Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Writing When You're NOT A Reader

When it comes to writing advice, you will most always hear that writers are readers, lifelong readers, even. They are the kids who spent their hours in libraries and staying up in bed with a flashlight and a book. They are people who read the classics for fun and always have a book in their bag just in case. Writers are readers—it is a relationship everyone believes in.

I am not a reader.

This is a hard thing for me to admit, honestly. As a writer who is surrounded by so many who DO read ravenously, I feel like this aspect of myself hampers my ability. I feel like maybe I will never be a good writer because I'm not that person who grew up on a mountain of books, and I still don't read as often as I think writers are expected to.

That's not to say I didn't read as a child. I enjoyed most of the assigned reading I got in school. I had a few favorites of my own—The Chronicles Of Narnia, If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, The Babysitter's Club, Dune, Kon Tiki (yes, for reals I was obsessed with that book in 9th grade). But I didn't read very much, honestly. I was a picky reader. I tried many novels and gave up on them because they didn't catch my interest. I remember specifically how people kept telling me to read The Hobbit, so I picked it up and started. I didn't get past the first chapter because I was all, "I don't care about this round door with the round knob in the exact center of the door!" (Interesting, though, that I still remember that description!)

So yes, there were years where the only reading I did was for school, which seems SHAMEFUL as a writer. But it's true. I was into a lot of different things growing up—language (Japanese and French), drama (Techies rule!), music (the flute), swimming, art and more art, video games, daydreaming, and hanging out with friends—books often fell to the bottom of the list.

And yet I always loved to write. The second I learned to make words I was writing stories. I wrote a story in Kindergarten that won a county award. When I learned the 5-paragraph essay in third grade, I was so in love with the idea that I would practice writing them just for fun. I would pick a topic, write my intro, my thesis, my three paragraphs, and my conclusion. It was AWESOME. Yes, I loved writing essays! That was even my job in college. I spent junior high writing books about the characters I drew. As a child, I played outside for hours making up wild stories, scripting plays and adventures for my friends. And let's not forget the angsty teen poetry. Good. Times.

My lessons in story came from different things. It came from Anime. It came from RPGs (Final Fantasy forever!). It came from movies and TV and comics. It came from reading scripture. It came from journaling my own life, from listening to my father tell me his life stories. Because storytelling is everywhere; there is something to learn from at every turn. You have to take advantage of all sources, especially if you aren't a natural reader.

But here's where I confess that reading IS important. As much as I wish I could say you don't have to read to be a writer, I can't. When I first started seriously writing (As in with the goal to be published and not just as a hobby), I started reading more than I had in a while. It helped my writing, plain and simple. It helped me learn about my genre and its expectations. It improved my prose and taught me what my voice was because I'd heard other voices. It taught me about building strong characters and solid plots in writing as opposed to screen or drawings. So if you don't read at all, don't take this post as an excuse to continue ignoring that TBR stack. While I don't read as much as other writers, I try. I always try. Try, try, try.

I guess this post is mostly for myself, because I feel better getting this out there. It's always something I feel like I've had to hide, not being a fanatic reader. But I'm starting to think it's okay, and that I can still be a writer even if I only read like one book a month...or sometimes less. And you can still be a writer, too. You just have to take story lessons from wherever you can get them.


  1. I've only recently started reading as much as I let people assume I do.

    Way to go :)

  2. Sounds like you're doing well enough, regardless :)

  3. Oh, I totally understand you.

    I'm a writer and I think I don't read as much as I should ... but, for me, I pretend the problem is the lack of time LOL
    I write a lot and I have a house, a kid and a husband ... I wish I could spend my days only reading ... unfortunately, there is not enough time on my day!

    Btw, I do like Final Fantasy, but I'm a World of Warcraft girl =P

  4. Animation and comic books, both excellent sources for stories :)

    ...or is that just me?

  5. Thank you so much for this post! I am very much the same and have always felt ashamed, like I have something to hide! When other writers ask if I've read the latest ya, I nibble my nails and stammer a lot. But what can I say...I'm a comic book junkie.

