5 Ways Reading Shapes You As an Author By Heather Day Gilbert
I don’t think I’ve stopped reading since the day I learned to read, back when I was around four years old. I still remember turning those pages to The Little Engine that Could and feeling sheer awe that I could read it for myself.
I was actually moved up a grade due to the fact that I was reading above the level of my peers. I remember discussing the option with my principal—I was in the first grade—and I have never regretted making the choice to skip to second grade, even though that’s meant I’m always at least a year younger than my classmates.
I continued to devour books in high school, reading through every book my library had by Agatha Christie, Phyllis Whitney, and Daphne du Maurier (I sense a mystery/suspense theme here). Then college came along, and my eyes were opened to the classics. Plays like Hedda Gabler, books like The Great Gatsby, poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay, all of these became a part of who I was.
Now that I have children and I’m an author, I no longer have time to lose myself in classics. Instead, I tend to read novels by my contemporaries, but that’s not a bad thing. Here’s why:
Reading helps us grow as authors. We can discover what kinds of books we enjoy and pattern our writing after those. Below are five ways reading shapes you as an author:
1) As readers, we can watch how authors handle point of view. There are so many options here, I won’t list them all, but it’s a great exercise to make note of what point(s) of view you enjoy most. I discovered that if I pick up a book and read through the first chapter, a first-person point of view will hook me faster than a third-person POV. It follows that first-person is the point of view that comes most naturally to me as an author.
2) We might also be drawn to a certain length of story. I tend to enjoy shorter reads that pack a punch, like the short stories I read growing up. So it’s not surprising that none of my novels are over 100,000 words.
3) We’ll also discover certain styles of books that tend to draw us in. Some of my favorite books have surprised me in some way. Although I’ll definitely read something if I can guess the ending, it has to be really well-written and I have to be totally invested in the characters. As an author, I try to surprise myself a little with each book I write, so I can maintain that element of unpredictability with my readers.
4) And speaking of characters you’re invested in, you’re probably a plot-oriented or a character-oriented reader. I’ll admit that I need depth of character, or even the most heart-pounding plotline will fall flat for me. I need flaws and family relationships, and I need to glimpse the psychology behind the decisions the protagonists and villains make. These are the kinds of books I seek out, and this is the kind of book I tend to write.
5) The style of prose is another thing you’ll notice as a reader. Do you prefer a story that reads like a poem, or something more simply worded? Do you like bursts of beauty or unusual analogies? While I appreciate unusual analogies and beautiful phraseology as much as the next girl, I also value simplicity. I don’t like to feel the author is working too hard to fit each word into an elaborate poetic template. So I tend to write simply, inserting those analogies and poetic phrases only where they seem to fall naturally.
As an author, I want to keep developing my writing style, and one of the best ways to do that is to read profusely. The Classical method of homeschooling uses this approach—to learn to paint like the masters, you copy the masters. To learn to write like the authors who’ve gone down in history, you need to read those writers and copy stylistic habits that resonate (disclaimer: you know I’m not advocating plagiarism!). Often you can tell which students are the best-read by the techniques they’ve employed in their writing.
So even if you’re a busy author, set aside some time for reading. And, like I tell my kids, never stop learning.
HEATHER DAY GILBERT, a Grace Award winner and bestselling author, writes novels that capture life in all its messy, bittersweet, hope-filled glory. Born and raised in the West Virginia mountains, generational story-telling runs in her blood. Heather writes Viking historicals and contemporary mystery/suspense. Publisher’s Weekly gave Heather’s Viking historical Forest Child a starred review, saying it is “an engaging story depicting timeless human struggles with faith, love, loyalty, and leadership.” Heather is represented by Julie Gwinn of The Seymour Agency. Find out more on heatherdaygilbert.com.