Back in college, when I was not yet into my twenties, I was a music major. As you will imagine, being a music major required of few things, you study music, (duh!), you attend music recitals (boring), and that you practice.
I love music. I got such a buzz after a good performance that it kinda stays with you for several days. I remember one performance, when I was in choir, that we performed horribly. I don’t remember the song, only that it was one of the few times I literally hung my head low as we made our way off the stage.
I hated practicing, which I guess clues you in to why I failed as a music major. I hated attending recitals even more. I hate sitting still. Even when I’m lazy, unless I’m engrossed in a book, I’m usually up and down all day. So to sit through a recital was excruciating, but there were times when whoever was performing was so good, it was actually inspiring. Some people have an innate understanding of the language of music, not only understanding the mechanics, but also the art. Much like charismatic speaker knows how to use language to move his audience with words.
Those were the times that made me want to practice. I needed to get that good, to understand the written language so that I could also move people. I heard that sentiment echoed from others as well. A good performance inspired you to try to be that good. A bad performance could move you to practice as well, since you wouldn’t want to embarrass yourself. You have to practice, to study it, to let yourself become immersed in music if you want to succeed.
Talent only goes so far. I have talent. Perhaps if I had started music lessons when I was younger, and learned to play my guitar from a competent player, maybe I might have been better. Then again maybe not.
What does this have to do with reading?
Each book, each story, is a recital. Just like music there are many different genres. As a writer it’s important to read for several reasons. Just like a musician, it helps to listen to others play. How do they interpret a certain song? How do they phrase it? How does it compare to someone else’s interpretation?
As a writer it becomes a necessity for success that you try to read as much as possible, from as many different authors as possible. Sure read what’s popular, the Harry Potters, The Twilight Series, Hunger Games. All huge. Read the classics as well, The Three Musketeers, A Tail of Two Cities.
I’ve read Dan Brown, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dickens, Greg Tobin, Morris West, C.S. Lewis, Miguel de Cervantes, Emily Bronte, Tim Allen, Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh, Al Franken, Steve Berry, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Dean Koontz, Stephen King…. This list keeps growing as I think about it. I’ll stop it here.
Some were good books by good authors, some were mediocre, some were just there. I’ve read serious works by serious authors, and some were passing jokes by celebrities hoping to make a buck.
But I read them. I found my passion for reading as a child. During the summers growing up my mother would take us to the library every week to check out books. I would read mine, and sometimes I’d get around to read the books my sister and brothers picked out.
I read for enjoyment, to escape the monotony of everyday life. But now there’s a purpose to what I read. I read to see how to write. How is a book worded? What phrases do they use? Are they adept at painting a picture in your head or are they straight forward, only caring to present the dry facts?
I will admit that I sometimes get an idea for a story while I’m reading. A seemingly innocuous phrase or sentence can be the genesis of a story. Reading Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, one sentence gave me an idea, one totally unrelated to her story.
But there is a correlation, of war, its horrors and brutality, and sometimes the necessity to wage it for one’s own self-preservation, one’s own betterment, even at the cost of your life. It’s about how war can transform someone, and that you can become so damaged by the experience, it almost becomes an impossibility to function in the world.
Most stories share the same plot structures, the same ideas and the same concepts. What changes is the telling. We’ve all read love stories, and it doesn’t matter if it’s set in a romantic era, of chivalry and honor, or if it’s set in a fantasy world, or even in the cold reaches of outer space. A love story is a love story.
Same holds true for what ever you want to say, the message in the story has been told. If the Hunger Games is about anything it’s about how a single person, even the most unlikely, can ignite a rebellion. It’s about love, and fear, and how life’s experiences, the good and bad transform you.
Harry Potter, at its core it’s about the triumph of good over evil, love over hate, the pure over the corrupted. Moby Dick is about the destructive nature of the need for revenge. How it consumes you to the point that you shut the world down.
There are other plot weaved in the stories, of course, but that’s why we read. Each author brings a different perspective to the same idea. I now read to see those ideas in action, to motivate myself to become a better writer. I will continue to read, to study the craft of writing. I do not intend to try and emulate someone else’s style of writing, but it’s useful to study.
I also practice, everyday. Some days are better than others. But I read. It’s important that I read. All the best writers also love to read, and that practice I will emulate. I’m only a student of the craft, but I’m learning from my masters via their works.