I've been on a literary fiction reading jag for about two months now, initially reading "The Dogs of Babel" and then moving on to other recommended books, including a list from Miss Snark's blog. Latest Snark book was "Winter's Bone" by Daniel Woodrell. Not what I expected at all. It's set in the Ozarks and is a stark novel about a girl trapped by her family and the environment - the family includes a crazy mother and two younger brothers, a father who has disappeared so that they are about to lose their house, and an extended family and community of hillbillies (sorry, can't think of another word to describe them but think Ozarks, isolation, closely-linked families), most of whom are high on crank. Reading this straight after "Diamond Dove", which was a similarly stark novel set in Aboriginal communities and an outback town, I needed a break. Both of these novels, by the way, were terrific in their own way, not what I thought they'd be, and strong reminders of what a writer can create when they really know the places and people they are writing about.
So I've launched into "Twelve Sharp", the new Janet Evanovich. The writing is clean, tight, funny (no, doesn't have great amounts of imagery but she does a great job of making me feel I'm right in that doughnut shop) and a welcome break for my brain.
It never fails to amaze me when someone who wants to be a writer says they don't read. I shouldn't be amazed because it happens regularly. Sometimes in classes I feel like I want to chain the students to a shelf of books and not let them go until they've read every one. Instead I set assignments where they have to read at least 3-4 books before they can write reviews or analyses or whatever, but hey - 3-4 books is so minimal as to be laughable. There are so many things that I gain, as a writer, from reading that I just don't understand those who refuse to take it on board. And the complaint (also heard a few times) that they don't want to be influenced accidentally is also wasted on me - the more widely you read, the less likely you are to accidentally "copy" someone. It's actually quite beneficial to deliberately try to copy someone's style as a writing "lesson". Hey, I had a Sylvia Plath period just like a lot of other poets I know!
What do I gain? Insights about style, about how writers use words differently, how sentences can be put together, how description can be threaded into a story without bogging it down, how dialogue can show character, how pacing works, how cliffhangers work, how much to put into a chapter, how to use different narrative devices and structures, how characters can be shown effectively, how to foreshadow, how to subplot ... need I go on?
The trick is to read like a writer. No, it doesn't destroy your reading enjoyment. Well, OK, it might for a while, but then you just get used to reading differently, and suddenly you are seeing all these other things behind the story - you're seeing the bones the writer used to hold up the flesh of "what happens". For me, it increases what I get from the book tenfold.
And when Miss Snark runs her Crapometer, it helps me see what is not working with those submissions, and why, and how I might fix that kind of problem if it comes up in my own writing.
As for the dreaded query letter, if nothing else, the current 100 victims of Miss Snark prove that less is definitely more. Now, if only my submission had been one of the 100...