The problem for me is getting those elements on the page to remain acceptable outside my head. There is so much subjective and connective tissue lost between my imagination and how those ideas translate into words, that I have trouble not feeling like they have become the two dimensional T-rex from the meme above. Other writers may have this problem too, and my only advice for combatting the feeling is to edit the words until you reach the dragon above the T-rex. It is possible, I swear it!
Writing, like anything else worth doing well, takes practice. Even talented writers have to put in the effort to make their work publishable. Plenty of self-published stories show good and bad examples of this maxim.
My earliest short stories are riddled with terrible examples of what not to do. In my haste to publish, I thought I had done excellent work. Some lessons are best learned the hard way, but there are less humbling ways to learn the craft of writing. Those ways haven’t been my path, and I’d love to help others avoid the pitfalls I created for myself.
Read about writing.
There are so many resources I wish I’d checked into sooner. There are tons of articles, books, videos, and live events that can help new writers. Before I self-published on Amazon, my only writing experience had been work-related or for school. Even in creative writing classes, my teachers focused on the story, not on how to show (instead of telling) it.
Only after I’d found my way into critique groups did I realize how juvenile those stories were to other authors. Thankfully, those two sad Amazon entries made less than twenty sales together (thanks to friends and family). You don’t have to go through that kind of trauma, practice your craft before you push the publish button.
Five years later…
The stories I write now are still not masterpieces of fiction. They are, however, not mangled by my novice voice. I show, I ground my dialogue in the scene, and my descriptions enhance the story rather than trying to take center stage over the characters. I’m as much a work in progress as my stories, but I like to think both are improving.
So find ways to learn about how to write, the details are always up to you, but the methods and structures are there for a reason. You can break those rules anytime you need to, but it always helps to understand them before you ignore them. If you ever have to explain your reasoning to an editor, you’ll be glad to know why breaking a rule works in that instance.
Above all else, my favorite advice still stands: Write.
Writing is more than a hobby for me, and I spend a lot of time putting words on the page. So far, none of that has translated into paid work, but I have placed in some writing competitions and broadened the scope of my writing. One of the best ways I’ve found to do that is by tackling writing prompts.
The world of Torthal, the Crossroads series, and my current Jack story (on submission with magazines right now) are all products of writing prompts. Prompts take me out of my comfort zone, allow me to explore ideas I might not otherwise approach, and give me permission to imagine beyond the limits I normally impose on myself. All of these are great ways to expand my writing, but they also do the one other thing I encourage other writers to do. Write.
Boredom with a given idea or character can set in and stunt my desire to write, but a new prompt opens up a new world to explore. That kind of open ended potential really kicks my creative process into high gear. So that has been a powerful lesson for me over the summer, pushing my boundaries and staying in the chair.
The past few weeks may be the longest break I’ve taken since I re-started this blog. A lot has happened this summer, from family misfortunes and cancelled plans, to rearranging our home and (my wife’s) gardening before fall. One thing that hasn’t changed is my time in the chair to write.
I’ve made writing a priority for a good long while now, and this summer has been no different. I have some ongoing projects, and some newer characters to talk about. The Crossroads series is still expanding, and I’ve outlined some interesting characters to fill in the countryside beyond Aralan, the Holy City. The latest and greatest story I’m outlining involves a retiring spy for the Aeran Republic, Lydia Antonia Draco.
My Jack short stories have been my other focus lately. Jack Webb lives in a world much like ours, but learns things he’s taken for granted are more than they appear. I have a whole slew of stories planned for Jack, and I’ll share more about those stories as I finish them. Stay tuned, the best is yet to come!
Jack and Clarity.
Jack stories started in Britain and migrated to America with the colonists. They are short stories (or nursery rhymes) centered on the titular character, Jack. You may know Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack and Jill, and Jack be Nimble, or more esoteric tales like Jack the Giantkiller. American versions of these tales and rhymes exist too, where Jack consistently beats obstacles his brothers Tom and Will are unable to overcome.
I’ve added my take to the character of Jack and given him some new obstacles to overcome. The premise is similar, Jack is a regular guy who encounters decidedly unusual situations and characters. His wit, his compassion, and in this case, his employer allow him to triumph over seemingly impossible odds. Anyway, that is where I’m starting off, I’ll keep you up to date with where Jack’s stories lead me.
