We've all heard the formula before: to be a good writer you need to write, read, rewrite, and reread. Rinse and repeat. But what does that mean, really? Well for me, it means always living my life as a writer by seeing and thinking about the world as a narrative artist would. Nabokov said, "The art of writing is a very futile business if it does not imply first of all the art of seeing the world as the potentiality of fiction." So this is what we must do as writers and readers, because we owe it to ourselves—it's our responsibility as storytellers. I mean, if it was good enough for Nabokov, it's good enough for the rest of us, too.
I'm twenty-eight years old and I've been writing fiction seriously since I've been nineteen, and my story "Redshift" is my first publication. Yes, I'm a slow learner, but I'm stubborn and gritty, so here I am. It's a marathon, not a sprint, right? Or so I tell myself when I read other published writers' credentials. What follows are a few brief advice-nuggets I wish I would have known nine years ago when I was spending my Fridays reading Ray Carver and David Wallace, or spending my microbiology exam study sessions writing short stories. My hope is that these tidbits might help the beginning writer see the world more as a narrative artist does, as the potentiality of fiction.
Read like a writer. Writing is a series of choices, so it's important to approach a text as a series of choices and problem-solving solutions made by the author. Narrative design is the art of perception. By unpacking narrative design through reading, and rereading, we reveal not only an author's way of seeing and thinking about the world but how the author collects their perceptions into an immersive story. Perception is a special, unique utility we all have. No one will ever perceive the world the same way as you, ever. So we all have unique voices, but it requires practice to share our voices with an audience. Established narrative artists have crafted their perceptions in such a way that makes them great storytellers, and by reading their work as a writer we can help ourselves develop and craft our own perceptions for our stories.
An engineer doesn't need to know the technical names or history of architectural arches, but an engineer does need to know why and how arches operate in order to design and use them appropriately in their own structures. Same goes for us writers. For instance, it's not so important that I know a story is told in a point of view called free indirect discourse, but I do need to know why and how that point of view choice was made to tell a story and convey narrative meaning. One of the best ways to do this as a beginning writer is to read with authorial questions. For example: Why is this story told from this point of view? What is achieved by telling the story from this perspective? How is this story guiding the reader? And it's important—sometimes more so—to ask the inverse questions: Why isn't this story told from another point of view? What isn't achieved by telling the story from this other perspective? How isn't this story guiding the reader? Don't just ask these questions robotically. Respond to these questions in earnest by trying to answer the questions from the angle of the author.
Remember, we don't necessarily need to know the history or names of arches, but we need to understand their purpose so we can use and forward their designs in our structures. For me, understanding how and why a technique is used happens in the process of rereading, not the initial reading. My first reading of a great story is often done strictly as an audience member, where I let the author play with my own perceptions and emotions, but it's in rereading that I'm able to tease out how the author achieved her effects.
For leisure and academic mumbo-jumbo, reading for breadth makes sense. But for a writer, reading for depth, not breadth is more useful. More books are published annually than we can individually read in a lifetime. So choose a few books that have held the test of time and reread them, studying the design by asking the whys and hows from the perspective of design and audience.
Every time you reread a story, ask new questions. As a reader you are the audience, and your feelings toward a story are expert in terms of the self. Use this audience expertise to tease out what works and doesn't work in a story, so you can harness those utilities in your own work. See, here is the thing: reading is writing if it is done with authorial intention. And reading like a writer will assist you in seeing the world as other writers see the world, and that's a great start to writing your own stories. I wish you all well in the process.