Monday, January 13, 2014

Three Things Reading Has Taught Me About Writing by Natalie Wright

Today I welcome author Natalie Wright to Shelf Full of Books. Natalie has written a trilogy, Emily's House, Emily's Trial and Emily's Heart which will be appearing on this blog over the next four weeks. Let's see what she has for us today.

Three Things Reading has Taught Me about Writing

The absolute best writing advice I’ve ever gotten was simply this: Read.

It’s advice given frequently by experienced writers, but I recall the first time I heard it. It was August, 2009 and I was in a large conference room at the Hilton in Beverly Hills attending my first Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SWBWI) conference. I was a complete newbie. There I was a baby writer, surrounded by luminaries such as Holly Black, Sherman Alexie, Ellen Hopkins and Richard Peck, to name a few.

I squeezed into a workshop with Richard Peck. He gave us a lot of advice that day, but the thing I remember most was his advice to read. Read everything. Study it. “If you want to be a writer, than you must be a reader,” he said.

Sounds like no-brainer advice. But the thing is despite the fact that I’d been working on my first novel for over a year, I couldn’t remember the last work of fiction that I’d read. As a lawyer, I spent my days pouring over contracts and reading missives and nasty-grams from opposing counsel. Not exactly soul-stirring stuff.

Before I left the conference, I snatched up “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie; “Savvy” by Ingrid Law; and “A Long Way from Chicago” by Richard Peck (and I highly recommend all three if you haven’t read them yet). I didn’t write that much for a while. I devoured books instead.

The oft repeated adage is true: Good words in, good words out. I continue to read as much as I can, and I absolutely know that the great books I’ve read over the last three years have improved my writing.

I’ve learned a lot about writing by reading, but here are my top three:

1. Beginnings Matter the Most

A writer has a paragraph, maybe two, to hook a reader.

I know this because, as a reader, I am as impatient as any a reader can be. If I’m not in love with something about the book within the first page, I won’t read further. Some readers are more generous with their time than I am, but many are like me.

Writers are lectured about the importance of the first paragraph in most every workshop and conference. It’s enough to make many writers so obsessed with getting the beginning perfect that they are paralyzed and never finish the first draft. But again it was Richard Peck that may have saved me from such a fate. He told us that when he’s finished with the first draft, he goes back and writes the first chapter without even re-reading it! Hey, if it’s a good enough method for the only writer for teens that has won the National Book award, then maybe it’s a good idea for other writers.

Here’s the first page of one of Richard’s best books (in my humble opinion), “On the Wings of Heroes”:

“Before the War …

…the evenings lingered longer, and it was always summer when it wasn’t Halloween, or Christmas.

Long, lazy light reached between the houses, and the whole street played our version of hide-and-seek, called only by olly-olly-in-free and supper time.

Before I could keep up, I rode my brother’s shoulders, hung in the crook of Dad’s good arm. I rode them across the long shadows of afternoon, high over hedges, heading for home base, when our street was the world, before the war, when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.”

Beautiful, huh? And it absolutely evokes the feeling of the book to come.

I’m no Richard Peck, but I think I’ve gotten better over the years at the first paragraph. And like Richard, after writing the first draft, I always chuck the first try and rewrite.

Here are the three final first paragraphs of my first three books:

From “Emily’s House”:

“It sucks to see your mom die twice. That’s what I was thinking while I walked home that day. The second day in my life that everything changed.”

From “Emily’s Trial”:

“The Apocalypse didn’t start with four horsemen, harbingers of the horror to come. It didn’t start with a plague, or pestilence, or even zombies rising from the dead.”

From Emily’s Heart (arriving February 1, 2014):

Welcome to the Apocalypse

You shut the door
and dare not look.
You hide from the shadow
that lurks there.

Galloping wildly
in the crevasses of your mind,
it takes up residence
in your grey matter,
content to live
amongst your fears.

Did you see it there,
skulking behind the door?
Did you feel it stalk as
you step into the obsidian night?

Try as you might
to resist its call,
it pulls at you,
both night and day,
like the tide
eating the shore.

Your hope,
like grains of sand.
Pulled inexorably
into the dark sea.

Okay, that was more than a paragraph! ;-)

2. “All You Need is Love”

I’m talking about love that emerges organically from the story. I adored the love between Grace and her wolf boy Sam in “Shiver” by Maggie Stiefvater, and I think the love story between Hazel and Augustus in “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green may be the most beautiful love story ever written. These aren’t the “love/lust at first sight, I’m obsessive over you and a zillion ridiculous obstacles will be put in our way, but in the end we’ll kiss/go to bed, and the book will end” kind of love. These authors have captured something precious and beautiful about real love.

One of my favorite love stories comes from an unlikely place. In “The Game of Thrones,” George R.R. Martin captured something special and unexpected in the love between Daenerys and Khal Drogo. Dany is essentially sold to the Khal, and I shuddered in expectation of a brutal wedding night. But when Drogo showed Daenerys unexpected tenderness, my heart swelled along with hers. “Moon of my life,” he said. “My sun and stars,” she said. And I swooned.

I’ve long forgotten the plot points and details of most of the books I’ve read, but I remember the great love stories. I can still remember how I felt when Dany and Khal Drogo first made love, Hazel and Augustus’ last kiss, and what it felt like to fall in love with Grace’s wolf boy as he folded paper into cranes and hung them around the bedroom.

3. Sometimes, Some Faults Are Forgiven

Of course we need to write books that are well-written and as error-free as possible. But I’ve learned that as a reader, I forgive some faults in a story as long as the book contains characters that I love, living a fascinating life in a world that I want to inhabit (or at least enjoy visiting). A decent plot with great characters and good world-building will carry the writer far.

Easy, huh?

Of course it’s not. But I’ll keep trying ;-)

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