I’ve been expanding the world of Eliantha and building up the characters who will impact the story of the Crossroads. The more I dive into how that world works, its people, history, and magic, the more fun I’m having crafting the narrative. As I learn more about the contests and challenges I’ve entered, I’ll post more updates here. The next announcement I’m waiting on is next Tuesday, the 28th of June.
Of course I mean another writing contest. This time it is also set in the world of Eliantha and the Crossroads. This steps back in time from Aleera’s woodland adventure to the cosmopolitan city of Aralan. The story follows two young wizards who are part of the uprising against the current occupiers of the Holy City. The contest began last month, and I should know something of how I fared by the end of June.
Other stories are passing through my keyboard, and as I polish those up I’m sending them out to editors. When I sell a story, believe I’ll shout out the good news here. In the mean time, I’m building up a back list of stories to polish off again later. Waste not, want not, or something.
Spring is a time of birth and rebirth. Every year it stirs up some fundamental urge for me to start over or restart old projects. This year is no different, I’ve got new stories in the works for challenges, writing contests, and personal growth. I’m also learning Latin, something I’ve always wanted to to do, but never pursued seriously.
Don’t let the idea fool you into thinking I’m grinding away through declensions and conjugating. The app I’m using is, “Duolingo, the world’s best way to learn Latin.” Basically it’s Latin (or any other language I suppose) for sixth graders. Either way, I’m enjoying it and starting to figure out how to say, “Ubi est Latrina?”
The story I started yesterday is for an Autocrit writing challenge. It is set in the Crossroads world where Aleera’s stories take place. This is earlier in time and closer to the Crossroads than Aleera, so it will be fraught with more intrigue and danger than her introduction. I’m excited to dig into the more cosmopolitan heart of that world.
I’ll keep updating here as I go, all sixty-seven of my followers are sure to be on the edge of their seats, I’m sure. 🙂
I’ve been so busy this month, that I didn’t realize how long it had been since I posted here. April included a reading streak for me, allowing me to catch up on my TBR list, and wade through the Dresden Files. I’ve been entering writing contests, critiquing in my writer’s group, and looking for writing opportunities online. I have a new fantasy story that I’m working on set in the Crossroads epic fantasy world. We also went on the first vacation my wife and I have taken since before the pandemic.
As the weather has warmed up, my wife and I have done a lot of spring cleaning, gardening (that’s mostly Brenda), and projects that we’ve put off during the winter. As summer draws near, I’m looking forward to getting even more writing done before the school year ends and our house is overrun by grandchildren again. The struggle is real…
In the meantime, I’m still worldbuilding, still writing and editing, and still trying to hone my craft as I go. I’ll try to check in here more often, but part of my process this year has been to limit my posts to balance my slavish devotion to posting 365 days in a row. Anyway, see ya in the funny papers!
When I was about 8 or 9 years old, my dad pulled me out of school one day to go flying with a friend of his. I’d never been in a plane before, but I remember how excited I was to fly (and how annoying I must have been to my classmates). My dad worked as a taxi dispatcher at Raleigh-Durham International Airport (before it was international), and he made friends with pilots and frequent flyers who needed cabs all the time.
We went up around noon, flew around for less than an hour and came back to the airport. The pilot, whose name I don’t remember, even let me take the yolk and feel the plane respond to my nervous movements. It was an amazing experience, but it also changed how I looked at the world around me.
The world felt smaller from the air. Moving fast so high above the ground showed me that people and places are tiny compared to the world around us. This was the first shift in perspective I can remember as a child, where I felt different about my place in the world, and the world’s place around me. Once seen, the shift could not be unseen.
New sights make old ones feel different.
After leaving the airport, my dad asked what I thought about the flight. I wasn’t sure how to express my feelings, but I remember saying I felt smaller after seeing people the size of ants. My dad didn’t wax poetic much, but he offered an insight that has stayed with me. He said, “People are as big as they allow themselves to be. If you think small, you’ll be small, but if you let your imagination run wild, there’s no telling how big you can be.” I’m trying to be bigger all the time.
