If you want to write, you must read a lot is a useful advice. However, like most proclamations with an almost religious vibe, they have a long string of caveats and exceptions which, although commonsensical, cannot be packed along with the original statements without diminishing their gravitas. To put it bluntly, the advice only works if your read good material, and sometimes not even then.
Not only what you read has to be “good,” an adjective that implies value and, therefore, the ability to discriminate (something that terrifies a lot of people,) but relevant to your goal as an artist and your craft. Obviously, you are not going to learn how to write science fiction by reading Victorian romance novels or Nature Poetry (your descriptions of alien landscapes may be awesome, though.)
Besides, sometimes, what is considered good is, in fact, horrible. For example, there are now whole generations of young writers who have imbibed the rules of their craft at college, and you know they studied literary criticism, sociology, media studies, or something like that because their texts sound, look, and are as painful to read as badly translated French and as exciting and fulfilling as a rice cracker diet.
Sometimes, reading great stuff may not even be the best course of action since you are too hooked and committed to the text to actually analyze and study why it is great. Or worse, you are so used to read garbage that you simply won’t see greatness even if it were dancing naked in front of you.
Now, before you fall to despair and run off to jump off a cliff, I should mention that a bit of humility, attention to detail, and a desire to improve is all you need to sidestep these pitfalls. Also, avoid the academic and culturati worlds like the plague. Trust me, I was there, and it took me years to start writing like a normal human being again.
What can you do? Well, two exercises I sometimes do to improve my technique are various forms of almost-random description exercises and -the subject of this post- rewriting chapters of books. Basically, you pick a not-really-great-and-almost-bad-but-still-edible book and rewrite it to make it better while maintaining its core elements, style, purpose, syntax, grammar as long as it’s correct, etc. The goal is to realize what mental picture the writer was trying to evoke, how it failed, and then do it better, perhaps only rearranging the text a bit and adding a few things here and there.
In my experience, sff novels from established settings like Forgotten Reals, Shadowrun, and things like that are excellent material as they are action-packed, mildly entertainment, usually not very well written (but they are not really BAD either,) but have a lot of hidden potential. In any event, I think these books are perfect material for improvement especially if you are already into sff or want to write that kind of stuff (if Contemporary Urban Realism is your thing, you will probably have to look elsewhere, of course.) Also, because their language is somewhat simple, you won’t find yourself unable to improve them, unlike some more pretentious genres or styles, which are bad and impossible to fix (try to fix a gender studies paper!)
A few days ago I started reading The Rage, by Richard Lee Byers (a very prolific fantasy writer,) a novel about dragons going postal and killing everything that moves. I don’t know why, perhaps for the lulz (I haven’t finished it.) In any event, this is how the novel starts (try to guess what the writer wanted to convey, and how it may have missed that goal):
[By the way, you can read that and more in the Amazon sample]
The world changed in an instant.
Before that moment, it seemed to Dorn Graybrook that life was perfect. The nine-year-old boy rarely escaped his round of chores in the master’s cheerless house, and it was only to run errands through the city with its surly crowds and high gray walls that blocked the sun. Today, though …
Open expanses of tall grass, shimmering in the summer heat, rolled away on either side of the dusty road. The snow-crowned Dragonspine Mountains rose far ahead, and sometimes Dorn caught a glimpse of the purple-blue waters of the Moonsea to the north. He was outside, truly outside, and he loved it.
The best thing of all, though, was the change the journey evoked in his parents. At home, they often seemed sad and weary, worn down by their years of servitude.
Mother, who’d opted to walk for a time among the half dozen guards, sang songs. As Father drove the wagon, he joked with the boy seated beside him and told him things about the countryside. Sometimes the balding bondsman with the wry, intelligent face even let Dorn take the reins and guide the two dappled horses himself.
Priam said, “Look!””
I am not going to copy anything more, but he (Priam) is pointing at the dragons, of course.
Now, what is wrong (or, at least, improvable) with that text? To know that you have to infer what the writer was aiming at. It is not difficult to guess that he tried to convey the contrast between three mental pictures: (1) Dorn’s dreary daily life, (2) the “perfect” and exceptional event of being outside of the city, and all of that with (3) the cataclysmic event of being burn to a crisp by a rampaging dragon. It is a standard literary device, akin to a sacrifice: You describe (and improve) the value and uniqueness of something before you destroy it. Otherwise, the reader would not have any reason to care about its destruction.
Does the writer accomplish that goal? Well, yeah, but it could have been much better. Also, keep in mind that these are the first lines of the book, so they should be as close as perfect as possible.
First, the novel starts with “The world changed in an instant” but you only discover what that change means many paragraphs later. That “change” is the dragon’s attack, of course, but only the writer knows about it, not the reader. The next lines don’t help either.
“Before that moment, it seemed to Dorn Graybrook that life was perfect.” Before that moment? What moment? That is a reference to that “change” that we still don’t know about. This sentence sets the reader’s expectations, but the next sentence shatters them when the narration goes back in time and changes its mood with a “The nine-year-old boy rarely escaped his round of chores in the master’s cheerless house, and it was only to run errands through the city with its surly crowds and high gray walls that blocked the sun.“
That’s an odd way to describe a perfect life. You might as well write “My life is perfect and yesterday I suffered a sudden attack of diarrhea.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand what the writer was trying to say. He was trying to say that the life of that child usually sucked, but that day he left the dreary city, and THEN his life seemed perfect, but THEN something changed that too (the freaking dragon.) This could have been achieved with an introductory clause and the use of a past perfect tense instead of a simple past (e.g. “For most of his life, [Dorn] had rarely escaped…”)
Yes, the last sentence “Today, though…” implies that it was only relevant in the past, not today, but I don’t think that is the best way to convey that shift.
I am aware that most sff readers don’t care about these sort of things, but I do and, besides, it’s great practice. Here’s my rewritten version of those paragraphs, without any drastic change, only rearranging a few sentences, removing a few words, and adding some others. I boldened the most important changes.
The nine-year-old boy, Dorn Graybrook, rarely escaped his round of chores in his master’s cheerless house. And when that happened, it was only to run errands through the city’s surly crowds, with its high gray walls that blocked the sun. Today, though, was different.
Open expanses of tall grass, shimmering in the summer heat, rolled away on either side of the dusty road. The snow-crowned Dragonspine Mountains rose far ahead, and sometimes Dorn caught a glimpse of the purple-blue waters of the Moonsea to the north. He was truly outside, and Dorn loved it.
Best of all was the change the journey evoked in his parents. At home, they often seemed sad and weary, worn down by years of servitude. But not now, and at that moment it seemed to Dorn Graybrook that his life was perfect.
Mother had opted to walk for a time with the half-dozen guards, and happily sang songs with them. Father, driving the wagon, joked with the boy seated beside him and told him about the countryside. Sometimes, the balding bondsman with the wry, intelligent face let Dorn take the reins and guide the two dappled horses.
But that world changed in an instant when the sergeant of the guards pointed at the western sky and screamed, “Look!”
I think it’s better now. Scream at me in the comments section if you think I’m wrong.