Monday, March 08, 2010


by Gina Sestak

This month, we're focusing on the best writing advice we've received.  I have received so much good writing advice that it's hard to know what to repeat here, so I decided to start with the most basic advice to writers:  Read.  Read the kind of book you're working on.  Read other kinds of books.   Read magazine articles.  Read poetry.  Read short stories.  Read the ingredients on the ketchup label.  Read everything.

Reading as a writer differs from reading for pleasure, although it can still be fun.  When we read for pleasure, we want to be entertained.  We ask, "Why did that character do that?" or "What will happen next?"  When we read as writers, we ask, "How did the writer do this -- create the scene, engage my interest, make the character come to life?"  It's a lot like looking at houses.

When we look at houses for pleasure, we may think, "What pretty wallpaper."  When we are considering building a house ourselves, however, we need to know about those things that run behind the walls, the pipes and wires and ducts without which the house would be only a non-functional shell.   We need to know how to use tools.
We need to know how to make a thin brick wall stay upright and where to place the lathes.  We need to become familiar with dry wall and spackle, pvc and switchplates.  We need to learn how to build a firm foundation that will support the structure, and to install a basement that won't leak.  We need to pick the right small things, the nails and bolts and nuts, and to place them just exactly right.

Writing a book is similar.  One page of pretty paper will not be enough.  We have to understand how to intermesh plot and character to form the strong supporting structure, and to allow our characters to change and grow.  We have to learn the arcane rules of grammar and spelling.  We have to broaden our vocabularies so the perfect word will be there when we need it.  We have to understand the tools of our trade, the pen and the paper and the word processing software.  We have to know how to find information on the internet or in the library.  We have to eavesdrop on ordinary conversations to learn how people express themselves.  We have to immerse ourselves in real-life experiences to give our characters authenticity.

We have to build a book the way we would build a house.  Brick by brick and word by word.


Jemi Fraser said...

You're so right! Reading as a reader and reading as a writer are very different things. It's amazing how much more I notice now that I'm writing myself.

Annette said...

Excellent post, Gina. Very true. I keep a notepad and pen next to me when I'm reading so I can take notes as if I were in a class.

I like the housebuilding analogy. Drafts are like that, too. The first draft is getting the structure of the house up. The next draft layers on the plaster and paint. Later drafts involve bringing in the furniture and laying carpet.

Jennie Bentley said...

You stole my comparison! I'm the one who gets to use construction metaphors, dammit!

Very well done, Gina. Good advice. Though it's sort of a bummer how, when you're a writer yourself, you can't turn off that inner editor when you read, isn't it?

Joyce said...

Great post, Gina.

I have a hard time reading for pleasure anymore. I keep analyzing the writing. (Now, why did the author do that? Why was that clue there instead of here? She shouldn't have ended the chapter that way. That scene was great--how did she do that?) I love it when a book is so good that both my internal editor and I get sucked in.

Annette said...

Quit complaining, Jennie. You used all the other stuff in your post last week!

Laurie said...

I loved the comparison, Gina. How true. Ever since I started writing, I'm finding I'm not reading as much for pleasure, but I'm studying what I'm reading. I think I'm glad to hear that means I'm on the right track as a writer.

Gina said...

I don't think reading like a writer is a bummer, Jennie. I still find myself getting caught up in the flow of the story and losing track of the technical details. Those are the books I read again and again, looking for clues to how the writer did it! I do find that I have less patience with sloppy writers who don't pay attention to continuity, facts, or the meaning of words.

Good point about the drafts, Annette. Those finishing touches always involve the basic question: Where am I going to put all this stuff! Alas, some of those beautiful phrases always have to go to Goodwill.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I would add that before you build a house, you need a blueprint, otherwise you'll paint yourself into corners, have a lot of stops and starts during construction to figure out how it goes together and your finished abode will not flow like it should.

I think most writers need that type of forethought for a novel.