How the Hell Can You Write If You Don’t Read?

Maybe one of you can talk me off the ledge. I was sitting with some of the members of my writing group the other night, and I innocently asked who everyone was reading at the moment. Fully half the people at the table gave me some variation of, “Oh I don’t read much these days,” or “I haven’t read a book since college.”

What in the name of Robert Ludlum is going on? I thought all writers, especially fiction writers, were voracious bookworms. Apparently I”m living in a fool’s paradise. But seriously, how can you write well if you don’t read widely?

I’m not even talking about the “great books.” I know a lot of people who got turned off to older works in college and never came back. But I’m a big believer that reading anything–even the stuff I lovingly (and jokingly) refer to as crap–is invaluable for a writer.

I know this is a thing. A good friend of mine in Chicago has three pretty good novels out in the world and hasn’t read anything written after nineteen sixy- four or has over two hundred pages. It wouldn’t kill him to read a book that isn’t a pulp-detective-crime novel, but hey, I’m not his mom.

I look at genre books as a gateway drug. As a kid, my first introduction to adult work was Classics Illustrated Comics. Frankenstein, Ivanhoe, The Three Musketeers were all brought into my world in inked panels. From there it was an easy step to the real thing.

Reading my dad’s cold-war spy novels like Ludlum and Van Lustbader (which nobody will ever confuse with great literature, but they amused the hell out of me and if you talk smack about them I’ll fight you) led me to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

As an adult my reading, especially fiction, slacked off. But when I decided to try writing stories again, beginning with Count of the Sahara, I went back to school

First stop was Esquire’s list of 80 Books Every Man Should Read. While I’d read a fair number of them already, I worked my way through the list. Some, like Winters Tale, I never expected to like but I loved and learned a ton about descriptive writing. (I wish I loved my wife, my daughter or the Blackhawks as much as Mark Helprin loves New York City, just saying.)

Some of those books I hated and swore never to inflict writing like that on a reader, which is a valuable lesson.

Then I started reading genres I haven’t really read before. Nobody believes me that I’m now a sucker for epic fantasy like Robin Hobb, but there’s actually a lot historical fiction writers can learn about world-building from fantasy writers. It’s also, you know, fun. Nothing wrong with that. And a lot of those folks can write circles around more respected literary authors.

Lately, I’ve been challenging myself to read writers from other countries in translation. I am a sucker for Spanish authors like Arturo Perez-Reverte and Carlos Ruiz Zafon as well as the Cuban Leonardo Padura. The Korean writer Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters rocked my world.

I’m not a snob, I”m just trying to learn my craft from people more successful than I. It was the same doing standup. If a newbie on an amateur night couldn’t go further back than Pryor or Carlin, I didn’t think they were serious. If they could talk Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Alan King, we could hang.

Film and TV are great ways to learn plot, pacing, and action, but writing–fiction writing–is a very specific and demanding art.

There’s be no Count of the Sahara without Rafael Sabatini, and no Acre’s Orphans without Kipling.

What do you all think? Am I wrong? Am I just an old geezer and this is the literary version of “get off my lawn?” Talk me off the ledge!

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Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a writer, speaker and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. Originally from Canada, he is in the process of moving from Chicago to Las Vegas with his wife, The Duchess. He tries to balance his fiction and non-fiction writing, and loves to hear from readers. His Amazon author page is at https://www.amazon.com/Wayne-Turmel/e/B00J5PGNWU/

5 thoughts on “How the Hell Can You Write If You Don’t Read?”

  1. Agreed. Robert Louis Stevenson and Stephen King are among numerous other writers who’ve touted the message. Yet, there are still some out there who think they can write and not read.

  2. Oh, Wayne! Get off the damn ledge and come inside. We’ve got books you can read in here and congenial folks, too.

    There are plenty of folks who don’t read but who write. Some of them write for major news organizations. Of course you can write without being a reader, people do it all the time. The catch is that they don’t write well.

    One thing we get from reading, beside knowledge and pleasure, is a mental model of what good writing looks like. Without that model you must count on Divine intervention to write well and that’s notoriously hard to plan for.

  3. I totally agree; you can get plotting from film & TV, but for prose style and feel, there’s nothing like reading to learn it. And on a personal level, I’ve never understood why anyone would want to write (fiction, anyway) if they don’t enjoy and spend time reading. What drove me to write in the first place, as a kid, was a desperate addiction to story that was so strong, when I ran out of books I started writing just so I had some story to interact with.

    I had some years when I didn’t read much, and both my creativity and my prose were the poorer for it. Though I also had some years when I did read but only academic articles, for work, and I was surprised to find that that really honed my writing craft as well. Didn’t spark my creativity, but it did teach me a lot about how to convey information efficiently and simply (I’m one who favors a straightforward academic style, not an archaic one).

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