  6. I was that avid reader you describe. My father owned bookstores when I was growing up, then became a sales rep for a major publisher, so we had a house full of books. As a latchkey kid, I read them all--esp. the ones that were tantalizingly "inappropriate."
    A reading writer has her Achilles heel. Too often, a reading writer's voice starts out very mimicky. Mimicking a favorite writer's voice isn't a bad way to begin writing, but it can really be a downfall when a writer can't break out and find her own voice. As an editor, I've seen a lot of mediocre rehashing of well-known plots too.
    Knowing genre conventions is of course, critical. But if you happen NOT to be as widely-read in a genre as they say you should be, you might just accidentally write something refreshingly original--(then revise it according to conventions!).
    I think there are pros and cons here. Anyway, I really hope there are, because I have never been a big YA reader and I would like to write a little YA in the future. (I know YA isn't a genre, but it does have conventions.) Of course, I'll read some for research, but it isn't "my" thing. So maybe I'm grasping at threads, but I think you can look at this from multiple perspectives.

  7. Thank you for writing this, Natalie!

    I've typed up post similar to this for my own blog multiple times but deleted it every time because of guilt. I *want* to be a voracious reader. I know so many of them. I'm passionate about fiction in all forms. But I write SO much more than I read. College killed my will to read for fun - I now associate all reading with being for an assignment (except fan fiction, which nobody seems to count as actual reading). It's good to know I'm not the only writer who's not a big reader.

    Also, Kon Tiki is ace. I loved that book as a teenager!

  8. Lol I was That Kid Who Loved Essays too.

  9. I've had to learn to make time to read. Now it's usually after everyone else is asleep. BTW, go gamer girls! I've played FF VII through multiple times and I still hop on XBL.

  10. This is me. Seriously.

    Until (very) recently I didn't read much, and compared to what most writers seem to devour, I still don't. I cringe every time I see "to be a writer, you must be a reader!" handed out as advice for newbies.

    Storytelling was a auditory / visual medium long before it was a written one. We learn about storytelling from hearing as much as we do internalizing printed words.

    There is certainly value in reading to learn the conventions of your genre, like word count and pace, etc, but reading five books a week with the expectation that it will automatically make you a better writer is like assuming that because you've eaten pasta for a week you can suddenly cook a stellar lasagna.

    (And yes, techies most definitely rule. I also have to hate you a little for having a school that taught Japanese. So jealous. :-P )

  11. Juliana, I like FF and WoW:) I'm been playing quite a bit of WoW lately...

    1000th.money, I think Anime is an amazing source! Since their series often have an ending, the story arcs are fab.

    Nicole, yay Kon Tiki! I wasn't even sure if anyone would have heard of that book, but I just LOVED it.

    Anne, Final Fantasy was a huge part of my adolescence! I haven't met one I didn't like, but VII is amazing. I'm one of the weirdos who adored VIII, played that one like four times...heh.

  12. Josin, love the food comparison! (Mmm, food.) It is true that doing (and really, I learned SO MUCH from critting and receiving crits from other writers as well) is really the key. Writers write. Reading helps, but the act of writing is paramount.

  13. I’m also not a reader. My parents never read and although they never discouraged me they also never exactly encouraged me. When I wrote my first novel my dad used to refer to it as ‘our Jimmy’s story’ which kind of puts things in perspective. By that time his sight was going and so I persuaded him to let me read it to him. He got tired and we never finished it. My mum never read anything I wrote.

    When I say that I’m not a reader what I mean is that reading, for me, is work. I’m fine with reading books and writing reviews – that’s work – but reading for pleasure is not something I do much of these days, if ever. I read for the same reason as I eat my greens – I know it’s good for me. I’m a really fussy reader too and there are only a handful of books that I’ve read more than once. In some respects since I started writing it’s become harder for me because I want to rewrite everything I read unless the author is very, very good. (No one talks about rewriting Beckett.) I was always very critical so I tended to stick to great writers – for a long time I only read novels by Nobel Prize winners – and I think that was a good thing. I don’t read rubbish. I’m not interested in ‘holiday reads’. If I’m going to invest my time in a book then I want a return for that investment and simply being entertained isn’t enough. The TV is there when I just want to be entertained and it is much more efficient at it than any book.

