General Writing

Writers Gotta Read

If you see an allusion in an online writer’s group, nine times out of ten it’s to a blockbuster movie or piece of Anime, or to a popular game. That’s not surprising. We live in a golden age of film and games, and I am no immune to their appeal than anyone else. I had to stop playing games more complicated than solitaire in order to get any work done, and the only time my streaming remote will leave my hand is when the batteries need replacing. Yet while the appeal is undeniable, may I suggest (already bracing for a barrage of criticism) that neither film nor game is the place for writers to learn their craft? Like writing, both are narratives, but if the general strategy is the same, the tactics are too different to be of much help in the development of the writer.

The reason is that film and other visuals are an analog medium, while writing is a digital one. A visual medium is a continual flow of information, while a digital one is made out of separate bits. As a result, analog and digital media can both do things that the other cannot. For example, an analog medium can give a panoramic view of the background in seconds. By contrast, in a digital medium, a panoramic view takes paragraphs, or even pages, and can take minutes for the audience to absorb. Similarly, a digital medium can present the inner thoughts of a character or offer background effortlessly, while to present the same information in analog requires a number of makeshift tactics like a voice-over or an info dump that halts the story in mid-stream.

This difference in tactics explains why the book and the movie of a story are rarely the same. The movie has to add scenes or even characters to convey the same information as the book. Often, an effective scene in a book simply doesn’t play on the screen. A classic example of this situation is the banquet scene in Dune. On the page, it is a scene full of nuances, of verbal sparring and interpretation. But attempts to film Dune floundered for years, partly because Frank Herbert, the author, insisted on including the banquet scene, which was essentially unfilmable – unless, perhaps, it was allowed to be forty-five minutes long.

Somewhat further afield, but related, you may have noticed that some of Neil Gaiman’s earliest fiction could be a little thinly developed. I am convinced that this flaw was due to the fact that Gaiman was used to writing scripts for graphic novels – another heavily analog medium – and leaving the description to the artists he worked with to flesh out. The habits suitable for graphic novels were not directly transferable to short stories and novels. Learning to be comfortable as he switched media was part of Gaiman’s evolution as a writer – and a lesson that, of course, he long ago learned.

For such reasons, the fact that a writer should read should be self-evident. In fact, a critical mass of reading seems to be needed for a writer to come into their own, which maybe one reason that few writers produce their best work before their thirties.

But read what? Ursula K. Le Guin had a few suggestions. In “Learning to Write Science Fiction From Virginia Wolf,” Le Guin begins by insisting that you need to know your own genre – not everything that is happening in it (since that would be impossible), but enough to know the conventions. That is solid commercial advice for anyone looking to traditional publication, but it also teaches you the traditions and conventions of the genre. Without that knowledge, you risk the fate of writers like Doris Lessing, who ventured into science fiction with no apparent knowledge of what had already been done in the field, only to produce tedious, didactic and almost unreadable novels.

Moreover, unless you know the genre, you can’t know what sort of writer you want to be: a genre writer, filling the expectations a genre, or a writer with ambition who exceeds genre expectations, and may one day produce art. Nothing is wrong with either of these ambitions, but as Le Guin says, “genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language, it becomes a jargon meaningful only to an in-group.”

However, to make an intelligent choice, you also need to read outside your genre. After all, how else can you know what the alternatives are? Just like different media, different genres have their own specialties. Mysteries, for example, are adept at scattering clues throughout the story, many of which only reveal themselves at the climax. Similarly, the mainstream tends to excel at characterization. The media is the same, even if the genre isn’t, and you can easily add another genre’s tactics to your genre of choice.

Moreover, you can often find unexpected models outside your genre. With deliberate provocation, Le Guin talks of learning science fiction from Virginia Woolf. She refers to Orlando, in which, like any good historical, Woolf recreates the past – in particular, Elizabethean England. Le Guin also refers to Flush, in which Woolf depicts the thoughts of a dog, a process not that different from writing from an alien’s perspective.

But who knows what else you might find? We have a very impoverished vocabulary when it comes to writing technique, and for this reason the easiest way to learn technique is through example. Example is a very hit and miss technique, but I believe that most writers will know what they need to learn when they see it. No list of recommended books could possibly teach every writer what they need to know, so the best strategy is to be an omnivorous reader and increase the chances of finding what you need.

The broader your reading, the more possibilities you become aware of, and the better, more original writer you have the chance to become. Ignore reading for film and games, or even graphic novels, and your prose is far more likely to be shallow or jarringly off the mark. In fact, if you balk at reading, maybe you should reconsider your ambitions and study how to make movies or games. Both are perfectly honorable and imaginative professions, but the point is, neither of them are prose writing. If you want to write, you need to read, not watch a screen or clutch a joystick.

 

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