Let them find their own way and make their own mistakes. That’s what God does with us, after all. And provided you’ve given them a good heart to begin with, they’ll turn out all right in the end.

3. Give them what they need, not what they want.

In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Not “Give us this day our sports cars, our Prada, our iGadget 16, our McMansion.” God has promised to give us what we need. He never promised to give us everything we want, either on the material plane or otherwise.

Our characters, being human, want all sorts of things that aren’t the best for them. They may want a peaceful life in their comfort zone. They may want worldly success, not knowing it would ruin them spiritually. They may want the love of the wrong person. It’s our job to make sure they don’t get these things—or, if they’re really stubborn, to let them attain their false desires and then take them away. In the end, our characters have to end up with what they really need in order to become better people.

This is the flip side of “give them free will.” We let them do what they want, but we control the results.

Think of Emma Woodhouse. She thought she wanted to be the benevolent dictator of her social circle, directing everyone else’s love life while remaining unattached herself. But of course, that life would only have intensified all her flaws. What she really needed was marriage to a man who would never let her get away with being less than her best, and Jane Austen made sure she got it.

4. Rescue them only at the last minute.

How many times have you prayed for God to save you from some situation—a financial crisis, a life-threatening disaster, or just an everyday contretemps—and found yourself biting your nails, wondering if He was really going to come through this time? Then at the very last possible second, He swoops in and delivers you, usually in some spectacular way you could never have predicted. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of the dramatic?

A wise fiction writer will do exactly the same. We’ll let our characters get themselves up to their necks in a pool of quicksand surrounded by ravenous lions, with cobras slithering toward them across the mud, before we drop them a line from a hovering helicopter.

The lava of Mount Doom was licking at Sam and Frodo’s furry toes when the eagles swooped in to carry them off. Harry Potter had to go all the way to death and back before he could defeat Voldemort. The White Witch had her wand out to turn Edmund to stone when Aslan finally appeared to save the day.

Don’t save your characters too soon. Stretch them to their limit. It’s good for them, and it’s good for the story.

What would Jesus do?

So next time you’re stuck in your novel, wondering what to do next, ask yourself, “What would God do with me if I were in that situation?” Then try doing the same thing with your characters. Not only will you get a better novel, you’ll get that secret thrill that comes from playing God—in just about the only context where you can get away with it.

How do you, or how do your favorite authors, play God in your/their fiction?

Free Fiction for Fiction Friday

I’m kicking off my Fiction Fridays by offering a free short story. What’s the catch? All you need to do is subscribe to the blog.

“If a Tree Falls in the Forest” is the story of a man whose best friend is killed by a falling tree and who then has to come to terms with his death. The story was published in the Canadian journal Dreams and Visions in December 2007. It’s an example of what I mean by “God-haunted fiction.”

If you subscribe, I’ll email you a professionally designed 18-page PDF which you can then print normally, load onto your e-reader, or, if you’re really clever, print as a booklet from Acrobat.

Oh yes—I don’t believe in cheating people who have already subscribed with no inducement. If you have already subscribed and would like a copy, just drop me a comment and I’ll get it out to you.

No need to give me your email address—I’ll have it as soon as you subscribe (bwahaha).

Thanks, and happy reading!

Literature and Orthodox Culture

This post is part of a synchroblog by the Orthobloggers. See links to others participating at the end of the post.

Culture can, and does, mean many different things—anything from the entire socio-politico-religio-artistic milieu of a society, to those high art productions like ballet and opera that Average Joe wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot basketball goal. For a couple of reasons, I’m not going to attempt to tackle the former:

  1. It’s beyond my scope. I’m not an informed student of sociology or politics, and when it comes to religion and arts other than my own, I mostly just know what I like.
  2. It’s nonsensical to talk about an “Orthodox culture” in that first sense in any Western country. In fact, I’m not sure there’s any country in the world where it currently makes sense, because the Orthodox underpinnings of society have been eroded by persecution and secularism almost everywhere. You can’t have an “Orthodox culture” unless you have a predominantly Orthodox population—and maybe not even then.

I’m also not going to talk about ballet or opera or painting, not because I don’t enjoy them, but because they’re not my field.

I’m a writer, so I’m going to talk about Orthodox culture in the context of literature.

To some people—probably the same Average Joes and Janes who shun ballet and opera—”literature” is a dirty word. It conjures images of dusty tomes whose content is as dry as the ancient paper they’re printed on. It revives unpleasant memories of stern high school English teachers who apparently believed they could make students love Dickens and Melville by telling them all the reasons they should. It’s epitomized by scholars like the (possibly fictional) one who wrote the introduction to the poetry text in Dead Poets Society, which suggested a poem’s worth could be determined by plotting its scores for skill of composition and significance of theme on a graph.

These people, if they read at all, don’t want “literature”; they want stories. The more action-packed, the more like a movie translated to print, the better.

