Because perhaps you want to know?
AUTHOR BIO: Francis Knight was born and lives in Sussex, England. When not living in her own head, she enjoys SF&F geekery, WWE geekery, teaching her children Monty Python quotes, and boldly going and seeking out new civilizations.
I look like this:
Well, mostly I don’t, but me and cameras don’t mix. That expression is me thinking ‘Can we hurry it up? I feel like a pillock.’ With thanks to Kevin Fitzpatrick.
There are, surprisingly, a number of aspiring authors who claim that they ‘don’t like to read’ and also that ‘you don’t need to read to be able to write a story’.
On the face if it, this may actually be true. But is the resulting story going to be worth reading?
Now I’m not going to say you HAVE to read, voraciously and in every spare second you get. I’m sure there are a few genii who could crank out a great story without ever having read a word of fiction. However, the vast majority of us are not genii. For us mere mortals, there are several very good reasons why reading fiction will improve what you write.
1 – Reinventing the wheel.
So there you are, having finished your magnum opus. It’s taken you three years of hard slog, and as far as you know it is perfect. You get a chance to pitch to an agent.
So, there’s these four short dudes, right. One of them has an evil Ring of Doom and they need to travel across forbidding landscapes among an escalating war to drop it into the fiery chasm from whence it came. Oh, and there’s some dead/undead kings on dinosaurs trying to kill them, but it’s okay because the eagles save the day! (admittedly for this example, you’d need not to have watched the films, but still)
Or: There’s this wizard, in Chicago. He advertises in the white pages. He fights trolls under bridges, yes they really exist in Chicago, only no one knows but this wizard, see. And he has a humorous skull in his basement, and I’ve got a really great tagline. Magic, it can get a guy killed.
Or: well it’s an allegory about politics, only using farm animals!
Watch that agent plant their face in their palm before they politely tell you no. It’s true, there are not really any fresh ideas, but if you don’t read, at least a bit, especially in your chosen genre, you could end up writing a book that’s already been written. And if you don’t know the tropes of your genre, how can you know how to use them? Or avoid/twist the clichés that have been done to death?
2 – Technique.
Yes, there are books that tell you how to write books. Just as there are books that tell you how to paint. But by studying what someone else has done directly – reading a book, studying the layers of paint on a painting – you learn way more than all these how to books can, because you’re are seeing it put into practice, rather than filtered through someone else’s perception. You can analyse – how did the writer make me feel that? How did they introduce that twist and did it work? Why do I like this character? Why don’t I like him? We all make mistakes, but if you look at fiction in action, you can learn from other people’s mistakes too, and from their successes.
3 – Inspiration.
No story exists in a vacuum. It is influenced by society, by cultural expectations, by all the stories that have come before. Now, you don’t (well you might but…if you’re doing a retelling you really need to read the source!) want to write a book that’s already been written. But by reading, you are fertilising the ground of your imagination. It might be a throwaway line that sparks something in you, it might be that you hate how an author has handled X, and can suddenly see a great new spin on it. Stories feed on each other, and writers feed on stories. By not reading, you are limiting your own creativity. You are starving it. Yes, you can get inspiration from elsewhere, from non fiction, from art, from a place or time. But if you combine inspirations from all these sources, then you’ve got something that is uniquely yours.
Now yes, you learn from doing, from writing. A lot. But if you have nothing to compare it to, no frame of fictional reference, then you are doing yourself a disservice. If you’re only writing for your own pleasure, well, knock yourself out and more power to your elbow. But if you want readers, then you need to be a reader too. By reading, you learn about the craft of writing.
It’s part of the job of being a writer.