by Paul Burman
One of the best pieces of advice offered to aspiring and emerging writers, I’ve found, is to read. To read as much as possible. To read widely and wildly! To gorge on books! Particularly, to read anything that’s close to the type of writing one aspires to write.
And I’m always gob-smacked when I hear someone announce that, although they want to write, they don’t bother to read because they don’t enjoy it. To me, it sounds like an apprentice Cordon Bleu chef declaring they only eat McDonalds. Why write if you have no taste for literature?
It can of course be a bitter-sweet experience to read something so superbly written that it leaves you wondering whether you’ll ever be able to produce anything half as good. Or frustrating, when you discover a recent release has a very similar plot to something you’ve been concocting for three years (although screenplays have a habit of doing this to me).
Those novels which are outstandingly delicious are always worth revisiting a second or third time, however, to see how they work and why they work. Sometimes they have to be savoured more slowly so as to identify what ingredients have gone into them, and there’s a wonderful learning curve involved in discovering what these are and in trying to use them oneself.
And, at the other end of the scale, there’s so much to be learnt from picking up those books that, after 40 or 80 pages, you’re more than ready to push to one side because they just don’t satisfy you. Especially if a title has been recommended by a friend, or Oprah, or if it won the Man Booker prize or the Orange prize. These are the books that really should oblige us to ask ourselves a number of questions, all of which should improve our own writing:
- At what point did this book fail to hook my interest and why?
- How else might the story have been handled?
- Why did the characters fail to communicate with me?
- What qualities in the book might have interested its publisher or my friend, or Oprah, or the judges on the Man Book prize panel, and what’s preventing me from seeing the same qualities?
There are rich pickings for the aspiring and emerging writer whichever way you look at it. Go have yourself a feast!