From my point of view, literature simply consists of the best stories of all time dressed up in their best Sunday clothes. Also from my point of view, the best stories of all time are those through which eternal truth shines most brightly.

By this I do not mean stories that contain a “salvation message” or that depict nice Christian people going about their nice Christian lives. I mean stories like Perrault’s Cinderella. Anna Karenina. Crime and Punishment. Lord of the Rings. Till We Have Faces. Bleak House. Mansfield Park. The Way We Live Now. East of Eden. Peace Like a River. The Wind in the Willows. Harry Potter. Stories in which good is rewarded, evil is punished, and sinful people and a sinful world are redeemed by acts of heroism, sacrifice, and love.

If Orthodox Christianity is the purveyor of eternal truth to mankind, then Orthodox culture as embodied in literature refers to books like these. If we want Orthodox culture to flourish in the contemporary West, we need to do all we can to produce and encourage books like these.

If we are writers, we need to write them. If we are publishers, we need to publish them. If we are readers, we need to buy them and read them.

I could with little difficulty count a dozen or so Orthodox writers who are currently writing excellent fiction but cannot find anyone to publish it. It’s “too religious” for general market publishers, too sacramental and incarnational for “Christian” (read evangelical) publishers. And (putting on my editor hat for a moment) it seems for the time being too financially risky for Orthodox publishers who have built up a somewhat shaky business based on nonfiction. Orthodox bookstores don’t know what to do with it, they don’t have a shelf for it, so they don’t buy it.

If the rapidly growing Orthodox population of the West wants Orthodox culture in the form of literature, it’s going to have to put its money where its mouth is. It’s going to have to start clamoring for—and buying—good works of fiction by Orthodox authors (and those who share our fundamental point of view).

There’s an old saying among Orthodox: You get the priest you deserve.

There’s a new saying that’s equally true: You get the culture you deserve.

Other blogs participating in this synchroblog:

Writers’ Ten Commandments #10: You Shall Not Covet

This series is about breaking the Ten Commandments in your writing—doing to your characters, or having them do, things you’d never want anyone to do to you.

Commandment #10: You shall not covet . . . anything that is your neighbor’s.

A lot of what we might say here is pretty close to what we’ve said about other commandments.

At some point, your characters are probably going to do some coveting. In #1, we talked about characters having a compelling desire for something. That could be something that belongs to the character’s neighbor—for example, his wife, which takes us back to #7.

We as writers should, in a sense, covet the successful elements of our neighbors’ writing. In fact, we should go beyond coveting and steal them, as we discussed in #8.

But there is an area in which it really is not to our benefit or anyone else’s to covet. We should never covet our neighbor writer’s artistic or professional success.

If you’ve read any writing advice at all, you’ve probably heard this before. Envying other writers is poison to the soul. Every writer has his or her own background, style, genre, level of skill and talent, and career path. We can learn from each other, but to compare ourselves to others or expect ourselves to be like others is certain death.

This is true regardless of whether you consider yourself superior or inferior to the other. If you think you’re better than another writer—even if it’s true—you leave yourself open to the sin of pride. If you think you’re a better writer than someone whose career is currently more successful than yours, you could end up with a festering sore of resentment that will make your life miserable, stifle your creativity, and alienate your friends, colleagues, and potential publishers.

If you think you’re inferior to another writer, you may well be right. We all have our superiors. Even the greatest writers might have looked to another writer as being better in some particular area.

If you take this feeling and use it inspire yourself to become the best writer you personally can be, wonderful! But if you let it depress you—if you start thinking, “I’ll never be as good as [fill in the blank], so what’s the point of trying”—you’ve just uttered a self-fulfilling prophecy and shot your writing career in the foot.

And if you use your feeling of inferiority to try to become exactly like the other writer, you’ll ruin yourself artistically. You are not that other writer. You have different circumstances, experiences, and natural endowments. You see the world, and communicate what you see, in your own unique way.

And why would you want to write exactly like her, anyway? What she had to say has already been said, or is in the process of being said if she’s still alive. You need to say what you have to say, in the way that is unique to you.

If you truly have nothing unique to say, why are you writing? Do yourself a favor and find a career with less heartache and more earning potential.

As for the whole roulette wheel that is publishing these days, don’t waste energy envying someone else’s position on the wheel. They could fall to the bottom on the very next spin—and you could rise to the top. But even if you don’t, know that the place you are is the place you need to be right now, for reasons you may never understand this side of heaven.

Worldly success is a chimera anyway. If you found out tomorrow that you were going to die of cancer in one month, would you spend that month desperately struggling to get published or to make the bestsellers list? I hope not. I hope you’d spend it lavishing love on your family and friends and tending to the condition of your immortal soul.

Many years ago in school I memorized Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.” One of the many items in Kipling’s list of things one must do to “be a man” (or, I would say, a strong and virtuous woman) is:

If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same . . .

Forget the triumph, forget the disaster. Just write. Write your heart out, write your best, and someday some poor benighted young writer will be coveting you.