The other change to my view came when I got home, and the next day I went to school. My mother and grandmother asked about my flight as soon as I walked in the door. I gushed about flying the plane, seeing tiny people and buildings, and how fast we flew. At school the next day, I got to tell the story all over again, and it may have been one of the first times I felt like a storyteller. While every word I said was true (as far as I can remember) I did my best to share how the flight made me feel.
In my writing, I try to do the same thing (even if the stories aren’t exactly true). If readers connect with my characters and feel what they do on the page, then I’m at least on the right track with my stories. Amazing settings, powerful adversaries, and complex plots are window dressing to the central idea that people (whatever form they take) and how they feel are the focus of storytelling.
A sinking thought occurred to me tonight:
It means we can do things, like conventions and conferences in person again. I’m not exactly a shrinking violet, but I’ve gotten used to interacting at a distance. Generally six feet or more apart.
While the idea of attending writers conferences, meeting other authors, editors, and agents is on my to do list, it isn’t in first place. Zoom calls have been my forte for over two years. I even learned how to applaud on zoom finally!
An end to quarantines and self-isolation may be a good thing for all of us, but like any social situation it will require adjustments. Those may be great things in the long run. Just don’t expect me to come running for the festivities right away.
Silence isn’t always golden…
For me, writing fiction wasn’t taught, it’s something I’m learning. It’s an ongoing process of revision, trial and error – in fact, too many errors. While I’m sure there are other paths out there, in my experience, the best thing any teacher ever did for my writing was get out of the way, and let me stumble along to the finish line.
The American educational system, such as it is, doesn’t excel at teaching new writers. They may be good at the mechanical aspects of grammar, they are even good at curating good books to read, but building worlds populated by original characters is beyond the scope of any class I ever sat through, including creative writing classes.
I’m sure there are many fine MFA programs out there that could have made a difference in my development. That was not my path, and I can’t speak to that. What I can say as one of the, botched and bungled” writers without that background is that I have learned to write without it. The torture I endured on my path was all self-inflicted, and it left marks I still carry in my prose.
Writing what’s on my mind, even when it’s unpopular.
Lately, I’ve been struggling with writing what’s on my mind. Not my imagination, but my personal opinion. The characters I breathe life into are a reflection of me, but they seldom share my opinions to any great degree. Even the most noble or heroic thoughts in my stories are lofty ideals that I’d hope to embrace if the situation arose.
But that isn’t what I’m getting at. An outlook on life is one thing, choices in the heat of the moment are another, but cherished opinions unchallenged by time and circumstance are where most humans live. How I feel about race, sex, and creed are vital parts of who I am. I don’t write about any of them.
Or at least, I don’t go out of my way to share that. I should though, even if my opinions aren’t especially controversial. Not that every story needs every bit of who I am in it, but someone who reads one of my stories should have a good idea of where I stand. Up until now, I’ve used the iceberg method to imply my opinions. Avoiding expressing my opinions to avoid offense is itself offensive. I have to stand for what I believe in, and it should show on the page.
A lesson from Huckleberry Finn
When I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, I’d recently moved from North Carolina to Iowa. Scenes and subjects in the story felt markedly different to me than the other kids in my class. That didn’t stop me from pointing out those differences, and I hope everyone around me benefitted in some way from hearing a different perspective.
Writing now, in light of memories like Huck Finn, has taken on a more urgent meaning. The subjects I want to tackle in my work are more complex, and those nuances weren’t something I felt confident I had the skill to articulate. But I can’t wait forever to write uncomfortable truths. Sometimes, writing them out helps me untangle my emotions and express my opinions more accurately. No matter what those opinions may be.
Words can make a difference!
On smaller US Navy ships, commissioned officers eat their meals in a wardroom, senior enlisted officers eat in the Chief’s mess, while everyone else eats in a common messdeck. The last ship I served on, the USS Connolly, was no different. But one day, a few sailors decided to carve out a section of seating in the messdecks that only paygrade E-6 could sit at. They called it the First Class mess, and wouldn’t let anyone else sit there.
This didn’t go over well with me. So, I wrote a satirical story about the grumpy old men who wanted to sit alone. One of my friends thought the story was better than I did, and passed out a few copies, one of which went under the Captain’s door. He also didn’t think much of the arrangements and summarily canceled the First Class mess citing my story while he made the announcement to the crew.
