There are so many rules out there about writing, thousands of books written by thousands of experts. Some contradict—outline, write by the seat of your pants. Write what you know. Don’t write what you know. Write for yourself. Write for the market. Never edit as you go. Never use fragments, never use run-on sentences. Never write in second person. Avoid first person. Never write in present tense.
My suggestion when it comes to sorting through the cacophony: Don’t follow other people’s rules or advice without questioning them. Some really smart people offer really bad advice and the internet is swarming with self-proclaimed experts.
When it comes to the writing life and success here’s a tip that especially helps beginning writers: Read and write in equal proportions.
There are so many things reading teaches us—the most important is how we should slow down and savor the author’s language and words for their raw power. It teaches us the impact of individual sentences and how we can build them to tumble out of control, meander, or stop us short with their brief and startling brilliance. We learn the many options available for viewpoint and distance and how a character’s voice rings true. Reading teaches us how to choose a few painstaking details to paint large canvasses. Sometimes it’s the exact color of an object, or a character’s bath robe, or a particular song convincing us of the story’s truth.
Or, we notice how an anecdote woven amid a larger world lends it veracity. Or, how small gestures whisper volumes about a person or betray the unconscious. For example, in Amy Bloom’s short story “Silver Water”, I’ve never forgotten how Rose at 15 is exhibiting the first signs of schizophrenia and her psychiatrist father doesn’t want to believe it is happening even as Rose begins licking the hairs on her forearm, first one way, then the other.
Close reading teaches us how to use ordinary moments to ground a reader in a fictional reality or the memoirist’s past. By dissecting the page you can observe how a writer implants tension in a scene.
While carefully reading dialogue we learn how regional expressions create authenticity and a sense of place; how characters sometimes hide their true thoughts and feelings; how dialogue can be a sort of choreography when difficult subjects are at hand; and how a character’s simple or poetic speech patterns create credibility for a living, breathing being.
Read from a questioning frame of mind. Ask yourself about the choices the writer made. Would you have done it differently? Why did the author stage a scene in a designer or use a particular word or set the story in December?
As for the advice about reading bad stories for a frame of reference–I don’t buy that logic. Save your precious reading hours for authors who inspire you.