Notes From An Obsessive Reader And Writer

by Randy Murray on July 14, 2011

I just inhaled twenty novels. Or one great book twenty novels in length. Imagine if Pride and Prejudice were twenty volumes long and you’d have a good idea of what I’m talking about. Once I started I simply could not stop.

I’ve read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels three times now. The work is something like 7,000 pages long. The first time through he was still alive and writing, so I read them one at a time over a couple of years, savoring them as the final novels were released. The next time I read them continuously, but at a leisurely pace. But this time I could barely stop. And I saw and felt things I hadn’t with the previous two readings.

This time I was fully engaged with the characters’ emotions. I felt their great elation and I felt their pain and loss. I gasped at the audacity and heroic actions and cringed at their failures and faults. I became depressed when Jack and Sophie “parted brass rags” and felt my heart leap with joy when he received word of his flag promotion. I rejoiced when Steven and Diana were reunited in Dublin. I felt the death of Barret Bonden strongly. And it was with great pleasure that I put the 20th volume back on the shelf and let them sail into the sunset. I’ll meet them again sometime in the coming years, but for now, they are fully alive and present in my mind.  Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin are more than characters in a book. They are friends and companions.

Reading fuels my writing. While I was completely lost in the work another part of me was recording and analyzing the author’s techniques. I noted how he skillfully handled difficult exposition. From one sentence to the next he could move effortlessly forward minutes, hours, or days without losing the reader. I saw how he worked in the period without requiring footnotes and annotation. And I saw how he worked with humor, not just in the character’s speech, but occasionally at higher levels (and only once did I catch him in an out-of-period literary joke, but one I couldn’t have avoided, either).

Writers must read. And to become a really good writer, one must also open up the hood and see how it all works. I’m sure there are a few writers who are completely intuitive. I’m not one of them. My initial drafting is intuitive, but that only happens after I’ve done the work, thought things through, laid out a path. And after that first draft it’s time to get out the tools, things that I’ve learned from other writers, and get to work.

If I’ve learned one thing as a writer it’s this: the first draft is only the start. What comes next is what raises something to a work of art, makes it really interesting, really good. And makes it worth reading three times.

What am I reading now? The Information by James Gleick. Go thou and do likewise.

The Notes From An Obsessive Reader And Writer by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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