I should have kept that grumpy lesson in mind.
Since I got serious about writing I’ve concentrated on world building, memorable characters, and craft (too often leaving craft for last). Along the way, while developing my unique voice, I decided on more than one occasion to avoid topics that were controversial. Limiting any need to address ideas that might alienate my fledgling audience. That sounds foolish even as I write it out. That voice on the page isn’t authentic if I avoid controversy for fear of offending people.
Not writing what I believe drained some of the life from my writing. Learning to include my opinion, even if it’s unpopular, only aids my clarity and composition. I’m the only voice like mine in the wilderness, stifling it hurts me and my tribe as they search for a voice that resonates with them. It’s easy to forget others will read my work and be inspired (or revolted) by what they read. Both are legitimate responses and writing to limit the one is a detriment to the other.
I’m doing my best to write my truth, but it might be messy, just like life.
So much like the world we know…
Eliantha is a world similar to Earth. In our world at the end of the last ice-age, humans banded together in larger and larger groups to form urban centers supported by agriculture. None of that happened over night, and geographically it was spread out over hundreds (in some cases, thousands) of years. Eliantha also saw people band together, but it was far different for them.
Rather than an ice-age, Eliantha experienced the arrival of Gods from the Heavenly Realms. These immortal beings brought knowledge, civilization, and magic with them. They found mortals living in the world already, but found them sadly lacking the traits they wanted. So they meddled. New peoples arose and were cast off, as the Gods sought out better subjects. While most of these people perished, some managed to survive without the succor of the Gods.
All that glitters…
After the arrival of the Gods, came the demons and devils who had pursued them. Clawing their way into Eliantha from the Nether Realms, the most foul beings assailed the mortal world. They were cast back into the hells they came from by the Immortals who had adopted Eliantha as their home. But there was great suffering from the war the two forces waged. Some of that suffering went unheeded, but the remnants of mortal tribes rebuilt their shattered world.
For their part, the Gods ruled Eliantha, and many wonders flourished. Demi-gods rallied mortals to their causes. Many different tribes spread out across the world and prospered. Grand cities and wonders sprang up in testament to the influence of Immortal grace and power. But not every heart thrilled at the glory of the Gods. Often capricious or uncaring of mortal woes, the Gods allowed suffering and injustice as often as they relieved it.
Power comes in many forms…
The great equalizer was magic. Mortals learned to wield magic, and taught their children. Generations passed on what they had learned and grew stronger than the ones who came before them. While no mere mortal was a match for the power of a God, a hundred mortals could stand against them, and they did. Mages all over the world found ways to bind their deities from interfering in mortal affairs.
Many ages came and went, but eventually, the Gods power waned, and they were banished from Eliantha altogether. Their influence is far from what it once was, but they can still make their presence felt. Gone are the days of maidens taken by a lustful immortal, cities no longer cower from threats of doom from their impiety, but gone too are many of the gifts once bestowed upon thankful worshippers.
Magic glitters, too…
Now the Gods are all but silent. Humans have pushed back or outlived most of the magical creatures from ages past. Those few who remain are incorporated into the very fabric of daily life. Magic in general, has lost its luster. But still, magic, and the Gods themselves are not so distant as many wish to believe. Nor are the immortal enemies of the Gods, demons and devils still plot and scheme in the Nether Realms.
These ancient foes have launched a new campaign against a world that hardly believes Immortals exist. The danger has never been greater, but those who would stand against evil have few of the tools that once held the Nether Realms at bay. Eliantha will need new champions, new weapons, and long forgotten knowledge to defend their world. Will the demons prove too powerful, or will the Gods overcome their banishment to intercede? Can the poor misbegotten mortals find any other option?
Evil in mortal form may be the deadliest kind of magic.
Enjoy the journey.
Writing should be fun, if I’m going to spend hours at a time doing something as intense as writing can be, it should be enjoyable. But fun isn’t all writing should be either. There are as many reasons to write and ways of experiencing the act as there are people who write. That’s part of the brilliance of writing from my perspective. As the Vulcans say, “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.”
