Sunday, July 15, 2012

Good Readers

“To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader.” This little bit of advice is often given to aspiring writers. Put it on the list of free advice that’s worth a lot more than you pay for it.

“Read what’s being published in your genre.” Another common injunction – and one I have mixed feelings about. I have the snobbish-writer feeling: “Genre? You can’t pinhole my work into a genre!” I have the eager-reader feeling: “More! I can’t get enough!” I have the seeking-inspiration feeling: “Dang. If he (or she) can write that, maybe I can write the book that’s knocking on my heart, too.” And I have the insecure-writer feeling: “Oh for dog’s sake. Nothing I write could ever be that good. Time to give up.”

And of course, the copy-cat-writer feeling: “Hey. That’s good. I can use that…”

For me, reading came first. I was one of those dorky kids who functioned far better in the world of imagination unlocked by books than in the real world, where I was clumsy and scared most of the time. Hot summers were spent in my cool basement room, reading; cold winters were spent snuggled under the covers, reading. I was addicted, and wanted to feel the power of creating one of those worlds I kept reading about, of bringing it to life for other dorky kids (and adults) to lose themselves in.

The best job I ever had was when I worked in a bookstore during high school. My boss, the owner, was nuts, but rarely around; and his instructions to me were this: "If the store is quiet, grab a book off the shelf and read it. That way, you can give customers recommendations about what to buy."

I didn’t need to hear anything past grab a book off the shelf and read it. I tend to follow instructions well, and that was no exception.

My most recent reads are not all in my genre, but they are authors whose craft I admire: Carl Hiaasen, whose biting sense of humor is salvaged by a deep sense of humanity; and Elmore Leonard, who is a master of word economy. Not a single wasted word in a Leonard book.  And Ray Bradbury. I think the last time I read Bradbury was that bookstore job thirty years ago. It’s about time to read his work again.*

Who do you read when you want to be snobbish, eager, inspired, insecure, or in awe of a master crafter of words?

Elizabeth Fountain: Writer's Blog at Point No Point
Completely Absurd and Nearly Impossible (working title), due from CBG in April, 2013

*Since the original draft of this post, I read Bradbury's Dandelion Wine for the first time. An amazing, beautiful, near-disaster of a book that might have saved my heart's desire. I'll be blogging more about it soon.


January Bain said...

Oh Liz, you are so right! I actually taught myself to read because after listening to my mom read to us every night, I badly wanted to be able to do that myself! I'm still an advid reader and it does help my writing immensely. I would have loved to have worked in that bookstore you mentioned. What a great summer, eh!

Liz Fountain said...

Thanks, January! I hope I never lose that sense of wonder at discovering a great new book, or the sense of privilege at being able to try to create a similar sense of wonder in another reader out there somewhere.


Richard Hacker said...

Wow, Elizabeth. You named three of my favorite writers. In fact, I use Hiaasen and Leonard as comps for my crime thrillers. I still remember reading a Tom Swift novel -- think Hardy Boys, but science fiction -- and being transported into a new world. Wonderful.

Liz Fountain said...

Thanks, Richard - a friend of mine gave me "Stormy Weather" by Hiaasen when he discovered I wanted to write novels. What a great inspiration. I've read about three or four of his since then, including his "Hoot" for younger readers. I'll have to look up that Tom Swift novel - sounds great!


Jude Johnson said...

LOVE Ray Bradbury. I am amazed at the twists and turns his writing takes, and can only marvel at the ride. I think some books have to be read at a certain time in your life as well; I can certainly appreciate Dickens more now...