Writers need to read beyond our comfort zone, and branch out to embrace genres and styles we don’t normally approach, because otherwise we run the risk of becoming self-absorbed.
Reading works we wouldn’t normally consider widens our perspective, improves our style, and opens windows to other ways of telling different kinds of stories.
We need to reach out synchronically, to contemporary works, and diachronically, to works of other literary periods, in order to know what’s happening now, and what has been happening for centuries, in the literary world.
Last week I read three wonderful books, and I’m more than half way through a fourth, and although I’ll be reviewing each one separately, I’d like to share my general reflections with you, first, and explain how each book has helped me grow as a writer.
I started off by rereading a classic, which I make a point of doing regularly. They offer us so much intellectually and emotionally that we cannot ignore them.
Classics hold the origin and the substance of our language and thought, reading and rereading them is mandatory for all readers, writers and reviewers.
We are part of a literary heritage which we should honour and add to, by producing works which contribute to the quality and continuity of literature as a means of both describing and reinterpreting our world.
Persuasion, by Jane Austen, has always been one of my favourites, although sadly, this rereading (which will not be the last) has revealed some flaws, it still holds a special place in my literary heart.
When I finished Persuasion, I chanced to find a debut novel by Ellen Quinn, on Twitter. I looked at the blurb, a Regency Romance, so I thought it would be an ideal complement to Persuasion. I skimmed over the first pages on Amazon, and was convinced to give it a go. When I started reading, in depth, I couldn’t put it down!
Reading both novels consecutively has given me plenty of food for thought about what constitutes a good novel, by 21st century standards, and how this conception has progressed over the last two centuries.
I enjoyed the challenge of reflecting on the similarities and differences between both these novels, and how these differences reveal who we are, and how we read and write, today, and how we did so two centuries ago.
I myself am writing a neo Victorian trilogy, so it also helped me reflect upon the similarities and differences between these successive historical periods, Regency and Victorian. The stiff Victorian clothing, aimed at covering every inch of the female body, contrasted starkly with Regency clothing which revealed a major portion of ladies breasts, as Ms. Quinn reminds us:
‘He wanted to groan as he took in the gown’s low neckline that barely encased her ample breasts.’
This would never happen in Victorian social events, because ladies breasts would be well-preserved from male eyes with plenty of silk, gauze, lacing, or other material.
I was able to ponder on this through Ms Quinn’s novel. Jane Austen, of course, had no idea how fashions were going to change, and wasn’t prone to describing clothes in detail, why should she? Her readers knew what they were wearing!
The new Victorian fashions were aimed at curbing sexual desire, promiscuity, and the liberal ideas represented in women’s attire, as well as promoting a renewed religious fervor.
This led me to analyze what makes a good novel, for contemporary readers, but that will be the subject of another post.
The third novel I read is another debut novel, Death on a Red Canvas Chair by one of my new virtual writer friends and blogging sisters, Noelle Granger . Noelle has taught me how important it is to have a thorough plot with plenty of twists and turns, and how including the author’s valuable knowledge and expertise increases authenticity and interest.
The novel I am reading at the moment is the disturbing, yet beautiful, The Death of Bees, another brilliant debut novel, by Lisa O’Donnell, which was recommended and gifted to me by my best friend, Anna, a few months ago. I was not disappointed by Ms O’Donnell’s multiple narrators and tight hold on the surprising narrative.
The last two novels are set in contemporary New England, and Scotland, respectively. They are in no way related to anything I write, yet they have valuable lessons for me as a writer. Noelle has reminded me to tighten my plots, and keep the reader on her toes, while Lisa has taught me that traumatic events can be told with humour and feeling.
The four books have decisive, determined, and brave heroines, who easily bond with the reader. The first three heroines are good at what they do and lead relatively successful lives, and The Death of Bees, well, all the characters are flawed, perhaps too flawed to be likeable.
Reading these books has helped me realize I am attracted to imperfect characters who struggle with their weaknesses. Happy endings are satisfactory, but deep down, they make me feel there’s something missing or unfinished in the narrative.
Reading widely and critically helps me understand why I write the way I do, and it helps me identify what I want to achieve through my stories and characters.
How do I want my readers to feel? Satisfied? Happy? Challenged? Upset?
What do I want my readers to think about? Love? Happiness? The meaning of life, or lack of it?
I’m still exploring what kind of a writer I am, but reading other works helps me understand my own writing style, what I want to accomplish, and how I can get there.
What kind of novels help you grow as a writer?
A special mention to Irene Waters, who contributed to the motivation to write this post, as a result of our exchange of comments on this subject recently. Check out her inspiring blog Reflections and Nightmares.