Although this is the second entry in my “just keep… “ series, this may be the first rule you should keep and the first rule you have probably kept.
(There are people who don’t read much who decide to write novels, maybe because they love TV or video games, but if you don’t have a passion to consume the art form you’re trying to create, I don’t think you’ll be very good.)
One of the most important reasons to just keep reading is to learn through osmosis. Passive consumption works as a form of unconscious learning. You begin to absorb the rhythms of story and prose from the writers that you read. Things begin to get embedded into your instincts and intuition that will come out in your writing. (One reason it’s important to read good fiction.)
You can also do what I call “active reading.” This is when you read fiction with a more critical eye, focusing to recognize the patterns on the page, sitting and analyzing a phrase that had a particularly strong effect on you and to trying to understand why it had that effect. If you come to learn why and how, you will then be able to use those tools and components in your own storytelling.
I find that it is very helpful to look back at a story that I’ve read and analyze it. What made me care? What made me feel? How did the writer achieve getting me through that emotional journey? What worked for me? What didn’t? And, perhaps most importantly, what almost or only partially worked and why or why didn’t it?
As I ponder these things (and write them down), I am more and more able to use the things I’ve learned from my reading in my own writing. I let the fiction I read fill me until I just burst.
I won’t give you a random number of books a year or pages or hours a day, just that you should do it consistently.
The most common writing advice I’ve heard is to “just keep writing.” When I was very new to writing I thought that such advice told me nothing. I had a million questions about writing, so why was that what I heard the most? Just keep trying? Just keep writing?
The key is that practice makes… better. The more you attempt a certain goal, the more able you become at achieving it. Each time you fail and try again, you get better. It took me years of trying and failing to build enough self control to get to the point where I was writing every single day. Not writing well, just writing at all. I wasn’t ready for more answers before then.
The natural man doesn’t have the drive to “just keep writing,” he looks for every excuse not to write. Every failure is actually a success, for each time you fail at writing consistently, you had also tried again. So keep trying, keep failing, and watch the failures become more and more spaced out. The days where I didn’t have the drive to write became further and further apart (habit tracking apps are great for helping with this).
5 years ago I would have never dreamed that I’d be willing to wake at 5:00 AM every single day (including weekends) to write for 2 hours to meet my writing goal.
It’s what transitions you from someone who wants to write to a real writer. Wannabes talk or complain about writing. Real writers, well, they actually write. Once you have mastered the principle of “just keep writing” and you have a consistent writing habit, then you will start to discover your own answers to your other writing questions.
The next piece of advice I would offer is to “Just keep studying the craft.” you don’t have to wait ’til you master “just keep writing” to start working on this skill, but “just keep writing” is more important. I’ll talk about studying craft in a future blog post.
So, here is you first and most important piece of advice:
Just keep writing!
What that really means is “if you fail, try again. This rule does not change. No matter the number of failures.”