I was lucky enough to have Sarah Bower as my mentor on a year-long ‘Apprenticeship in Fiction’ scheme, which I undertook a few years ago. She combined rigorous feedback on my writing with encouraging and realistic guidance, based on her vast experience as a writer and teacher. In the following piece she discusses why writers need to develop the skills of critical reading.
Striptease with Emily Bronte
Adapted from an article originally published in Words With Jam
‘Of course, you’ll never read for pleasure again,’ opined one of my predecessors on the UEA Creative Writing MA when I told her I had a place. (Writing for pleasure, it was understood, was not something either of us did because it’s damn hard work.)
I do still enjoy reading, but my fellow novelist had a point. You can’t write if you don’t read. Whether or not creativity can be taught isn’t for discussion here, but there’s no doubt you need certain technical skills if you are to be creative. You can’t embroider if you don’t know your chain stitch from your blanket stitch, and you can’t build furniture if you have no idea how to dovetail. There are just such basic skills needed to write fiction, and one of them is the ability to read ‘properly’. This means reading with analytical care and precision, weighing a book, not just as a whole work, but sentence by sentence, word by word if need be, excavating its bones to find out precisely how it’s put together.
Why is this skill useful to the writer? I have had students who said they never read at all. At best, they don’t have time to read because they’re too busy writing. Well, let’s take a step back and ask what it is that makes us become writers. Words are for the writer what images are for the painter, a way of making sense of the world, of attempting to arrive at the essential truths that drive human behaviour. If writers invest words with such power, it surely makes sense for the beginning writer to read other people’s words and see how they have gone about the task on which she is about to embark.
I suspect some of those who don’t read are driven by arrogance, by a sense that what they have to say is so original that no other writer’s work can have any relevance for them. Others, however, who are not only humbler but more conscientious and, in my view, more likely to succeed, fear that too much reading will inhibit their ability to develop an individual voice and style of their own. Of course you’ll be influenced by writing which evokes a strong response in you, whether you despair at ever being able to approach such brilliance yourself or vow to go out and shoot yourself if you end up writing like…insert your own bête noir here. But there’s nothing wrong with influences. All artists acknowledge influences; it’s a way of expressing gratitude to those who have inspired us and of locating our work in the canon.
At the outset of your writing career you might think locating yourself in the canon is hubristic, but it is, in fact, a practical thing to do. If, for example, your strength and preference lies in writing plot driven stories, with a lot of twists and turns, cliff hangers and shock endings, it will be useful for you to read other writers whose work includes these features. Put that way, you can see immediately what a broad category this is, embracing everyone from Ian McEwan to James Patterson, Val McDiarmid to John Le Carre. Where are you on the spectrum? The best way to find this out is to read as widely as you can until you discover the writer or writers whose work speaks most directly to you. This will help you, not only in developing your own style but also, further down the line, in thinking about how to market your work. ‘Thomas Harris meets J. K. Rowling in this gripping tale of cannibalism and magic in an English public school’ may not actually get you an agent or a publisher…well, it might…
So let’s look at what good critical reading entails. For me, and perhaps for you, it began early. Family legend has it I drove my parents to distraction by insisting they read me the same bedtime stories over and over again. If they tried to jump the odd page or paragraph in order to get to their evening gin and tonic more quickly I would pick them up because I knew the text by heart and could spot their subterfuge. The enjoyment of re-reading has stayed with me. I re-read Wuthering Heights every year and still marvel at Heathcliff’s impassioned rage against the dead Cathy for leaving him behind. In my teens I became so entranced by Virginia Woolf’s The Waves I began transcribing whole passages of it in my journal. I’ve gone on doing this throughout my writing life, the last time being a passage about heartbreak from Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate in the translation by Robert Chandler. Copying out extracts of novels, stories or poems helps you to engage with them in a much more intimate way than you do by merely reading them. It feels, to me, like a process of ‘undressing’ the text, or perhaps, even, of peeling away its skin to reveal its inner workings.
But why do this? As a writer, if you read something which blows you away, you instinctively start to work out how it was done. Copying out another writer’s words, which means reading them slowly, savouring them and analysing how they’re strung together, can reveal how they’ve achieved the effect that has moved you so powerfully. Copying – as long as you do it in the privacy of your personal journal – is a good way to begin to train yourself to become a good critical reader. It forces you to slow down; if you’re copying, you can’t skim. It also helps in committing passages to memory, ready for you to dredge up when you need them as guidance.
Becoming a good critical reader doesn’t take the pleasure out of reading, it intensifies it. Total immersion in marvellous writing is ecstatic – humbling, but also inspirational. It reminds me, not just of the difficulty of the task the novelist sets herself, but also of why it’s worth continuing the struggle.
Sarah Bower is a prize-winning novelist and short story writer. Her novels, THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD and the international bestselling SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA (originally published in the UK as THE BOOK OF LOVE) have been translated into nine languages. She has written short fiction for magazines, anthologies and radio.
Sarah has taught creative writing for over ten years, at the University of East Anglia, the Open University and the Unthank School of Writing. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she is currently based in her role as co-ordinator of the mentorship scheme for literary translators run by the British Centre for Literary Translation. She will be writer in residence at Lingnan University in Hong Kong from January to May 2014.
You can follow Sarah on Facebook and Twitter.