Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘reading to write’

R is for Read, Just Read!



Writers must read. It’s where we get the idea that we can do that too – write books. Don’t copy. Duplicity is the realm of cheaters and frauds. Anyone can plagiarize. Anyone can steal. Only I can write. Maybe you as well. But before you put your pen to the page, read. A lot. All kinds of books.

Start with the works of William Shakespeare, because you can’t go wrong with anything he wrote. Yes, he wrote plays and sonnets, but the man was a master of everything story – character, plot and subplot, historical reference, humor, drama, story arc, metaphor, symbolism. Find a poetic or suggestive title in the bookstore? It may have originated from a line Shakespeare first wrote. Consider these famous books whose titles are sourced from the plays of the Bard. The newer books are all the richer if you also know the inspiration.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, from The Tempest, Miranda’s line, “O, brave new world That has such people in’t.”  A monster might be no more cruel than ordinary souls full of wrath, and the storm within is as threatening as the one on the shore.

John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent, from Richard III, King Richard’s line, “Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” History as warning to rulers that justice will ultimately prevail. Do they ever learn?

Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked this Way Comes, from Macbeth, the Second Witch’s line, “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.” Curses and the urge for power go a very long way to inciting ruin.

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, also from Macbeth, Macbeth’s line, “It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury.” Madness reigns and evil lurks when morals are bankrupt.

The Bible is another pinnacle of inspiration. I have no interest in converting you to my religion or even encouraging you to join any religion at all, and I won’t label you as anything but poorly read if you have no idea what might be found in the book. If you want to know something about life in all its complex permutations and messy consequences, if you might be intrigued by true awesomeness, the Bible is an exceptional beginning. Here is a smattering of books whose titles and story provocations are taken from the Bible, a book already so plumbed for ideas that even if you’ve never read it, it will sound familiar when you do. You can read any version to find the references.

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, from the eponymous Song of Solomon, sometimes called the Song of Songs, one of the Five Scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, or Tanahk. This is a love poem and a festival of passion worthy of a blush or two.

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, from 2 Samuel, chapter 19, King David mourns, “O my son , Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died.” It’s hard to find any passage exposing a man more bereft.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden, from Genesis, chapter 4, “and Cain went out from this presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.” Banishment to the farthest corner of the world for the worst of sins.

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, from Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, “The sun also ariseth and the sun goeth down.” Ecclesiastes questions everything considered of value and demands attention to probing one’s own place in the world according to their personal virtue or lack of.

John Grisham, A Time to Kill, also from Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven…a time to kill and a time to heal.” Even murder has its foundation in the Bible, juxtaposed with living.

This portion of Ecclesiastes is so popular that you can find a book penned by someone inspired by nearly every line. It’s a list of daily attributions of life, and just about everything except bug collecting made it. My third book is written in 24 chapters, and originally I assigned each one a title taken from chapter 3. I eventually changed the chapter titles to a simpler format, but it wouldn’t take much of a sleuth to figure out which season’s time fits each section. I may yet be persuaded to return to the words of Ecclesiastes.

Turn to literary classics for other great reads, including books by: Louisa May Alcott, Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Jane Austin, Saul Bellow, Emily Bronte, Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens, E. L. Doctorow, Fyodor Dostoevski, Emily Dickenson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, Homer, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Harper Lee, Gabriel Macias Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov, Pablo Neruda, Flannery O’Conner, Ann Patchett, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe, Marcel Proust, J. D. Salinger, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, John Updike, Elie Wiesel, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, and William Butler Yeats.

You’ve noticed that some are poets, some are playwrights, many are novelists, and perhaps some haven’t been dead long enough, or at all, to be considered classic in your mind. It’s a mighty long list and it would be much longer were I to list everyone who should be on the roster.  Many of my favorite novelists are not, though their works are in my library. Haven’t read any or many of these writers? Time to pull up the easy chair and turn off the TV and the computer. Reading is your course of study if you want to be a writer. These works will show you how it’s done, how to improve your work, the goal toward which you should be heading.

Add your own favorite authors, especially those who write in your chosen genres. Give every book a chance but don’t tarry over any tome that makes your brain ache or gets you snoozing. If an author excites or touches you, go for the body of their work, spot the constancy or independence of their voice, their inventiveness, the return of favorite characters and repeated themes. Pay attention as you read, taking note of the craftsmanship, style, and literary elements.

We read to be entertained and elucidated, to learn about the world we aren’t part of, or moments hundreds of years past, or cultures entirely unlike our own, or circumstances too bizarre to fathom. We writers must also read to discover the skill of the masters, to spot the insight that marks great writing, to understand the mechanics of story structure. Submit to the knowledge that some – many – writers are much better than you, and use that as a model for your admiration and enlightenment. Consider how fortunate we are: the biggest whale, the most gorgeous flower, the shiniest gold nugget cannot read. Only people can.