If my message is going to reach an audience, my writing has to be more than fun for me. It has to be readable, fun for others, and my meaning has to translate from the words on the page to my readers’ minds. That takes more than fun and games, it takes time and practice. For me, it also took a critique group.
Writing isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
Learning to write well takes more than talent, inclination, and good grammar. All of those things are helpful, necessary even. But none of them take the place of practice with feedback from other writers who are on a similar writing journey. Uncle Bob and your next door neighbor might both have great experience with reading and writing, but if they aren’t writing fiction for publication their helpful suggestions are as likely to be wrong as helpful.
For me, finding a critique group of fellow fiction writers has meant the difference between hobby writing, and writing to publish. It wasn’t fun and games either. Learning to my chagrin, that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was hurt. Accepting feedback about how I wrote, and what I was writing was soul crushing.
None of that feedback was meant to hurt, although my ego screamed and gnashed its teeth to the contrary. It was meant to make me a better writer. Which is why I encourage everyone who is serious about writing to find a critique group.
I thought my first submissions to the group I’ve been with for the past few years were gleaming pearls of literary excellence. Those stories and chapters were not excellent, but I had no prior experience working with other authors. I had to learn to let go of a lifetime of writing crutches, uninformed ideas, and bad habits. All of which was no small effort, I assure you.
They don’t teach this stuff in school.
Outside of a Fine Arts program, or maybe some modern online workshops, there is little discussion of how to write fiction, especially novel-length fiction. Most new writers, myself included, have to work through mastering aspects of craft that make our work stand out from the crowd of aspiring writers.
Good grammar doesn’t teach you to show instead of tell (or when telling fits the narrative better). Sustaining an individual Point of View instead of hopping from one head to another doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Grounding dialogue in the physical space where my scene takes place is not common discourse outside of writing circles. I had plenty of talent for writing (pardon my remaining ego), but nothing beats the experience of having your words torn apart and put back together by a more experienced writer. It’s humbling to say the least.
Writing stagnates in a vacuum.
A critique group (online or in person) is essential to improving my work. Not only does working with a group of other writers hone my craft, it shows me things I would never see otherwise. Each perspective in the group is different from mine, and each brings observations about my work that I could not make otherwise. Likewise, reading their work opens my eyes in ways I could not imagine either.
The members of my critique group write stories I would not. They prefer genres I don’t write. And although the stories are decidedly outside of my interests, the techniques they use are the same. I am able to see beyond the genre into the mechanics of the story, and in the process, recognize when they do something I have done (good or bad) before. As much benefit as I get from their critique of my work, I benefit even more from critiquing their work.
If you are serious about taking your writing beyond the hobbyist level, I cannot recommend strongly enough, get into a critique group. Preferably one organized to promote improved storytelling, led by experienced authors. The wrong critique group can do lasting damage to new writers, so be sure the emphasis is on improving all aspects of your work, not just grammar or one writer’s minor pet peeves.
Whatever you do, keep on writing!
A mountain is rising from a turbulent sea.
Bold and striking, yet enigmatic and puzzling.
The mountain is immense, and has many towering peaks.
It has many valleys, some dark and some bright.
There are grim granite visages shrouded in mist,
And sparkling crystalline profiles dancing in splendor.
The chaotic sea pounds at the mountain side.
Each day the ocean erodes a little more rock.
Wind, rain, and wave pummel its stone contours.
To the mountain, the pounding is nothing.
For the mountain has a molten, expanding core.
Each day the mountain grows larger and taller.
New rock strengthens the mountain side,
And its immensity surges tenfold.
Eruptions and earthquakes may topple its summits.
To the mountain, such a loss means nothing.
As new and higher pinnacles thrust up beyond the old.
The ramparts may crumble, the valleys may be filled in,
But the mountain by its very nature continues to grow.
The mountain is rising from a turbulent sea.
The mountain is you, it is us, it is me.
Eliantha is a world much like ours, but in our history myths of the Gods interfering were only stories handed down to explain things our ancestors didn’t understand. In Eliantha, the Gods were very real, and very dangerous. They introduced the people of Eliantha to a wide range of knowledge, from survival skills and agriculture, to writing and the arts. They also introduced them to magic and making war.
