I apologize in advance, I usually like to cite my sources. Today’s post is about the writing craft; how and why modern authors need to read modern fiction. This originally came up several months ago in a number of Twitter threads and for the life of me, I cannot find them. However, the main point is this: if you wanna be a modern author, you must read modern fiction.
Let’s discuss why: most of my favorite novels are from the last century. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Caine Mutiny, Neuromancer, selected short stories by Elmore Leonard. I’ll re-read them about once a year because they’re literary comfort food and I enjoy them.
What does that do to you as a writer, though? Just like literal comfort food, the literary version can be unhealthy for your writing and ultimately work against you. I learned this the hard way while drafting Mesh, causing a lot of re-writes.
I’ll give you one example. Re-reading a book after finishing my last draft of Mesh, I found myself editing the prose of the novel the way I had just edited Mesh. Over and over again, I saw the author overusing words like ‘was’ and ‘were’ in many scenes. “Their burns were swathed in thick yellow-stained bandages. There were men with gashes from the exploded ammunition, and one sailor with a crushed foot, swelled to twice its normal size and mottled green. Chief Budge was one of the burned ones.”
Hullo, I realized. He’s overusing those words … I’m doing the same thing! Unconsciously, I had been imitating that same style choice as I wrote Mesh. I did a quick text count – those two words show up about 3,000 times in that entire novel. I’m embarrassed to admit that previous drafts leaned on that style choice more often than it should.
So yes, when reading you find yourself absorbing and consuming not only the story but the writing styles. The result? While you wouldn’t do anything as crass as plagiarizing the material, you do find yourself imitating style choices if you aren’t careful.
That’s when I remembered what other authors had been saying on Twitter. If you’re writing modern fiction, you have to read modern fiction. I didn’t understand what they were saying before, but I do now. Over the past century, writers have found new ways to efficiently communicate ideas and concepts. You’re doing a disservice to yourself if you don’t benefit from their discoveries, learn from their mistakes.
So to sum up this post, read modern fiction. Costs you nothing but time, all the books you’ll need to write in your particular genre are available at the library (or at least they will be, when Coronavirus has passed). I hope you find this piece of advice useful. Now it’s time to get back to work.