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My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, June 27, 2016

How Many Books? (Mailbox)

Image description: Mailbox with the word "books" on it.
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week. I have a LOT of backlogged questions right now because my life is a dumpster fire, but I will try to eventually get to all of them.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Don't forget that I can be a little bit snarky.]    

Robert asks:

How many books do I have to read before I'm allowed to write a book?

My reply:

I sort of wonder about the wording of this question, if writing is really for you, but stick with me through the reasoning part before you just call me an asshole and throw your laptop across the room, okay? Maybe I'm way off base.

Here's what you do Robert. Pull out a notebook or laptop or something and start writing a book. Make it a really ostentatious beginning by putting "Chapter 1" in great big letters on the first page. It's really important that you sit down intending to write a book, or at least thinking that you will. It won't work if you only ever intend to write "Chapter 1." You have to have the intent to go forward with the whole novel writing business.

Then wait.... Listen. Shhhhh.

Do you know what you hear?  Nothing. No footsteps pounding up the stairs? No hovercraft outside the window? No clickty click of little spiders? Do you know why you can't hear those things, Robert?

It's because the writer police don't exist.

You're "allowed" to do whatever you want, which includes trying to write without reading very much. You'd certainly be in good company...or at least lots of company. No one will try to stop you if you sit down to write a book before having read some specific bellwether number of books. (Achievement unlocked: "I can haz writing?") They might advise against thinking you're going to pen a bestseller if they sort of can't remember the last time they saw you curled up with a book, but "allowed" is probably not going to be an issue.

Okay, so maybe you didn't mean "allowed." Maybe you meant when is it advisable or recommended. When will your Aunt Gertrude stop making that clicking noise behind her teeth, wagging her liver-spotted fingers in your face, and saying "If you want to be a writer, Robert, you're going to have to read a lot more than you do. A lot more, young man."

Unfortunately you're also not going to find a formula. It would be really cool if such a thing existed: "At one thousand books you may write a short, genre novel, but to tackle literary fiction, you will have to read at least eighteen hundred and fifty books, including half from dead white guys. Trilogies require no less than 2500 books." Different writers will absorb the lessons of the works they're reading at different speeds. I've been reading voraciously for thirty years on and I'm only recently feeling like I've developed enough of an ear that I feel confident in my ability to write a sustained work of fiction like a book.

Not that I haven't written manuscripts. (Because I was "allowed" to do whatever I wanted.) I've got about six finished "books" in my "drawer of memorabilia" But they are very stilted. They are very rough. My friends read them at my insistence and did that, "I love you but..." smile when I asked what they thought. And a large part of that was that I just hadn't yet developed a relationship with language to make it do what I wanted. I was like a painter who sees tremendous visions in their heads, but still needs to learn how to make the colors and the lines and the brush strokes work for them before what's on the canvas will match.

What I can tell you is that most writers, the vast majority of writers, like 99.9% of writers read prolifically. They read constantly. They have stacks to-be-read and plow through 100 novels a year. I read hours a day of online material (articles and blogs) but I still plod my way through forty or fifty books a year. I spend a good four or five hours a day just reading.

This overlap between writers and readers is certainly not just a very strange coincidence. But it's also not a causal relationship. Most writers do not read with the intention of becoming good enough writers like Burgess Meredith is telling them to catch the chicken. ("Understand Ulysses Rocky. Anyone who can understand Ulysses can get published by Apollo Creed.") They read because they love it. They read because their world is words. As all the best chefs began as connoisseurs, so are all the best writers voracious consumers of words.

Of course what this question is sensitive to is just how much better the writing is of someone who reads a lot. Reading means absorbing writing techniques from the masters and the moderns alike. Consuming others' writing–what is good (and especially by reading what is terrible)–gives writers a honed ear for word choice, phrasing, clause mixing, pacing, dialogue, conflict, characterization and more. Reading gives writers a sense of vocabulary and of how to express things they're imagining in words. It gives them the tools to describe things with concrete detail instead of telling the reader how to feel.

But even so they don't read FOR all those things. Reading is not the regrettable cost of doing business to be a writer. A writer might push themselves to read more because they feel like they're slacking off, but they probably enjoy it once they've made the time for it. They read because they love it.

I'm really not sure what it is about writing that brings out this dynamic of reluctant readers among would-be-writers. It seems to make as much sense to have breathers who like to exhale only. Filmmakers know they have to watch tons of movies. Painters know they have to look at lots of paintings. Musicians are constantly listening to music. Everyone drinks deeply from the well of the art they wish to be good at to have a sense of what they like, of what is considered good, and of how not to do things that don't work. But also just because they love it.

If you want a good sense of good writing and a soft number on the estimate side, Robert, I'd say about a thousand books at a rough minimum. At a book a week that's about twenty years of prolific reading to form the solid basis for a sense of words that will serve you as a writer. You'll probably find that even the very few successful writers in their early twenties have read at least that much. But I would also encourage anyone serious about writing to continue a steady diet of ongoing reading as well.

It would probably be easier if there were writer police, and they simply informed us when we were "allowed" to begin writing. ("Our records indicate that you have read your 1237th book. You may now begin writing.") But for most serious writers the actual answer to the question of how many books one must read to be a writer is closer to: "I hope many, many more."

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