Charlotte Rains Dixon  

The Benefits of Reading

Now, I know you read a lot.  Because, you're a writer.  And writers not only write, they read.  It's the way of the world.  Reading is why most of us got into this game in the first place. 

(Brief aside: you'd be surprised how many wannabe writers I've run into who don't read.  When someone comes to me and says, "I've always wanted to be a writer," I say, "What do you like to read?" And then, ahem, when they say "Oh, I don't read, I like to watch TV and movies," I know they are not going to make it as a writer–unless they want to write scripts.)

But there's reading and there's reading, as in reading as a writer.  Once you start doing that, reading is never the same, by the way.   Because, you're constantly looking at how the author handled plot, character, setting, dialogue, theme, style–all the things we strive to add to our stories.  (I've heard some writers complain about this, saying reading is no longer the light, relaxing activity it once was for them, but I like it–I think this way of reading adds a depth that contributes to my enjoyment.)

My approach to reading got rejuvenated when I was in Louisville for the Spalding MFA residency, because that's part of what you do in workshop–pull apart stories and see how they were put together, studying each element.  I was re-inspired to approach reading this way, which happened to coincide with my own work on a couple of short stories. 

I am here to report that my recent reading has had a real, direct impact on my writing, and I want to share that in order to explain how it happens.  (You no doubt already know this.  But being reminded of it, as I was in Louisville, can be a helpful thing.)

Example #1

Before I left Louisville, I downloaded the Best American Short Stories of 2012 and then read it on the plane on the way home.  (I liked having it on my Kindle, because it forced me to read the stories straight through, whereas my usual style would be to pick and choose.  But in picking and choosing, I would miss some gems.) One of the stories was called M&M World.  (That link takes you right to the story–cool.)

I'm not going to ruin the story for you by deconstructing it, but there's a part of the story that looks to an incident in the protagonist's marriage that happened long ago.  And as I read that, I had an epiphany: this is what my story needs, too.  I needed to go briefly (for one paragraph) into the past to show an aspect of my character's marriage.  I added this and presented the rewrite to my writing group–and they loved it.  Said it added a depth and insight that had previously been lacking. Which was my intention.  So, yay.

Example #2

I recently started reading Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.  Wonderful novel, I recommend it.  Love the story line and I adore his style of writing–the way he puts words together.  He's one of those writers who pulls you into the character's head with the use of the telliing detail, actually, lots of them.  And this got me to thinking–perhaps this was what was missing from my story?  I liked so much of what I had written, but overall, it seemed a bit flat to me.  And so I've been going back through and looking for places I can add more details and it is making a huge difference.  (I have a whole post on this planned for later this week.)

Both of these epiphanies have added a lot to my story (which I'm just about read to send out, by the way). And I never would have gotten them without reading.

So, what about you?  What are you currently reading?  How is it affecting your writing?

7 thoughts on “The Benefits of Reading

  1. Sandra Pawula

    Brilliant approach. I just finished reading Zen Under Fire: How I Found Peace in the Midst of War. I didn’t read it like this though! Although I was amazed to see how, once again, a memoir comes together like a patch quilt. The arrangement of the pieces is always unique, but the sequence makes or breaks the book.

  2. Charlotte Dixon

    Ooh I've wanted to read that book! It sounds wonderful. I recently realized that I could approach memoir by writings vignettes-don't know why that never occurred to me before!

  3. Don

    Reading is certainly important, very important and the aspect of including a lot of details is likewise as well. However, the trick is to do it in balance, and in the right place and at the right time. Too many details, especially in the wrong areas, can distract and confuse the reader from the overall direction of your writing. This is one area that I had to learn the hard way.

  4. Charlotte Dixon

    I will check out Sandra Brown.  Another smart thriller writer is Alafair Burke, daughter of James Lee Burke.  She has a mystery series set here in Portland, where she lived for awhile, and one set in NYC.  But she also writes stand alone thrillers and the one I read was really good.  Have her latest on my Kindle as my next read.  I'll have to try Dominick Dunne as well–I've never read his books, though I used to read his column in the days when I read Vanity Fair.

  5. Charlotte Dixon

    Oh you bring up such a good point, Don!  When writers add too many details, they just bog the story down and overwhelm people.  It is our job as writers to develop a sense for the telling detail–that one description that brings the whole scene to life.  It's actually possible to read too much, also–and never get to the writing. 

  6. Zan Marie

    Reading is a must! I’ve been rereading Clavell’s NOBLE HOUSE for it’s intricate plot and handling of many different characters.

    Good post at always, Charlotte!

  7. Charlotte Dixon

    Thanks, Zan Marie!  And I read Noble House years ago and loved it–maybe I ought to return to it!

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