Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Learning writing from reading

With the twenty-four hour read-a-thon happening again this weekend, I’ve been thinking about the one piece of advice that authors, agents, publishers, editors – everyone in the writing business, really – are constantly giving new writers.


You learn the craft of writing by seeing what others have done; by reflecting on what works and what doesn’t. You can study plot, characterisation, setting, and structure – not by reading how-to books, but by reading widely.

Some important things that I’ve learnt so far about writing, and the books I’ve learnt them from:

1. Smaller chapters make for easy reading - UGLIES by Scott Westerfeld

2. Protagonists don’t always have to be reliable - LIAR by Justine Larbalestier

3. If done right, having multiple protagonists can give a story many rich layers - TO THE GENTLEMAN IN THE BACK by Alicia Blade (aka Marissa Meyer). You can find the story here.

4. Middle grade does not limit your audience to just children - The HARRY POTTER series by J.K. Rowling

5. Epilogues to give ultra-happy endings don’t necessarily equate to ultra-happy readers - HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K. Rowling

6. Stories don’t need romance to be fun - CHRONICLES OF NARNIA by C.S. Lewis; RONDO series by Emily Rodda

7. Having a witty, cheeky protagonist means you can get away with writing epistolaries - DADDY LONG LEGS by Jean Webster

8. A well-placed twist can make the whole story - AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS by Jules Verne

I could go on for pages. Reading is the best way to improve your writing.

Now it’s your turn. What have you learnt about writing from reading?


  1. When you mentioned #5 I always think of this review of Kick A**

    I think the same problem Luke points out here is applied to Harry Potter, or any other book that takes you on an emotional roller coaster and then gives you a cutesy, boxy epilogue.

    Anyway, great post! Too bad I won't be participating this time in the read-a-thon (and I was so looking forward to it!)

  2. Shame you can't join us! This is my first one, and I have so many books to read. Very much looking forward to it :)

  3. What a great post! I guess I learned a great deal about world-building/setting through small details from Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves and Before I Die by Jenny Downham, and the awesome power of sentence structure and punctuation to convey emotion/voice from Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott and the Wake-Fade-Gone series by Lisa McMann.

  4. Oh no, world building!!! I can't believe I forgot to include Scott Westerfeld's LEVIATHAN series!

    Thanks for the additions. I'll have to check them out!

  5. Reading books that I love always reminds me why I want to be a writer. I want to create something that people will enjoy. That they will put down with satisfaction and whose characters will stay in their hearts.

    Reading books I don't like also remind me why I want to be writer. I want to create something so much better than that. Something that challenges people and their perspectives and shows that there is more to our world than stereotypes and cookie cutter romances. In many ways, we are what we read, and it scares me when I read a popular book that is really, really bad because it affects so many people. So many people begin to think that what is in that book is normal...

    blah, I'm rambling. Wonderful post as always!

  6. Hee, I love these sort of lists. I did one of my own not long after Marissa blogged about the books that had influenced her. (Mine can be found here:

    I really want to participate in the read-a-thon over the weekend. Very much hoping I'll be able to :D

  7. Meg - love your passion!

    Samantha - I totally forgot that Marissa blogged a similar list! This was a little different, only because I gave specifics as to WHY these books influenced me.

    And don't worry, I read all the blog posts that related to it, including yours!

  8. Ha, I do actually have a proper response for this but not enough time to write it since I'm procrastinating whilst in study mode.

    Anyway. Such a great post though (actually, this applies to the rest of your posts here as well, I'm just a million years late in actually replying to one of them) and I really LOLed at #5!

    Maaaaaan now I'm inspired to start a proper blog too. (Along with all the other million things you keep inspiring me to do, if only I had as much willpower! <3)

  9. The first five that come to me:

    -Villains are people, too. Sometimes, their stories are the most interesting ones of all. Wicked by Gregory Maguire
    -You don't always need a "happily ever after" to write an amazing book that gets under people's skin and leaves them thinking about your story and no other. My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
    -Paranormal can be funny. It doesn't have to be too serious and angsty with the romance to be good. Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins
    -The family unit ISN'T dead. If your MC's family members are characterized well enough, readers will be involved and want to know what happens to THEM, too. Unearthly by Cynthia Hand
    -You don't need to incorporate every aspect of a fairy tale--even the physical parts most readily recognized--to write a good fairy tale. Heart's Blood by Juliet Marillier

  10. Gina - if you have the time to keep a blog, you definitely should, if only for platform-building!

    ABS - Those are really great lessons. Can you believe I still haven't read Wicked? I must put that on my list!

  11. Love this post and people's comments on this too.

    What I learned from the Harry Potter series was that great stories aren't necessarily just what appears on the surface. Each HP character could have their own novel, each magical concept have own background... I think it only really started to hit me how complex and how many THINGS were in the story when I started reading Harry Potter fanfiction like Prelude To Destiny, Every Other Midnight.

    Still undecided whether I'll do the readathon- I am way way way too tired to stay up for 24 hrs, and I have something on for 3-4 hours smack in the middle of the 24 hrs :S Ahh, well, there's always next time...

  12. I'm doing it in solid blocks instead of one big marathon. That way I can sleep! :)