Although I’ve talked before about the famous advice (summed up most pithily by Stephen King) about the importance of reading regularly if you’re a writer, I thought that I’d look at this topic again since I’ve been thinking about some more of the useful things it can do for authors. But, since I’ll be talking a lot about inspiration (and copyright) here, I should probably give the obligatory “I am not a lawyer” disclaimer right now.
1) It widens your palette: The more fiction you read by more different authors, the more interesting and varied your stories will be. Often, this won’t be blatant or obvious, but it’ll often allow you to add all sorts of subtle stuff to your story that you might not have even thought about including before. Every book you read leaves a small trace in your imagination and expands your own personal definition of what a story is and what sort of stuff it can include.
So, the more books you read, the wider your “palette” will be when it comes to crafting original story ideas of your own or even working out how to create a particular effect or mood in any one part of your story.
All creative people are inspired by everything that we have ever read, watched, seen, played, heard etc… Originality comes from having a wide enough range of these things that an instinctive, well-chosen combination of general elements, themes, stylistic pointers etc.. from all of these things (but NOT highly-specific copyrightable details, because that is plagiarism) turns into something that the reader has never quite seen before. So, the more books you read, the wider the palette you’ll have when creating your own stories and story ideas.
2) “I wish I could have written that!”: If you read regularly, you’re going to have this reaction. You’ve just read an absolutely amazing book and you think “I wish I could have written that!“. Of course, if you’re either still in the early stages of learning how to write fiction, haven’t read that much or don’t have enough ideas of your own yet, then this will probably result in you writing some non-commercial “fan fiction” that uses the characters, settings etc… from the book you’ve just read.
Of course, if you’re a bit more experienced and, more crucially, have read quite a bit then you’ll probably think of examples where other authors have clearly had these moments but done something a lot more imaginative with them. After all, they wanted to write a “proper” book that they could publish and sell. Not only couldn’t they directly copy the thing that inspired them (because of copyright law and all that…), but they also then did something different with it that was much more in tune with their own imagination, sensibilities, interests etc…
Reading a lot of books (and, even better, reviewing them) makes you think about books on a more technical and thematic level. It gives you the ability to work out exactly what inspires you so much about a book and exactly what elements set your favourite type of book apart from the rest. It allows you to refine this definition through seeing lots of books that you do and don’t like. And when you’ve worked out what all of your favourite books by different authors have in common, then you have the beginnings of a good story idea that you’ll be really inspired to write.
Of course, you also need to know yourself. You need to, through experiences, introspection, daydreaming and – of course, reading, watching etc… lots of stuff, have a very good understanding of your own imagination. Since, although you might have your “all my favourite things have this in common!” idea, you still need to tailor-make it into something that only you can write. You need to use it as a skeleton to put all of your stuff on top of.
Yes, your final story will (and should, if you want to avoid copyright problems) be fairly different from the story that initially made you think “I wish I could have written that!” But, it’ll be something better. It’ll be an interesting, unique story that will probably make other people think “I wish I could have written that!”.
3) Finding your writing style: The more you read and write, the more your own distinctive writing style will evolve. And, yes, this another reason why reading a lot – especially reading lots of different authors – matters so much.
Reading a lot exposes you to lots of different writing styles and, if you’re new to writing, you’re almost certainly going to spend time copying your favourite ones (for example, when I was 17, virtually every story I wrote sounded like either Conan Doyle and/or Lovecraft). Although these stories will be second-rate imitations of your favourite writers, they are still important! Because, when you’ve done this enough times, when you’ve read enough different writing styles and “tried out” a few of them, your own unique style – a combination of all of them in varying proportions- will begin to emerge.
So, not only is reading a lot (by different authors) important for developing your own writing style, but it also shows you that styles that you might have written off as “boring” or “annoying” can actually work well. For example, when I got back into reading regularly a little over a year ago, I tended to focus slightly more on books that were written in a fast-paced, informal way because this was fun to read. In fact, I even started to notice how formal the writing in a lot of older 1880s-1990s books I read when I was younger were and, for a while at least, I thought that formal narration was a “bad thing”. Old-fashioned, dull, slow-paced etc…
Then I started to notice how these types of slow-paced, formal writing styles allowed for a lot more depth and atmosphere (something only noticeable when you’ve read several informal, fast-paced books and then read a formal one). Then, more importantly, I started practicing and experimenting with writing at length again (after dabbling with short stories). And I tried to write fast-paced thrillers, written in a punchy, informal style that was just like the thriller novels I really enjoyed reading.
After a while, these stories felt limp, empty, repetitive, boring and/or monotonous to write. All of these fast-paced stories failed in one way or another. It was only then that I remembered that, yes, I know how to write formal narration (eg: all of that practice with writing in the style of Conan Doyle, Lovecraft etc.. when I was younger and all the practice I’ve had writing these articles) and that reintroducing some of these “slow-paced” elements to my writing style would allow me to write much richer, deeper and more atmospheric stories.
So, yes, reading a lot will help you to refine your writing style into something unique and interesting that is both fun to write and to read.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