Reading good books is like throwing grain into the field of your brain. You’re filling your brain with stories, thinking over ideas and concepts that other writers have poured out onto the page. In the past few weeks, I’ve read or read parts of a classic sci-fi novel (Dune by Frank Herbert), a Gothic novel (Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Zafón), Augustine’s Confessions, a children’s book (Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet), and most of the book of Job. Keeping a large and varied reading list helps me to feel deeply, to learn from other writers, and to come up with new story ideas.
Always read a great deal, because it’s the best way to keep your brain up to the task of writing. When I read Job, and I suffer alongside him, I become more able to show suffering in my own writing. When I feel Daniel’s betrayal in Shadow of the Wind, I can funnel that hurt and emotion into my own writing. Stories have an incredible way of bringing powerful emotions to the surface — emotions that I can then tap in to when I sit down to my own blank page.
Not only that, but a good book can be a textbook for your own writing. Again, to pull from some recent examples: Zafón has incredible atmosphere. The pictures he paints of WWII-era Spain are simply incredible, and they present a vivid canvas for his characters to live in. Balliet writes great storylines that weave and duck and twist around and around. Augustine is painfully personal, with a narration that’s beautiful and honest. Herbert writes stories that feel incredibly, vividly real above anything else, immersing you in a world that seems like it must exist somewhere in the galaxy. All of these are great qualities: qualities I’d love to learn.
Finally, reading helps me to come up with new story ideas. This is a little different than outright plagiarism: when I read, all of the stories overlap and mix around in my head. It’s not so much that I’m stealing specific pieces from specific stories, but more that I’m immersed in all the ingredients of a story, and many of those may find their way into my own writing.
When I don’t read, I can’t write. Obviously, getting words on the page will always be your first and most essential requirement in writing. But just after that, for me, is always keeping a big palette of books on hand. I don’t read other books to plagiarize from them, but to keep my imagination fresh. When I sit down to write, my head is spinning with Spanish romances, long epic monologues, and a thrilling art mystery. Who knows, maybe a few fragments will break off into my own story.