Advice That Makes You Go Duh: Write What You Want to Read

Or read what you want to write. It seems obvious, right? But like any advice distilled into a pithy phrase and passed around until it loses meaning, there’s more to it. The horizontal champions will tell you it’s about market research – figuring out what “works” so you can make readers happy with the same product. Writers with more artistic aspirations take this advice to mean distilling the essence of the greats. I don’t dispute either, but I’m here to tell you something different: it’s about distilling your own essence.

Here’s where I’m tempted to use another scene from The Holy Mountain, the one where a dude poops in a jar and the alchemy apparatus turns it into a turd of solid gold, but I’ll refrain. Moving on…

I believe in aspirational reading – as a writer, you need a steady diet of authors you look up to. You absorb every story you consume for good or ill. Reading bad fiction can be useful for the self-esteem boost or figuring out what not to do, but it’s like tasting poison and spitting it out, or binging and puking it up again. If you don’t get in enough good reading you’ll starve, and your creative muscle will wither away. So what makes good writing? Whatever moves you. It could be a book you go back to again and again, or a scene you remember for years.

Hunter S. Thompson typed out whole novels by Hemingway and Fitzgerald to figure out the patter of great writing. I’ve been doing the same exercise on a smaller scale, typing out my favorite passages from books. The more scenes I collect, the more I notice patterns in the passages I choose. I figure out more about myself than the authors I’ve been studying. I discovered that the reader in me and the writer cannot be distinguished. Every jewel I plucked from a story was something I’d repurposed to tell my own.

This is not disheartening (if you’re not the type of fool who thinks originality can only be born in a vacuum). All creativity is recombination, and all great storytellers are in a conversation with the ones who came before. Sure, there’s always some dumbass who wants to write like James Joyce, and he sucks at it because only James Joyce was ever any good at being James Joyce. The art is in the telling, and every author must find a voice of their own. Typing out Hemingway didn’t turn Hunter S. Thompson into another Hemingway – he became distinctly Hunter S. Thompson, someone other writers now aspire to be.

To come into your own is to make your own voice distinct and powerful. It requires creative risk. It means doing something no one’s done before, being bold enough to break a rule with panache, or simply telling a story in a way only you know how. You find out how through writing and reading, so here’s my exercise, if you’re interested:

  1. Pick a scene from a story you loved reading.
  2. Type it out.
  3. If you get sick of typing before the bit you remember liking ends, skip the parts you find boring and note why.
  4. Once you’re done, write a short paragraph about what you like about the scene.
  5. Repeat this exercise a few times until you start seeing a pattern in what you pick, then write a bit about that as well.

The point is to find out what you want your writing to be. Noting the kind of writing you enjoyed best can help you figure that out. I pay particular attention to things like tone, narrative voice, sentence flow, and style, because I find those things more difficult to figure out than the characters and ideas I’m drawn to. That’s also why the exercise includes typing it out rather than just reading and making notes.

Figuring how you want to write your stories is almost as important as figuring out why. I’ve seen plenty of new writers agonize over POV, tense, and other structural details – they ask about the “right” way to do things, as if there is one. The real answer is it’s up to you. Everyone needs to figure this shit out for themselves, so the only helpful advice is: read more, write more. In that order. And make it yours.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.