    So why am I a writer? Because, quite simply, writing is an end in itself. I write to order things, to work out problems. In some regards, although it’s not the prettiest of metaphors, my books and poems are what’s left after. If someone can make use of the residua then fine by me. I wonder how many writers never read their own books ever again?

  14. Interesting! I've always been a voracious reader, but I wish I had been a more MINDFUL one over the years. Not that reading wasn't helpful - it's certainly responsible for my ability to intuit a gramatically-correct sentence, even if I can't explain why it's correct* - but until recently I wasn't reading with things like pacing or plot or voice in mind. I still have a tough time deconstructing why some things work and some don't, even though they're technically well-written. All of which is to say - you're probably not as behind as you think you are. There's reading and then there's READING, and for me at least, there's only so much I can take away without being mindful about it.

    *I'm pretty sure stating this out loud means that there will undoubtedly be something wrong with my spelling/grammar in this post, which I won't discover until later, and which will make me blush uncontrollably. Isn't that how it works?

  15. Thanks for this post. I don't read as often as other writers I know do either and now I know I'm not alone.

  16. I can relate to this post. It screams at me. I didn’t read as much as a should have when I started writing, at least not in the genre I was writing.

    I didn’t read until late (hearing problem during formative years put me behind). When I did start reading, I read slowly. I started reading a lot in junior high and high school (assigned texts, histories, and classics), but stopped in college. For almost seven years, I didn’t read anything (except the dull and dry texts that were associated with my computer science major or religious texts associated with a seminar series at my church). There was a year that I didn’t read anything at all.

    When I started reading again, I read a lot – couldn’t put the books down. I was making up for lost time, but it was almost all fantasy. After a while I started writing, but it wasn’t fantasy I was writing – it was science fiction. I have just recently started reading science fiction.

    Good stories don’t come from being well read. For me, both movies and my major had large influences in the stories that played in my head. However, conveying those stories well comes from a good understanding of what other authors have found that works and what doesn’t. This doesn’t have to come from reading, there are other ways to learn, but reading is perhaps the most fun way. I also loved the writing groups I was a part of. There is no reason to let a good story or wonderful character go unnoticed simply because you haven’t invested the time to understand how to portray the idea to the rest of humanity, and so I too recommend reading to anyone who wants to write.

  17. Ha, this is me as well. I used to read voraciously as well as a child, up until about high school ish when I just...ran out of time for it when other hobbies took over my life. And I think I read one book for pleasure in all of college. It also doesn't help that I'm a "slow" reader. I know most people who can read a huge epic fantasy novel in a day, and it takes me about 3 weeks to a month to do that. I've started reading more again recently, though, mostly because I have long commute times to and from my job and eat out alone a lot, so it passes the time.

    The hard part is finding books here in English :P

  18. So nice to hear from you (and the comments!) that I'm not alone in not managing to read as much as I used, or would like. When I hear the dozens of titles other writers claim to breeze through every month, I cringe.

    Time is only one issue; the other is my eyesight. After staring at a computer screen for hours working on the WIP, my eyes don't care to focus on yet another page (white or electronic) for any length of time. How do the others manage it? And don't suggest audio books...definitely not for me :-/

    I'll certainly keep writing, and reading when I can. The TBR stack certainly isn't shrinking very fast, but like you said, I try.

  19. I used to know many English majors in college who never read anything outside of school. They said they were burned out on books. But I am always reading at least one or two books that are just for "fun", because it's a good stress reliever. Like you said, reading teaches us a lot. It taught me about language, dialogue, description, etc., etc. And it gives me the chance to step into someone else's world for a while.

  20. I completely agree with LilySea--I was that kid who would rather hang out with books than people, and spent all my free time reading. I've noticed that if I read something I love while I'm writing a story, I try to think of ways to make my story more like whatever I'm reading. I start to mimic the voice or completely alter my plot--it's crazy!

    I also wanted to say that growing up around books can give you a major disadvantage in writing because you don't look elsewhere for story telling. For a looong time I thought story = book, when there are stories all around us, like you said.

