Monday, April 26, 2010

To Be a Writer: Read, Read, Read. But...

Last week, I had the pleasure of working with Linda Sue Park and Ed Young at the American Embassy School of New Delhi, India. We were the featured authors at AES's annual Authors' Week. During one of our many dinners together, Linda Sue and I talked about the importance of reading children's books as a prerequisite to writing children's books. Linda Sue is a Newbury Award-winning novelist and picture book author. Although she is essentially a fiction writer, the crafts of writing fiction and non-fiction probably have more in common than they have differences, and the need for reading is surely a commonality.

Linda Sue has posted something about reading for writing on her website, I am traveling in India this week, checking email intermittently at internet cafes (and wondering why they call themselves cafes when they serve neither coffee nor tea nor anything else one can drink or eat). For this post -- if I can squeeze it out before the power goes off again -- I am going to quote this portion of Linda Sue's website, and then comment upon it briefly.

The Importance of Reading

Read. That's the single best thing an aspiring writer can do for his or her work. I once heard an editor say, "Read a thousand books of the genre you're interested in. THEN write yours."

I was astonished and pleased to hear her say this--because that's exactly what I did. During the years when I had no thought of writing for children (see About the Author), I read and read and read. Middle-grade novels. Hundreds of them--easily more than a thousand. Then I wrote mine--and it sold on its first submission. Luck? Coincidence? Maybe...but I doubt it.

My personal reading list draws from a wide variety of genres. I love middle-grade novels best, but I also read Young Adult novels and picture books. I read adult literary fiction, mysteries and nonfiction. I read poetry. I love books on food and travel. Whether a wondrous story or a hilarious passage of dialogue or a beautiful sentence or a memorable image, every bit of reading I do helps my own writing. The rhythm of language and the way words combine to communicate more than their dictionary meanings infuse the serious reader's mind and emerge transformed when that reader sits down to write.

That's really the best possible advice I could give any writer--read. But I find that folks are often disappointed with this advice, so I'll offer a few more basic tips.

Please do read Linda Sue's valuable tips ( but that's all I will quote here. I agree with absolutely everything she says on this subject and I would encourage any writer, whether previously published or not, to read extensively. But there is a "but." The "but" has to do with my own early experience as a writer. Question: How many children's books in the mathematical genre did I read before writing my first book, How Much Is a Million? Answer: none.

This is only in part because there weren't many back in the late 70's and early 80's when I was working on the disorganized morass of handwritten and typed pages that eventually coalesced into that book. Mainly it is because I didn't think of myself as a writer and I guess I didn't take my project seriously. I had no idea if what I was working on would ever become a book. I simply had an idea that went back to my childhood fascination with big numbers, and I wondered if I could turn it into something anyone would want to read. In writing it, I just went with my instincts.

Perhaps -- though I'm not really sure-- this had something to do with the content of the telephone call I eventually got telling my that my manuscript was going to be published. "It's so original," said Barbara Lalicki, senior editor at Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books. "We've seen plenty of number book manuscripts, but we've never seen one like this."

Original. Would my manuscript have been considered so original if I had read a thousand books before reading it? Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know but I have a hunch that my naivite had something to do with the ultimate product.

Yet I completey agree with Linda Sue. And here's an irony. In preparing to write the 50 books since that one, I have always read as extensively as I could. But is any of these books as original as my first one? I have no idea. Please feel free to weigh in with your two rupees. I have to sign off because they're about to close the internet cafe. Namaste.


Loreen Leedy said...

An excellent reminder. When I first thought about creating a picture book, I sat down in the public library and paged through picture book after picture book, noting what worked well and was inspiring about various illustrations, layouts, and ways of writing. I also agree that it's possible to limit your potential ideas by seeing what already has been done... but I'm so good at forgetting these days, it doesn't seem like too much of a problem!

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

I used to purposely ignore the writing part of most (but not all) other children's books so that my work would be totally original. Now I read all the kids' books about my nonfiction topics before I begin to write just to make sure that I come up with material and perspectives that are not included in any of them. For pleasure (and to see what great writing looks like), I read books completely unrelated to my work.