A long, long time ago, in a galaxy right across the Hudson River, I took a screenwriting course that offered up sage cliches, formatting rules, and pacing maxims that collective attempted to pass themselves off as innovative screenwriting vision.
Despite this, I learned some valuable lessons.
One I want to share today is the idea of learning your genre. Writers must do this whether they be of the novel, screen, television, or stage variety. Even comics have to “know what’s out there.” And while I embrace the idea of learning your genre, I caution that it can lead to neurosis, an addiction to collecting all authors i your area, and an avalanche of reading that swallows whole your writing time.
So, our first lesson today is …Study, Don’t Obsess.
Yes, read your genre, but as part of your writing life, not all of it. But, with a bazillion books out there and a gazillion more on the way, how do we choose? I suggest two rules for what to read:
1) Read The Kings – meaning, read the best sellers in your genres, at least one by each leading author. From there, read at least one more by those Kings who resonate with you.
2) Read What Calls to You – meaning, visit bookstores (hurry, before they’re all reduced to websites or kiosks), find your genre, and peruse. Here we need to fight obsession and addiction (always remembering to budget both our money and our time, lest we wind up broke with a house full of books, and the producers of Hoarders at our door), but allow instinct to bring us what we need. I’ve made some of my greatest reading discoveries doing this. You will too.
Then, two more rules:
3) Read what you’ve purchased or borrowed for pleasure. This is a must. Reading for pleasure is what brought us to the dance, fired up our imaginations, and fueled our souls; if we sacrifice this pleasure and make reading all about studying the form, and working, we will wither as creative forces, and, I believe, our writing suffers. We must retain joy, or all of this is moot.
4) After reading, even days later, reflect on the books you liked, and ask yourself how the authors delivered the experience you enjoyed. If you know, make note of it and we’ll discuss what to do with it later. If you do not know, and if the book still lives for you, reread it consciously looking for when the author out the rabbit in the hat. What impressed you? Pace? What was done to control it? Make notes, even I. The markings, or by using ereader note taking options. And by this method our writing prowess grows.
Lastly, one you’ve noted how these authors make their work live and succeed, you need to reflect on the techniques used and how those techniques apply to your writing. Please notice that I did not use the word “compare”. That is authorial suicide, you are you, and they are successful because they have their own individual styles. But, like a young guitar player mimicking Eric Clapton, or Eddie Van Halen on the way to discovering their own style, so too, do we see how others do it, and fold that into our own style. What fits for us? How can we adjust what we do to get closer to our writing goals by using what we’ve learned from others?
I am not suggesting plagiarism, and personally have not re typed other authors to “see what it felt like” to write that book (Hunter S. Thompson famously did this with Hemingway’s work, but observe how different his style became), but I do believe in gushing over Elmore Leonard’s dialogue, Stephen King’s use of the common place to anchor his shocks, J.K. Rowlings’ sense of wonder elevating the YA genre beyond the previously conceived limits of that genre. This is how we learn from what is out there.
Sometimes, however, the answer is more negative. And that is great, too. One of those screenwriting cliches was “Take a genre and study three classics and seven bombs.” This is a gem of advice. Reading a book you hate teaches you more than reading a classic. Why doesn’t it work? What do you hate? Why? The lessons are numerous, and clear, and can benefit our writing as much or more than visiting with the Kings.
As always, I hope this helps.