Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The reading thing

I'm about to start school visits in earnest (August being the month when children's and YA authors are asked to do lots of them because Children's Book Week happens now). I was thinking about the questions I get asked the most, and one is definitely, "What made you start writing?" (This is usually how it's phrased, maybe reflecting their classroom experience of being made to write!)

My answer is always, "Because I love reading, and I just got to the point where I really wanted to write, too." Mind you, wanting to write and achieving something I thought was OK were not the same thing, but I remember in those early days how just writing anything was exciting and fun and felt like a big achievement. It's that feeling I try to keep in mind with students. It's all new to many of them. For kids at school, writing can seem like the most boring, tedious thing to do. A trial. A curse. A punishment.

Even for those who want to write, the act itself can be frightening and overwhelming. Where to start? What to write? How to escape self-criticism? How to avoid family questions and criticism?

I always point people back to reading. Despite a few writers who insist they don't read, and thus convince other aspiring writers they don't need to either, I believe reading, and then reading critically and consciously, is vital to becoming a writer, let alone a better writer. I have always loved reading, even before my big sister gave me C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew and I discovered Arthur Ransome and T.H. White.

If you want to write picture books, you should be reading at least 50 picture books published in the past 10 years. Same with chapter books, children's and YA novels. Yes, read the classics, but if you don't read what is out there at the moment, you will have no idea how much these books have changed. It's an area where there have been massive shifts in illustration, styles, and marketing, at the very least. (I confess to being quite appalled at the current gender marketing in books for kids 6-12 years old. But if I wasn't reading and keeping up, how would I know? Doesn't mean I agree, though.)

When it comes to adult fiction, you have to read even more widely, because the changes I see are so intriguing. Self publishing is just the pointy end of platforms like Wattpad and Figment (see here for what is out there). These are writing communities where people post their works in progress and get votes and comments. There have been significant instances of writers being picked up by publishers through these platforms - especially when writers have more than a million readers!

What I am most interested in is why people read on these platforms. Is it simply because it's free and they can read to their heart's content without paying a cent? I'd love some comments on this.
Because to me reading feeds my writing, and the better the books I read, the more I get for myself. Ideas, language, examples of style and experimentation, great examples of characters.

Mostly, reading takes me away from myself and from my life. Not many TV shows do this (although I do admit that I have just finished watching series 1 of Mad Men, and the themes and subtext are brilliant - yes, I'm way behind but think how much enjoyment lies ahead for me!).
If you write, isn't that what you want your novel to do? Take the reader away so they are in your fictional world?