I once heard a journalist say on the Longform podcast that good writers come from reading a certain number of words as a child. He didn't specify the number of words. All he meant was that if you read enough, particularly when the mind is still young and plastic, you almost can't help but be able to write to some extent. We learn from example. When you read, you're unconsciously internalizing patterns of words. And then when you write, you reproduce those patterns. I suspect this trend continues well into adulthood.
Which is why I believe you are what you read.
This is one of the reasons I'm not a fan of modern YA fiction, because I think the prose tends to be low quality, and I don't think it's good for young people (or adults) to internalize bad writing.
But if you are what you read, that has even bigger implications for people who aspire to be writers. Think about what kind of book you want to write. Now think of the books you're actually reading. Are they similar? Are you consuming a prose style that you would like to produce yourself? Or are they misaligned? Maybe you're reading books that you would never want to write.
I've often talked about my love of simple stories. It's just a personal preference. For instance, I enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia a lot more than the Lord of the Rings, because I happen to enjoy clean prose and simple storylines more than the wordiness of epic fantasy. I like a character who has so little room or time to develop in the book that when they do change it has all the more impact on you. When Eustace Scrubb attacks the sea monster in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it actually means something, because there's so little time to dither about who he really is as a character. Or when Puddleglum in The Silver Chair stomps out the witche's magic fire, it stands out as this incredibly brave moment he has in the book. It's so simple, but it means so much more on the scale of a 30,000 word story than if the book had rambled on for another 100,000.
Yet when I sit down to write, I often catch myself producing these long descriptions filled with endless adjectives, or plotlines that go on and on. My writing has always veered towards purple prose - possibly due to some bad habits I was taught in elementary school, possibly because I'm a very visually oriented person. But I find reading those kinds of stories incredible tedious. I hate hyper description.
So what I am I reading right now? The short stories of The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr, which I would describe as highly descriptive writing done well. It's what a purple prose writer aspires to be. But even if it's well written, it's still not the style of writing that I wish I could produce myself. I naturally lean towards it, but I don't enjoy it. That's kind of messed up if you think about it.
Realizing this, I set The Shell Collector aside last night and found my old copy of The Horse and his Boy, one of my all time favorites in the Chronicles of Narnia, because I know that's the kind of story I would like to write myself. It's not middle grade writing exactly. I think almost anyone, of any age, could enjoy the story of Shasta and Bree running away to Narnia. It's just simple, and I like that. So I'm reading it again, for probably the tenth time, in hopes that it will help me to learn a different writing style from my natural tendency, particulalry for the science fantasy novel I've plotting in my head for several years now.
A few months ago I realized I wanted to write that story as if it were a cousin of the Chronicles of Narnia. Instead of attempting to write it as an epic, as I had been doing, I want to cull the story down to its most fundamental form. And to do that, I think I need to keep reading the kinds of books I want this novel to be. Honestly, it's even kind of fun to read a book with the aim of studying its method. I know what happens in The Horse and his Boy, so I can concentrate on the mechanics of the writing and hopefully learn from Lewis. Mostly this involves studying the length of descriptions, what kinds of words are used, how scenes transition, and the role of dialogue and even illustrations in the story. (I would love to have illustrations in my book.)
Have you tried this? Or have you ever noticed you're picking up bad writing habits from books you're reading? I saw this over the summer when I was writing part 1 of The Mistress and Master of Sparrow House, which was meant to be a fun little romp of story. At the time, I was reading Nick Hornby's Funny Girl, and decided it was teaching me this terrible habit of attempting to write comedic timing, so I had to put it down - and honestly, I think Sparrow House improved because of it.
Or sometimes if I'm spending too much time reading internet drivel, I notice my own writing starts to sound the same. This is something I want to avoid at all costs, which is one of the reasons why I resisted hooking up the internet to our house for so long. Ultimately, I caved when I started working from home, and now I'm struggling again with reading way too much of the unedited, unfiltered nonsense that is so typical of writing on the internet.
So let's read what we want to write instead. That's my new goal for the new year. Just read good books that I would be proud to write myself.
With that said, does anyone have a suggestion for a new book I should read if I'm interested in writing a more simple (i.e., not epic) science fiction/fantasy novel? I would love to hear your ideas.