Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for. (Socrates)
As all teachers know, the skills of reading and writing are interrelated. Reading informs writing. The better read a person is, the greater possibility that s/he will develop strong writing skills.
At my little Lutheran school we had a very poor library. I read nonfiction treasures about Davy Crockett and the Alamo to whet my appetite; meanwhile I wondered why we didn't have books that told similar stories to what I viewed on tv: Star Trek, Dr. Who, etc. Once I did discover that there were indeed books like this available . . . just not in our library or at the Christian book stores, I was resentful (so that chip you see on my shoulder? it's been there a long long time).
A whole world of sci-fi and fantasy opened up to me when I went to public school and checked out the library there. A ten-year-old discovered that the Christian subculture of the day was narrow in scope!
My mother and grandmother sent me off to the town recreation program for classes in crafts, acrylic painting, swimming, Little League . . . and writing. I was exposed to all these arts, but writing fiction met my artistic drive. And, I was good at it — well, in comparison to the results of my other classes: the Popsicle stick basket wasn't a huge success. While reading The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett), a book written nearly one hundred years previously, I thought wow, I'd like to do this — write a story that sweeps readers away into another place and time.
I was a voracious reader. I read for pleasure and I read for escape. I spent time in imaginary lands and fought off aliens all the while dreaming of one day writing my own story. As I grew older my reading selections took off in new directions and as I read I noticed the ways in which the novelist captured my attention. In high school I wrote short stories and employed some of these techniques. Some of my compositions may have resembled the Popsicle stick basket, but a couple were recognized by a teacher; both published in issues of a literary magazine for students and entered into a three-state competition. Oh, I was thrilled. Later when I was awarded first place at the U of Wisconsin Literary contest for one, my socks rolled up and down.
I've come a long way since that contest and have learned a lot about writing — not from classes or formal instruction — by reading (and critiquing*). Some studies in writing that I recommend are:
- MaryLu Tyndall: action-pacing and conflict sweep the reader along; this woman's tales TWIST badder then Chubby Checker with an ice-cube in his shorts. The Restitution
- Tricia Goyer: masterful at capturing human mannerisms with a pen. Arms of Deliverance
- C.S. Lewis: the archetype for allegory. Chronicles of Narnia
- MaryLu Tyndall: the strongest description comes with the use of verbs. Legacy of the King's Pirates
- C.F. Freidman: effective hooks in opening and closing lines at every break. Black Sun Rising
- George Orwell: subtle communication of theme that doesn't get in the way of the story. 1984
- Alexandar Solzhenitsyn: description that makes the reader feel the sensory aspect of every scene. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch
- Harry Harrison: expertly portrayed his protagonist so that the reader knows Slippery Jim like a close family member. The Stainless Steel Rat
- Thomas Harris: in his elegantly portrayed Hannibal Lecter, Harris has created one of fiction's most humanized diabolical antagonists.
The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book (Samuel Johnson)
*Just like reading, there is no replacement for critiquing. Writers think the most valuable aspect of critiquing is advice on their own work. My most powerful lessons in the craft have come from critiquing the work of others, then reading the best critiquers' criticisms.