Friday, March 29, 2013

To Read or Not To Read: Not Really the Question

     If you want to write songs, you should have some concept of what a song is.  If you want to be a poet, you should have some clue of the difference between a poem and a piece of prose.  If you want to write a novel, you should understand what a novel is.  While these statements might seem obvious, some writers don't seem to get the logic behind them.  For example, I know two writers who are working on plays, yet they have never read any play manuscripts.  I hope they've been to plays (I haven't had the courage to ask).  Experiencing plays would be a good thing for an aspiring playwright to do.  But a playwright also needs to see what a script looks like.  Neither of the writers I know who are writing plays have any idea how to format a script.  I've recommended that they go to the library and check out some books of plays so they can see how a play is put in written form.  A course in writing drama would be helpful too, but why not start with a free resource.  The 800-section of most libraries is teeming with anthologies of plays and reading through an anthology or two will give a writer a good visual of how a script is formatted.

     So what about novels?  If you want to be a novelist, do you have to read novels?  No.  But if you don't read them, then you should listen to them.  I say this because I have a friend who is writing her first novel.  She hates to read and avoids it as much as humanly possible.  Her reason is that she is dyslexic.  I have another friend who is dyslexic and she reads voraciously, but that doesn't matter.  My friend who hates to read is passionate in her hatred and quite sensitive about being challenged to read.  And I'm fine with that.  She has a right to have pain in regards to the dyslexia and to feel that other people don't understand what she goes through when she tries to read.  BUT she wants to be a novelist, and in order to do that, she needs to understand how novels are structured.

     Sometimes people think that they can write a novel because they've watched a lot of movies based on novels.  Movies and television shows can help writers in a number of ways. Probably the best thing a writer can learn from watching movies and television shows is how to write good dialogue and how to use that dialogue to do characterization and advance the plot.  I highly recommend watching shows.  Just watch them with a writer's ear.  Pay attention to the things I just mentioned about dialogue plus notice how the plot is structured, how the conflict is established, intensified and resolved, and notice the things that drive you nuts--and make a mental note not to do that to your readers.  I'm not a good person to watch a murder mystery with because I can usually figure out pretty quickly who done it.  Generally I keep it to myself, but sometimes I say it and the people I'm watching the show with will say, "Oh no. It's this other character."  When the person I mentioned turns out to be the culprit, my family will say, "How did you know that so soon?" And I say simply, "I'm a writer."  Bottom line: I'm alert to writers tricks and in mysteries I notice who the writer DOESN'T want the audience to suspect, you know, that person who is so likable or sympathetic.  He / she is usually the murderer.

     But as much as movies and tv shows can teach a writer, they cannot teach writers how to write novels even when the show is based on a novel.  There's so much that is left out.  Description, for example.  That's a novelist's art.  Setting a scene is another thing that movies can't teach.  These things are both done visually in movies and tv shows but must be done with words in a novel.  Another thing that can't be learned from movies is how to structure a chapter.  An aspiring novelist can only learn that from novels.

     So what do you do if, like my friend, you want to write  novels but you have difficult in reading them due to dyslexia, optical migraines or other issues? Listen to them.  Just as libraries are a good resource for obtaining written versions of plays, they also have audio books.  While there are still a few formatting things that a writer can't learn from audio books, listening to a book will help the aspiring novelist understand how novels are put together.  So no excuses!  If you really want to be a novelist, go explore and study novels.  It doesn't matter if you read them or listen to them, but you must get to know them.  Intimately.