This world has seen incredible beauty, and tragic brutality. Great cities and vibrant cultures have developed and been toppled by incomprehensible forces. Gods have raised up mortals and immortals alike. While more malevolent forces have broken and twisted countless lives to feed their fiendish desires. But all that was in the past.
The Golden Age is long forgotten…
Magic is in retreat. The Gods no longer walk among the inhabitants of Eliantha. All over the world, creatures of magic have diminished, died out, or disappeared. Humans have adapted to this changing world, and prospered. Now, something has unsettled the Gods once again, despite their tenuous connection to the world.
While many humans scurry about learning the natural world, there are still those who delve into the mystic arts. Magical lore is far from extinct, and ever-curious humans scour the globe for remnants of magical power. Their searching has led some of them down forbidden paths, some relics and arcane knowledge was meant to remain undisturbed. Now there will be a reckoning even the Gods tried to avoid.
Eliantha is no longer home to Immortals
This is the backdrop for the stories of the Heralds. Chosen to represent the remaining Immortals who still care for their worshippers, as they make one last effort to save Eliantha. For all its faults and tribulations, it remains a world so like ours, but so utterly different. The Heralds must reach the Crossroads, where the Gods went into exile after their last war. But there are many obstacles between them and their goal.
Not everyone wants the world to go on. A diabolical conspiracy is afoot to sacrifice millions of souls to see a new Eliantha born from the ashes of the old. The unsuspecting Heralds have no idea these conspirators await them. The chosen ones scramble towards the crossroads like lambs to the slaughter. The Gods may never get the chance to intervene.
In December I entered a short story I called “Chantrelle” into the Vocal+ Fiction Awards competition. Today I learned that out of over 13,000 entries, my story was chosen as a finalist! Even if I’m not selected to win my category, I already feel like I’ve won. Impostor syndrome can eat away at a writer’s confidence, and too often the only cure is outside encouragement.
Friends and family can tell me how wonderful my words are on the page. But until you hear that from other writers and editors, that vacuum is fertile soil for doubt to grow. Chantrelle reaching the finalist round in this competition has been confirmation that my efforts at improving my craft have paid off. I took the time to thank my critique group for showing me areas I could improve, so that I don’t continue to repeat the same novice mistakes.
If you’ve read “Chantrelle” or Jerry Farmer’s story “Bridgewater Bingo” on Vocal, I sincerely thank you. If you’d like to check either one out I’ve included the links above. My plan is to share more short stories on Vocal, and to shop others to magazines. My dad always said, “People love a winner.” So expect me to share my wins here as often as I can.
Words are flowing from my fingertips again!
I struggled to finish “Chantrelle” before the deadline for the Vocal+ fiction awards. Honestly, I’d been struggling to write much of anything since Thanksgiving. The mental block I had going on has passed, or I’ve pulled out of it. Either way, I’m polishing up a new story, set in a new world I built to write an Epic Fantasy novel.
As a part of the contest drive I’m pushing myself to undertake, I’ve written and planned out a number of interlocking short stories set in this new Earth-like world. This first short story is an introduction to a corner of that world far away from the events of the longer narrative.
I’ve also outlined a novel set in this world, and both stories will converge through a few more short stories in the pages of that outlined novel. For now, I’ll only say the story I’m finishing up is a fun quick read, but it shows this corner of the world before opening in scope to show the ripple effects of the main story.
New worlds are taking shape…
I’m excited to dive into a totally different world with a different magic system. It has a history of Gods and Goddesses who once walked this world with mortals, and a retreat of those immortals and the magic they breathed into their world. Don’t be too sad, magic still exists, but in the face of losing so much, there are some efforts to conserve what is left.
Instead of the main story, I’d like to share a bit of Aleera’s part in the short story. She and her older cousin are part of a clan of semi-nomadic peoples living in what outsiders call the Great Witch Wood. Appropriately named for the covens of witches who defend what they call the forest. It is home to the last three Sylvan Ladies, and they are the true power behind the witches and the druid clans who live there.
All of the clans, covens, and the Ladies worship the Earth Mother, Vanna. She is an ancient Goddess who once had a much wider following throughout the world. Even in these latter days where the Immortals have withdrawn from the world, Vanna still makes her will known to the people of the forest. Aleera and her cousin learn that firsthand…
Stay tuned for more updates!
