Thursday, July 8, 2010

How much do you have to read before you can write?

Reading thuRsday

This is another of life's catch-22s: the best way to be part of a conversation is to have something new to say, but to be sure that what you have to say is new you need to know the history of the conversation--which often means filling your head so full of other people's thoughts that you don't have anything new to say.

There was a sci-fi program in the 90s called Space: Above and Beyond. The producers were very proud of the fact that they'd gone out of their way to find writers who were not SF fans because they wanted new, fresh thinking. My impression as a viewer is that the writers generally succeeded in rediscovering territory that had already been explored. (The show lasted only a single season.)

It's difficult to do something new and meaningful if you're ignorant of the conversation. On the other hand, there's so much SF that you could spend your life trying to get through it all.

The trick is to strike a balance: your job isn't to become an expert on the literature but to be familiar with what your readers would consider the main works.

There's a nice analogy with travel. You're not trying to become a guide, but you should know the area well enough that you can get around without having to constantly ask for directions.

Like many other writing questions, this one comes back to one of the fundamental truths: you need to know your audience well enough to make your story compelling.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /


  1. In my humble opinion there is good reason that God (or whoever) gave us two eyes (or ears) and only one mouth. I think it's more important to read (listen) that it is to write (speak).

    Just my two cents.

  2. 2 to 1: that sounds like a good proportion to me.


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