  21. @ Natalie

    I actually went to school for Classical Animation and a Digital Animation, and I think I learned most of my story-telling techniques by storyboarding for all my classes (and the few shorts I made).

    The 'outsider-looking-in' perspective (from creating shorts/etc) has also had a marked impact on the style of my writing, so, I don't think there's any wrong way to gain experience or inspiration :)

  22. I don't think you have to be a voracious reader to be a good YA writer. If someone told me that they'd NEVER read a book, that's when I would wonder.

    I've encountered some writers (not YA) with snobbish attitudes, who think that all writers should have read and studied the classics. That strikes me as incredibly silly and unfair. Most teenagers would rather be boiled alive than read Dickens, for example, so why should a YA writer have to internalize Dickens to write an entertaining book?

    Read the books you love and internalize them. Work really hard at your writing. That's my advice. Sounds like you've already done that, Natalie.

  23. A very timely post, Natalie, thank you!

    I've always liked reading, but I'm a very slow reader...plus I love visual media and games for the storytelling tools (and for the explosions). So I never read as much as I always felt I SHOULD, as much as a mysterious 'they' expected me to. At times all the obsessive tv show binging and playing countless hours of games and reading comics and, yes, reading fanfic seemed like it 'didn't count' because it wasn't Real Books.

    If I'm honest, sometimes I learned a LOT more from the things that weren't books (because I could see and process different aspects without the words)--I don't think there is an exclusive storytelling hold that only books have a monopoly on.

    I still (and always will) love to read, slow as I am, and I'll probably always be behind on how much I 'should' be reading, but I'm not giving up my other storytelling pleasures. I think as long as we DO read, that's what counts.


  24. I've always been an avid reader, and I think its important for writers to read to support other authors, stay current on their genre, and to become better at their craft. This doesn't mean every writer needs to be a super avid reader, but it doesn't hurt. I think it's good that you read, even if its not as much as as other writers.

    Also, I’m a new follower— wonderful blog! Stop by my blog and follow me too? :) http://rachelbrookswrites.blogspot.com/

  25. I wonder sometimes if being more of a writer than a reader can actually be an asset. You don't run the risk of ripping off someone else's prose or style, your ideas may even be more 'organic' and original, because them come from you--not some trend.

    I easily get bored with reading a story, and so I have many unfinished novels. It seems that any time I undertake a reading, it's more to see what is permissible in 'good' (published) writing, and I simply don't get the same high as I do when writing...

    Nevertheless, when a story does grip me--little else in my life receives attention!

  26. Oh I loved Kon Tiki as a child. And Hawaii, by Michner. I read the Count of Monte Cristo when I was 11 and I memorized Shakespeare! I love to write but like you, I am not much of a reader. I start books even today that I put down and never pick up again because I, too am picky. (Although I loved the Hobbit and only read Lord of the Rings because I didn't want to wait another year for the final movie to find out what happens). And like you I was well in to drama in high school and directed some kids plays in church. I really appreciate this post because I was kind of afraid to admit my lack of reading enthusiasm...unless its a really really good book. I found your blog through a friend because I've started my own blog for my book and have no idea what else to put on it to get people to come to it. Nice to meet you and congratulations on your newly published work to be.

  27. I loved to read as a kid, and then wasn't into reading throughout high school and college. I only got heavy into reading again at around 25. Nowadays I read a lot, and I love it, but I actually don't think it's as critical to writing as some people say.

    I read a Danielle Steele interview in which she said that ten months out of the year she doesn't read.

    I was shocked by that.

  28. Thank you so much for this. I too have started writing a similar post but have deleted it in shame. You sound so much like me. I'm a picky reader and don't want to waste my time on a book I don't LOVE. I read a lot as a kid but activity and movement were also important to me.

    Don't get me wrong, I actually feel I have a problem in that I HAVE to read EVERY word that catches my eye, whether it be on the side of a truck or a bumper sticker or street sign or internet posting. Perhaps it's this inability to tune words out that has made me so picky in choosing those I'm going to commit a lot of time to.

    Thanks again.