In between writing and editing, I make time to read. If you are going to do something, it’s always good to see how other people tackle the same task. Reading allows you to learn about the craft of writing almost through osmosis.
There have been several writers who, in the past, have said words to the effect that “a writer should not read”. The belief is that one’s originality is compromised by such activity. I can’t help wonder that, if this were true, then surely learning a language equally constrains and directs a person’s originality? The grammatical structure of a language silently guides the way in which ideas are expressed. Perhaps a writer ought to write in a language that they have no knowledge of and hope it makes sense? I still bet a non-English speaker would rhyme ‘moon’ with ‘June’ given half a chance.
Stephen King’s ‘On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft’ suggests – in fact, demands – that a writer read as much as possible. It is a prerequisite for a good writer – why re-invent the literary wheel when you can read and discover all the things that do and don’t work, that did and didn’t work, that will never work and that will always work? All these things are subjective except for some of the universal rights and wrongs (basic grammar, spelling etc). A good discussion about why you think a book is great with someone who thinks it isn’t is time well spent, as long as it isn’t a pantomime discussion that consists of “oh yes it is, oh no it isn’t” type of arguments or involves a pantomime cow (they will always win an argument even when they are wrong. Don’t ask me how I know, I just know).
King also talks about the practicalities of how to write – where you do it, how you approach it. Whilst this is not a how-to manual, his methods seem to work for him and within them lie some general rules of thumb. One message you receive from this book is that if you want to be a writer then just write. You should write for the hell of it, because it is something that you enjoy. Given that making a living out of writing is often down to good luck as well as good writing, not enjoying it too is just masochistic.
If you are a writer, read this book to inspire you to be the best writer you can. King doesn’t claim to be the world’s greatest living author, he doesn’t claim he writes highbrow, ‘literature’ but he does claim to have made a living from writing novels and so should know a thing or two about the craft.
If you are a reader, well, this is just a good read, including how he was nearly killed by a van whilst out walking. But, as a reader, you might well come away with a sense of what it takes for a novel to come into existence and (hopefully) entertain you with just the shapes of letters on a page (real or electronic) – it really is a magical process!