Reading is a topic I should spend more time with on this blog, but too often, I put more emphasis on writing. As important as honing my craft may be, reading plays a huge role in my creative process. Reading not only informs me, it guides my inner editor, and provides the framework for every writing project I undertake. I’ll try to keep this brief but here are three points to consider.
Reading shows me what other writers do.
That doesn’t mean I’ll copy what I see (although it can creep into my thought process). It does mean that I’m informed about my genre, and how other writers approach topics that I will write about. Sometimes other authors show me a great way to share an idea, describe a scene, or portray a character. I’ll take all the help I can get.
Reading is like working out for my brain. I exercise neurons by consuming information. Whether that is a copy of Critias & Timaeus, poems by Bronte, or the rambling narrative of On Writing, my writing will improve by feeding my brain a variety of subjects. Too often, I’ve see (or have been guilty of) staying in the comfort zone of my preferred genre. I wouldn’t understand with nearly as much depth or context without other writer’s works to give me context.
Reading shows me what not to do.
Equally important, other authors can show me things that don’t work. This is as true when I read outside of my genre (often even more so) than when I read the kinds of stories I write. Because craft transcends the type of story an author tells (or shows), it can be easier to see flaws (and successes) when I read a romance story, a detective thriller, or passages from a memoir.
A stumble in bringing a novel to conclusion, missed opportunities in a narrative, or an unsatisfying character arc are easier for me to see in someone else’s writing. In general, I’m too close to my work to be objective about it. I suppose that’s why the Gods invented critique groups. A fresh set of eyes has saved me from myself more times than I can count.
Reading fills my creative well with possibility.
The most obvious thing reading does is expand my horizons. I can see beyond what I can imagine through the works of other authors. There may not be any new thing under the sun, but I have yet to see every old thing either. Reading is the only way to appreciate the vast conglomeration of history, literature, and works of art that came before me. My paltry addition to that mountain of the written word will likely be less than a footnote, but I can’t hope to achieve that without knowing something about my predecessors.
The other facet of that is the pure joy of finding voices that resonate with me. Thoreau, Poe, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Strunk & White, and a thousand other voices that struck a chord with me live on in the words I string together. Without reading beyond my genre, no new chords can join the symphony in my mind. Just the thought of stilling those unheard voices fills me with sadness.
I may not write about it enough, but reading is just as crucial to writing as practicing foreshadowing, grounding your dialogue in the setting, or raising the stakes for your characters. Conflict is meaningless without context. One of the best ways I know to build those added layers is by being informed enough to weave them into my stories, whether by allusion or directly referencing works integral to modern literary culture.
One of the first pieces of writing advice I ever got was, “Write what you know.” Which is great advice, especially when you’re first learning how to write. Experience is a great teacher, and an authentic voice is impossible to craft without real knowledge of your subject matter. At the same time, I was a high school student. What I knew would hardly have made for entertaining stories.
Twenty years later, when I started to write science fiction and fantasy, I realized writing what you know is a double edged sword. I still try to write what I know, the relationships between people. How people act and react in different situations is equally important. But I use my imagination as much as I do my lived experience.
I write what I don’t know too.
I’ve never seen a dragon in real life, or watched an alien delegation sue for peace against a human adversary. But I have written about both. What I know has informed those scenes, but my creativity has to fill in the blanks. Sometimes I’m more successful than others. I couldn’t write speculative fiction without both imagination and experience.
The problem for me, is leaning too heavily into my creative impulse. I can (and have) spent hours (or days) developing a world for my story to occupy. Characters come to life based on the world I created. And the plot I outline is at least in part dictated by the world and characters who populate it. All of this is driven by creativity, but as I’ve said many times, creativity without substance is futile.
The circle is now complete…
The best stories, characters, and settings regardless of how original or creative they may be also feel real to the readers. The best way I know to do that is by crafting believable scenes with relatable characters. I use what I know to wrap the fantastic elements of my stories in terms my audience can identify immediately.
No matter how original or creative I feel my work may be, I also know there is no new thing under the sun. Twists and turns aside, stories follow patterns, and those patterns are timeless. I may invent a new character, scenario, or setting that is unique. But ultimately, some college student in a creative writing class could classify it with no help from me at all.