A Writer Writes; A Good Writer Also Reads
I recently had a Zoom happy hour with some of my favorite fellow travelers in this crazy business we call books, and I was surprised to hear that something I thought had only happened to me, had happened to others: Meeting a writer who claims not to read much. What?! A writer who doesn't read? That's like a composer who doesn't listen to music, a painter who doesn't go to galleries, a clown who has never been to the ro-de-o.
A writer writes--this maxim is absolutely true. But a good writer also reads. They read widely, they read deeply. They read in the genre they'd like to write in--and they also read plenty otherwise. They read fiction, they read nonfiction. They read whatever they can get their hands on.
Reading as a writer is as critical a piece of the work as the sitting down to write is. And in fact, I'd warn any new author not to even bother writing until they know their genre very well.
I have a standard set of questions I now ask any new writer who comes to me and wants me to be their book coach: 1. Who is your favorite writer, and why? 2. What are you reading currently? 3. How many books in your genre would you say you have read in the past year? If the answers to these questions are "I don't know"; "Not much"; and "Not many"--we have a problem.
I can hear some of you groaning right now--"But I don't have tiiiiiiimmmmeeeeee....." None of God's children has enough time. You have to make the time. And if you say you want to write books for a living, it follows that you'd also love reading them. If you don't, that begs the question: Why are you in this game?
One of my favorite writers of all time tackled this very idea in a piece I was blessed enough to acquire for Writer's Digest when I was editor there. Simon Van Booy is a multi-published, very successful writer. He is also an avid reader. He wrote in his piece: "It is imperative that you read in the genres you intend to write in—not only read, but absolutely fall in love with books, characters, paragraphs, dialogue, styles, or the sound of the language within that genre.... This tip might at first seem obvious, but people frequently tell me they want to write a picture book for children, without having read a picture book for 20 years. Follow this simple rule: Whatever you love reading is what you should be writing."
Simon is one of the best writers I have ever read. I have given away no fewer than a dozen copies of his first collection of short stories, The Secret Lives of People in Love. If I could write one sentence in my life that was near to being three-quarters as beautiful as some of his are, I'd quit right there. But I would not know this if I had never bothered to read his work because I "didn't have time."
If your main goal in publishing is to make a lot of money and write from a beach somewhere for the rest of your life--you shouldn't be in publishing. Stephen King (whom I have heard sooooo many new writers say they are modeling their career paths on) even said, in his memoir On Writing, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
If your goal is to write something honest, beautiful, entertaining; something that lifts your readers' own lives up a trifle (to paraphrase another of my favorite writers, E.B. White--Charlotte's Web is my personal favorite book of all time, and on my must-read list for anyone who wants to write), then you are on the right path. But you'll have to read books aplenty to keep going in the right direction.
So get reading, writers! This post has given you at least three good suggestions of where you might start. And again, find out who the most successful author in your genre is--and read every book they've published. Read the paper. Read websites. Read the backs of shampoo bottles. But for the good Lord's sake--READ!
As ever, KEEP WRITING!