Learn the Land of Fiction by Reading Every Day

I’ll start this post with one of my favorite quotes on the craft of fiction:

“If you don’t have the time to read,

you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.”

–Stephen King, On Writing

This quote came in King’s section on his two great commandments for every writer: read a lot and write a lot. The writing part makes sense, of course: regular writing will improve your skills as a storyteller. However, too many novelists seem to think that the second of King’s commandments is more of a suggestion, and they rarely spend any serious amount of time reading novel-length fiction.

The big problem with this? These novelists’ stories usually fall prey to some of the most common issues we editors find in manuscripts. For example:

  • Way too much telling and not enough showing—We’re point-blank told characters are ecstatic, depressed, enraged, or perhaps even bored to tears … which is exactly what readers will be after about two pages of such writing.
  • Way too many manner adverbs—Via this subtle way of telling, we’re beaten over the head with characters running quickly, bleeding profusely, shouting loudly, and sitting quietly … which readers will likely not want to do when bombarded by such an adverbial assault.
  • Sloppy dialogue—To wit …
    • “We can’t go.” He said.
    • “I can’t stand him,” he said hatefully.
    • “What a great day!” she smiled.

First off, the mechanics of writing dialogue (punctuation, format, etc.) are fairly standard and simple, and if you read enough fiction, you’ll already have them in mind. Second, sticking adverbs in the dialogue tag (like hatefully above) most often means that you’re giving in to fear that the reader won’t understand such an emotion from the dialogue or actions within the scene’s context. Finally, it is nearly impossible to smile, wheeze, laugh, growl, or sneer words aloud. Trust me, I’ve even tried some of these just for fun as I edit. Yes, you may wheeze a word or two, or even laugh a short line, but try anything more and you’ll see how unrealistic it is.

  • Clichés galore—Whether it’s with a villain smiling sinisterly (with an adverb, no less!) or a hero squaring his jaw for the final fight, these stories are littered with overdone and tired clichés that kill a good story’s flow.

As editors, we of course want to help you work through these and any other issues that will keep your reader from engaging and enjoying your story. Of course, it also means you must take your novel writing seriously—and that means you must not only be writing a lot, but you must also be reading a lot.

I’ll let Stephen King sum up why reading is so vital in the life of the writer: “The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing…. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.”

So play it smart: read a lot and write a lot!