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Robert's Rules of Writing #16: Write What You Read

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Masello's sixteenth rule doesn't really need much elaboration, as it's rather straightforward. But that didn't stop him from writing two pages on it, and it's not going to stop me from commenting on it either.

"Write what you read."

Quite simple, really. The best stuff that you will write is the kind of stuff that you most enjoy reading. But what do you most enjoy reading?

Masello has a clever way of helping you find the answer to that question. He asks what kind of book is sitting on your bedside table. Because that's the kind of book you choose to read at the end of the day for pleasure, and therefore that's the kind of book you should be writing.

I've seen this advice from many other writers. Lawrence Block's own story comes to mind. Back in the days when there was a big market for confession stories, Block tried to write one. But he couldn't get past the thought that such stories were mind-numbing, rotten garbage, and consequently, he was never able to write one that was any good. (He once wrote three in an afternoon to fill a hole in a magazine for a desperate editor, and Block says that was some of the hardest money he ever earned.)

I try not to quote Masello's essays directly in my own, but the following is too good not to share:

"If you wouldn't read it, you will not be able to write it."

And that's the gist of it.

As for myself, the books sitting on my bedside table include a lot of science fiction, particularly the works of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Mike Resnick, and Robert J. Sawyer. I've also got some nonfiction, mostly science and history, and -- amusingly enough -- a lot of books on writing. Maybe I should write one of those.

What kind of books are sitting on your bedside table?


Maybe I should write one of those.

perhaps you should; you certainly seem to be enjoying your current series of meta-writing. :) i’d read more of it (but then again, i generally like how-to books).


I enjoy talking about writing, and these posts are an extension of it.

The thing is, most of what I think I write about writing has already been written...
Eclectic tastes you have...
For me, that means fantasy, romance and horror, and I'm trying. But yeah, one of the reasons I don't write police procedurals, even when I get a good idea for one, is that I hate reading them and so wouldn't be able to successfully hook people who do like reading them.
Have you read Dragon Precinct by Keith R. A. DeCandido? A police procedural set in a fantasy world.
No, but as I say, the main problem I have is with the structure of a police procedural, so I probably wouldn't get a lot of enjoyment out of it despite the fantasy setting, sorry.

Sometimes I have ideas of interesting detective protagonists, but as I don't read those sorts of mystery novels or watch NYPD Blue or its ilk, and have no interest in or knowlege of forensics, ballistics or procedure, I leave well enough alone.
>>"If you wouldn't read it, you will not be able to write it."<<

This is exactly why I think I will never be a "stylistic" writer--or as one fellow calls himself, a "style monkey". More often than not I can't stand to read such things because I feel like the style gets in the way of the story, so how could I write it?

And if you've read my last locked post, you'll also know that my latest book I want to write will be written because it falls into that "If nobody else has written a book you want to read, write it yourself" category!
Oh, I know the feeling of wanting to write a book because no one else has written it yet. I don't have a straight historical fiction I want to write, but there is an alternate history idea I'm interested in, which I've researched over the past ten years.
What era? (I think you may have mentioned this before, but I don't remember.) You don't need to go into plot details--just curious. (Historical fiction is my greatest literary love only after the speculative stuff.)
Civil War era, New York City.
What kind of books are sitting on your bedside table?

Question assumes existence of bedside table :-).
Which I don't have, but I do have stacks of books by the bed, which tend to be fiction, either YA or SF. Occasionally, non-fiction creeps in, usually as part of a binge about some area or another.
Yeah, well, my bedside table is more metaphorical. I'm using the window sill and the bookcase next to the bed for my source of these books.
Getting a little tangential.... I have never kept books at my bedside table. I know a lot of people read a few pages to get sleepy, and I guess I've always felt like I would be cheating the act of reading out of my full attention if I did that.

So my "bedside book pile" is largely mental. In any case, it consists mainly of science fiction and young adult fiction (both genre and mainstream). I've really only started reading fantasy (non S&S) in the past few years, and it has opened up a lot of wonderful new avenues.

I've been enjoying reading these "rules" -- thanks for sharing them.
Ooh, someone else who likes young adult fiction! Who are your favorite authors?
This will be a bit haphazard, I'm afraid! But.....

  • Chris Crutcher (all of his books but especially Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes)
  • Laurie Halse Anderson (Prom in particular -- it really surprised me with its depth on such a light subject!)
  • Janet Tashjian (The Gospel According to Larry and especially Vote for Larry)
  • John Green (Looking for Alaska)

  • Philip Pullman (the His Dark Materials trilogy)
  • Gabrielle Zevin (Elsewhere -- this is gorgeous!)
  • Francesca Lia Block (lots of her Weetzie Bat stuff)
  • Christopher Pike (a few of his better books are science fiction rather than slash 'em horror)
  • David Gerrold (love his Dingilliad trilogy!)
  • Kai Meyer (have only just begun The Water Mirror, first in a series called Dark Reflections, but I'm intrigued. It's translated from German, I believe.)
Oh dear, as soon as I hit submit I'll think of the twenty or so authors who I'm just blanking on at the moment, so I may be back!
I've read some Chris Crutcher, and the one I remember best is Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. I'm surprised that he and Philip Pullman are the only names I even recognize! (*scribbles for next trip to library*)
I've been enjoying reading these "rules" -- thanks for sharing them.

You're welcome. Discussing Robert's Rules of Writing seemed to be an excellent way to talk about writing in this blog.
i read a lot of british authors, chick lit, crap vampire fluff, and crime novels. i'll probably end up writing a crap vampire series, if only to amuse myself. but seriously, i'd like to write something terribly introspective and character based and god-awful pretentious. :D
If you like vampire fluff, you should definitely try writing it. And maybe mix in the introspective pretentious stuff with it.
Four knitting books, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Great Influenza.

The last, by John Barry, is astonishing and everyone should read it, no really, go get it right now. Or rather, on your way home from getting a flu shot. :)
We have that John Barry book, but I still haven't gotten to it yet.
Um. It stays at about the same pace and tone, I think.

Since I've found it exceptionally good from the start, I can't really say if it'll irritate you less. :)
New interpretations of old classics and traditional stories. Seamus Heaney's translation of "Beowulf," his "Burial at Thebes" (a version of Antigone), and Nancy Willard's retelling of "Paradise Lost." Also a wealth of Neil Gaiman, with a preference for his modern myth stories (just finished Anansi Boys).

Travel books, particularly those with a humorous bent. Some Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux's "Dark Star Safari."

Also some popular science. Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" (contains some factual errors, unfortunately, but generally a great layperson's read). Stephen Jay Gould sets my heart aflutter, as does Oliver Sacks. Right now I'm working on Gould's "The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox."

Surprisingly, almost no science fiction or sword-and-sorcery. After I turned 14, the only fantasy books I had any interest in were The Lord of the Rings.
I'm enjoying this series of posts very much.

On my bedside table? Stardust (Neil Gaiman), The Rector's Wife (a romance by Joanna Trollope), Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity (a book of quotes and queries), Learning All the Time (a homeschooling book by John Holt), and With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (S. Morris Engel). That's fairly typical -- a little scifi or fantasy, a light novel or two, something spiritual, something on parenting, something to broaden my mind.
What kind of books are sitting on your bedside table?

-- Many, many books about the scientists who created the atomic bomb.

-- Cookbooks

-- Some fiction, mostly mysteries

December 2016

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