If you only learn one thing from these writing posts, or if you only decide to read one and then run away, let it be this one. This is single-handedly the most important thing you have to do as a writer: read.
It seems simple, right? Most people who want to write are readers first. That’s how we fall in love with words. We read them, and then we want to write something just like them. For me, I so badly wanted a very specific type of story, but no one was writing it, so I decided to do it on my own. It’s still that way. I want to send sister witches out first, despite having several other completed novels, because I’ve never read anything else like it before. I wrote it because of that, and maybe it’ll inspire other people to write their own very specific stories.
But, here’s the thing. A lot of us grow up loving to read, and then we decide that we’re going to write, and it feels like we have to make a choice. Should I sacrifice reading time so that I have enough time to write? Maybe if I just put this book down and write a chapter, I’ll end up writing the most amazing scene in the world. I probably shouldn’t waste my weekend reading; I could use that more wisely.
I’m not even putting any of those in italics or quotation marks because I’ve said all of them. To this day, it’s still a battle. I currently have a stack of books next to me, but my brain is like or you could write.
I’m going to tell you a story. (It’ll be short, I promise.) In the fall of 2017, I read Six of Crows and, a few weeks later, Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. 2017 was the summer that I wrote the Pen boys. It was the year that my best friend walked out of my life, and that I nearly quit writing. The Pen boys was a mess, and it was mostly just me writing through my emotions, but as fall started to creep around, I read this book that one of my friends had been hyping and it seemed everyone else in the bookish community loved. At the same time, I was watching a season of Peaky Blinders. I can’t remember which because I feel like I’m always rewatching it.
(Also, I should note, that consuming media in the form of TVs/movies is just as important as books, but we’re all readers here, so that’s why I’m focusing on them. We’ll touch on this briefly at the end, though.)
I finished reading Crooked Kingdom on a Sunday. I finished rewatching the Peaky Blinders season sometime just before or also on that day. I went to bed, still dreaming about this incredible duology that had completely taken over my life. I was prepared for a totally normal week.
When I woke up Monday morning, there was a name stuck in my head–Landon Ash.
I’ve told this story a few times, but the tl;dr of it is that one of my main series, Saintsverse, was born from that wild few weeks of Crows and Tommy Shelby. The first time I wrote about it on the blog was October 10th. A few months later, on December 7th, it was done. Given enough time and frustration, I’m sure Saintsverse would have started to appear in my head, but the reason it did that week in October was because of the Crows duology. It was because of Peaky Blinders. It was because I’d consumed media that inspired me, and I started dreaming of a very specific story that no one else had written, so I started writing it.
There are a million of these stories. I wrote sister witches because there were no other novels (that I know about) that had powerful women of color that dealt in crystals and tarot and were best friends with an accidentally summoned demon. I wrote bookstore boys because I loved a fanfiction that I wrote so much that I wanted it to be real. And wow, holy freaking cyclical is that. The fanfiction used Marvel characters in an alternate universe because I wanted to see them be soft and bookish, but the fanfiction was also inspired because I loved the bookstore scenes in Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater so much that I wanted to write something similar to those. And the novel is literally because I love Sam Roth so I wrote Tony/Bruce into a bookstore romance so I wrote Émilien/Will into Rockport, MA at my favorite local bookstore.
It is never ending, and it’s so important.
Look, I get it. Writing is important. We love it a lot. We want to be doing it all day long. Some days, I only turn to reading because I have literally exhausted myself writing, and I need a break. Some days, it’s a 10k day of writing that, by the time 9PM rolls around, I feel like I’ve been hit with a truck, and I just need to disappear for a bit. Some days, writing is the thing that I want to do primarily.
And I’m not even saying that you have to read every day. I’m not saying that you can’t have days where the only thing you do is write. I am saying that you have to balance both. There’s nothing superfluous about this. You have to. End of story. This isn’t advice. This is simple fact.
If you don’t read, and you write a book, literally everyone is going to know. It’s so obvious when a writer doesn’t read, and it’s obvious because the writing isn’t good. If you don’t read, you don’t know what people like. You don’t know how language flows naturally in this day and age. You don’t know the types of characters people are seeking, or the types of storytelling readers love the most. You don’t understand writing if you don’t read.
Look, the unfortunate thing is that anyone can write a book. The most annoying thing in the world is when people say, “Man, I’ve always wanted to write a book,” but they’ve literally never written anything in their life and they don’t read. Gods, I’m going to eye roll so hard that I’ll give myself a headache.
The fortunate thing? Not just anyone can write a good book. But if you read a lot, it’s going to show in your writing because it’s just osmosis, guys. The science is reading = good writing. Obviously, it’s not that foolproof. You can’t just read 100 books and then bam bestseller. Like everything in life, you’ve got to practice writing to get good at it. But even if you practiced for your entire life, if you never read anything, you’d probably end up with a pretty stale book.
Here’s the other thing, too. It matters what you read. I’m a fantasy writer. I love high fantasy above all else, but I write urban fantasy mostly with the occasional contemporary thrown in. Let’s say that the only thing I read was nonfiction, though? Wow, actually, that’s kind of scary to imagine. That would be the literal worst fantasy book ever.
You’ve got to read in your genre. No excuses, guys, sorry. If you’re writing a fantasy book, not only do you have to read books, some of them have to be fantasy books. You don’t have to read all the fantasy books, but you should definitely read a lot of them.
Because otherwise, how are you going to know what works?
I know, I know. We write for ourselves. And look, if your goal is to write and never let it see the light of day, then heck, don’t read a single book, just write a bunch. But if you want people to see it, and I think that’s the goal of most writers, you’re going to want other people to like it, too.
Yes, I wrote sister witches for myself. A lot of it makes me cackle. I think I’m hilarious. A lot of it makes me angst terribly. I think I’m a masochist. But it is never going to sell unless it contains things that are working in other books, and I’m never going to know what those things are unless I read books. And that is 100% not saying that I’ve included things in sister witches that I don’t like. I love every single element of this trilogy. But a lot of the elements are ones I like because I read them somewhere else, and I wanted to include them in my own, so, in a sort of roundabout way, someone who eventually reads it who liked those elements in another book is also going to like sister witches.
why does this sound like math when I write it out, jfc
In the end, I could keep going on and on about this topic for ages because, truly, it’s the most important thing anyone is ever going to say about writing. You can compile all the writing advice in the world, and reading is still going to be the single most important thing.
And, because I promised, very briefly(!), TVs/movies count for this! It’s important to consume all types of media as a writer so you understand what works and what doesn’t. They’re not a substitute. You definitely can’t just binge watch Netflix for the rest of your life and write a book (though you could probably do that for a screenplay because, well, screenplays become TVs/movies). Books will always be your most important tool to utilize, but you also shouldn’t feel guilty for not writing/reading because you’re taking a day to watch something. I’ve learned a lot from the TV shows/movies I’ve watched over the years, and, in the end, all of this just boils down to you can’t create without consuming creation.