Better Story Telling = Writing + Reading2
Just as deep space travel depends on the relationship of energy to the mass of an object times the speed of light squared (e=mc2 for all those not familiar with Einstein's theory of relativity), being a great writer also depends on universal principles. In fact, the difference between a hobby writer and a great story teller is very similar to the difference between an amateur astronomer and, say, Galileo Galilei. One enjoys spending a couple of hours a week using his instrument to scan the sky and, occasionally, happens upon something interesting. The other completely immerses himself in his field, applying what he already knows to come up with new ideas that completely change how we think about ourselves and our universe.
Nicolas Copernicus studied the pioneering works of Aristarchus before developing his own revolutionary views on heliocentrism. Isaac Newton often pondered the moon's orbit around the Earth while gazing from his bedroom window at apples falling from a tree in his mother's garden (contrary to so many cartoon stories, he was not struck in the head). In fiction, Doctor Victor Frankenstein pored through books, spending years in laboratory research before assembling his fateful beast.
The point is this: in order to be better writers, we need to be better readers. That means reading...a lot! A couple of years ago, I sat down at my computer with a burning desire to write science fiction. Needless to say, I'm still trying to finish the same story. I realized one of my biggest obstacles was the fact I was trying to write science fiction, but it had been years since I had actually read any science fiction. I was out of practice, out of vocabulary, out of style, out of research, out of context. I was trying to write the science fiction I remembered as a kid without realizing that science fiction had progressed and surpassed everything I remembered.
As the year 2012 rolled around, I made a commitment to myself and to my writing. I made a list of books I wanted to read this year and use the opportunity they afforded me to study the craft of published writers in my genre. I wanted to learn how they wrote, how they captured my imagination, how they allowed me to visualize the worlds they created, how they made me keep turning pages long into the night when I should be sleeping, how they expressed the messages they felt needed to be told about humanity and the fate of our world.
My goal was twelve books, one for each month, with a promise that I would learn from the best and the worst. Even if I didn't like a book, I would read it and finish it and learn why I didn't like it, making mental notes about what worked and--just as importantly--what didn't so I wouldn't make the same mistakes.
So the key to good writing is good reading and reading a lot, which is why reading gets an exponential square in the equation above. We're just ending the first quarter of the year, and I've already read my twelve novels for the year. Here's the list:
Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov
House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
The Atlantis Code by Charles Brokaw
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Changelings by Anne McCaffrey
Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
A Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
The Bradbury Report by Steven Polansky
War of the Worlds by HG Wells
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Daniel X by James Patterson
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
Granted, most of these were in audiobook format during my daily commute to and from work. But the format doesn't matter. And I'm not stopping with just these twelve. I've discovered that listening to audio books is by far preferable to hearing Adele lament for the bazillionth time about love lost. Think about it, how many times can you really hear the same song over and over again before you tire of hearing it? And I don't miss in any way all the talk and commercials on the radio.
It was Isaac Newton who once said, "If I have seen further it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." The important thing is to read a lot and learn from the masters how to construct a compelling story. Read a lot and write a lot and little by little your writing will improve until, one day, you can see further because the high road on which you travelled was paved by those who came before you. Happy reading!