Another piece of advice you hear from practically everyone about how to improve your writing is to read voraciously. You have to read books by the masters and successful authors in your genre! For me, that means reading or re-reading selections by Brandon Sanderson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Patrick Rothfuss, Octavia Butler, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, etc.
As much as I want to read all the greats, the changes the pandemic has brought also mean I have to watch my pennies carefully these days. My budget can’t sustain a constant stream of master works because they – appropriately – demand top dollar. So, to supplement my reading, I started purchasing books in the fantasy and SciFi genres available at significantly lower prices. $3.99, $2.99, $1.99, $0.99, even total loss leaders, i.e. free.
Those budget-guided purchases have been an interesting mixed bag – from extremely enjoyable hidden gems to hard-to-read jumbles and everything in between. Now, you might think once I decide one of the cheaper novels is worth exactly what I paid for it, I might leave off reading it and move on. Not on your life!
Discovering the Good in “Bad”
What I’ve discovered in these selections is I can more easily see all the parts of the story. Look, I’m a fantasy and SciFi fan. In the hands of a master, I can get so caught up in the story, setting or characters that I lose the objectivity needed to see how a Rothfuss or Tolkien is building their tale. With the less accomplished authors, however, I can often see not only the building but also individual bricks, the foundation, and the joists behind the walls. If I can see the parts and perhaps the problems in someone else’s novel, I’m thinking maybe I’ll be able to recognize those same things in my own story. That’s my goal, my hope.
For instance, I read a three-book series by an author whose strength was clearly in plot. The books kept the story going from one interesting development to the next. I was impressed and taking notes. Dialogue, on the other hand, was so completely stilted it was painful. Even accounting for possible cultural differences between our world and this fantasy realm, I can’t imagine anyone ever speaking that way. He had the characters saying all the things they were feeling. I mean, nobody says everything they’re feeling. Noted! Lesson learned.
I’ll give you one more example. Another selection, also a fantasy book, had a great premise and used tried and true (but not tired) tropes. I was up for the ride. This author was also solid on plot. The story had the expected ups and downs, a point of no return, the requisite climactic showdown between good and evil. However, the narrative contained paragraph after paragraph (pages of them) that told the reader what was happening. The events didn’t happen, they were explained. It was the classic telling rather than showing. I could not have found a better lesson to drive home exactly what “show don’t tell” means and how important it is.
Keep Reading for Your Writing
I’m not going to lie. It was difficult to get through both those works, but I made myself finish. Like I said before, I’m out to learn. I want to understand. I know I’m making plenty of mistakes as I muddle through my first novel. That’s a given. Still, I’d like to have a chance at writing a quality story, one I can be proud of and a novel worth publishing. Thus, I plan to keep reading books by accomplished authors and budget selections, soaking up as much as I can from all of them.