The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Sixth Commandment of Writing

The Sixth Commandment:     Thou shalt read 10 X as much as you write. 

The sixth law is a two-parter, and one that amateurs or published pros ignore at their peril. 
Often it goes like this: a young writer reads everything she can get her hands on during her youth.  She majors in literature in college.  During that time, she is steeped in the very finest books, stories, and plays in the world, and surrounded by an enriched academic environment.  Her writing flourishes. 

After college, at some point, she breaks through into the ranks of the published.  Life adjustments begin to take place as more of her career emphasis is dedicated to preparation of manuscripts and promotion of books.

Research, research, research.  Rewrite, rewrite.  And somewhere along the way, the simple pleasures of reading fall by the wayside.   Now all reading is directed by the needs of a current project.  Reading is now work, not fun.  Time passes. 

The writing begins to feel more onerous.  The writer begins to struggle, and the content of the writing begins to repeat itself, the same themes, motifs, character relationships cycle over and over.

The writer is devouring herself.  She stopped reading.

Often, young writers will express fear that if they read, they will unconsciously imitate other writers, and never develop their own “voice.”  I’m here to tell you that the ONLY way to develop your own voice is to read voraciously.  To flood your subconscious mind with all the raw material of the literary world, and allow what Steven King refers to as “the boys in the basement” to select from that breadth of material, making random connections between disparate styles and subjects and genres and forms.  This is creativity.  The most creative individuals in all fields are inexhaustible scholars of their discipline. 

Not only should you not fear imitating others, you need to grasp that imitation is the natural way we learn anything at all.  So rather than fear it, embrace it, trusting that if you read enough, you will see and feel your way through the individual styles to your own mode of expression.

And here is a corollary:   “Thou shalt steal from the best.”  Whatever you want to write, make a commitment to reading material that is even better.  In other words, if you want to write bestsellers, read classics.  If you want to write classics, on the other hand…well, that is a level of magic I can’t help you with. The answer to that one lies in some arcane mingling of luck, education, passion, genetics, and the cultural zeitgeist.  Good luck!

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