Be wise and engage in intentional reading. But most of all, read.

Books image,, Google, public domain

P is for Plotting a Story

The Kid in the second row had already proven adept at reading books, especially children’s classics like Heidi and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. When her teacher explained that students would be required to read books at home and write book reports, she didn’t worry at all. No groaning, no pouting, no kicking her legs out the bottom of her desk and pooching her lips over her chin like some of the other kids. Reading was her escape, her life on a kinder planet, and writing fell in as a natural side kick. What threw the Kid for a loop was the next requirement: every month, students would select a different category of book, and that first book in September was to be a mystery.


See, the Kid identified every book as a mystery. She never saw the next pitfall until Heidi or Tom fell into it, she never knew the ending till she got to the last page and read the final words. She was a perfect reader, entranced by each moment and always surprised as if she’d unwrapped an extraordinary gift. Books were a mystery, each and every one of them. So what did Miss O’Rourke mean by the need to choose a mystery book? It would be many years before the Kid understood her teacher had tried to make the first month’s selection an easy one. Every kid in the class liked Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, the classic kids’ mystery books. All twenty-nine of the other kids got it right that first month, having chosen The Secret of the Old Clock or The Tower Treasure. The Kid chose Black Beauty, a touching story about a horse but not a mystery. Several months of the wrong kinds of books chosen for whatever the category, and Miss O’Rourke finally coaxed the Kid by offering a list of appropriate suggestions. Reading had never been the problem – figuring out what comprised a certain kind of book had.

The Kid liked to write stories almost as much as reading them. Her confusion over genre choices took a bite out of her original work in similar fashion. Being told her entire young life not to talk, she’d become phenomenally gifted at silent observation. It translated into mastery at describing people and things. She wrote floridly about New Jersey’s yellow sky, and the prickly blueberry brambles along a lake in the Catskills. She captured the syrupy, exploding bite of a soda pop, and the silky touch of a bunny’s fur. Problem was, her writing resembled the character descriptions in a book report – no action followed. What happened while she sipped her cola and petted the bunny? Well, the Kid didn’t know either. She hadn’t yet figured out a plot for any of her childish stories. Uncertain about genre, unfamiliar with plot construction, her early stories ended before anything happened.

Years of writing and reading and classes, the Kid finally started writing about escapades that happened to the characters into her stories. They caught nasty people who stole what wasn’t theirs, got lost on the way to the beach, participated in canoe races, and struggled to find ways to overcome all obstacles. Nothing exciting, but the loose idea of story arc had taken hold, and the Kid infused her later writing with plots. She wrote her Tammy or Benjamin into a problem situation, usually weak and unimaginative, and then wrote them out of it, usually too conveniently and quickly to be exciting.

How did she figure it out? She continued to read, but finally with a critical eye toward what went on in published stories. The orphan Heidi, kidnapped from her beloved grandfather’s home in the mountains and sent to the city where she serves as a companion to a girl in a wheelchair, longs to return to the Alps until she’s ill with yearning, and eventually goes home. Tom, also an orphan, raised by his aunt, and mischievous as an untrained puppy, tries to live as independently as possible and gets himself into a variety of scrapes and scares before recommending that his good friend Huckleberry Finn, about as independent as a kid can be, allow himself to be adopted. There are lessons here about family and community, fairness and justice, and the Kid decided that a moral lesson wasn’t a bad interjection to a good story. Stories had beginnings, endings, problems in between, a sense of right and wrong, and the logic to connect everything before The End planted its finality on the last page.

The Kid became an adult and wrote three novels, (not yet published) struggled with character development, story arc, moral conundrums, and tantalizing conclusions. She continues to read, now with attention to how professional writers master the individual parts of story. If you would like a few of her adult recommendations, try these, all of which exhibit enticing and complex plots with surprise endings: In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant; Atonement by Ian McEwan; Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins; Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris; Life of Pi by Yann Martel; The Thirteenth Tale by Dianne Setterfield; and her all time favorite, To Kill A Mockingbird by the late Harper Lee. She’s loved these so much that she’s read each at least twice.

Miss O’Rourke wanted to nurture avid readers out of her class of thirty young students. For one student at least, she also helped birth a writer. So the Kid grew up and she still thinks every book is a mystery, just maybe not the traditional there’s-a-dead-body-in-the-hallway-and-I-have-no-idea-who-killed-him variety. She has absolutely no idea how to write that kind of story. But she loves to write tales in other genres, with clever plots.