When I lived in Boston back in the 90s, I was in a band called Agent 99. Our music was often described as “Blondie meets the B-52s.” We did mostly original songs, and I wrote my fair share. (That’s me on bass.)
Our guitarist was Richard Marr, who at the time was studying at the prestigious Berklee College of Music and who now runs Galaxy Park recording studios in the Boston area. I often gave him comments about his songs which he accepted and used. I recall one time specifically where he said “You know, I’ve learned more about songwriting from you than I have from my professors.”
So what does this have to do with writing fiction?
Well, this: You can learn more about a creative endeavor by paying attention than you can any other way.
Even now, I don’t just listen to songs — I listen to how they are crafted. I pay attention to whether the writer has placed the lead before the bridge or after, how the instruments play against each other, the way the lyrics flow … everything. I can’t help it, I just do. I hear things in songs that non-musicians and non-writers don’t hear or don’t notice.
My wife is an artist, and she tells me it’s the same with her and art. We can go to a gallery and while I can admire a piece of art in general, she sees it in a completely different way, noting the artist’s techniques and processes, analyzing why the artist made the decisions he made.
And that is how you should be reading.
Oh, I don’t mean that you need to literally study what you’re reading; when I listen to music, I can still enjoy the song while noticing all the rest. But you should take notice how the author structured the story and kept it moving, how the characters become real and believable, how the author used foreshadowing, and so on.
Taking writing classes and learning how to improve your skills are one thing, but learning how to tell a story takes something more — anyone can learn grammatical rules they teach you in school, but not everyone can be a great writer with them.
To use music again as a metaphor: I never really learned how to read music other than the very basics (“OK, that’s a C sharp”). I have played with various musicians who could take a score they had never seen before and play it beautifully. But if you asked them to play a solo, they were lost. They’d ramble all over the place, producing nothing memorable. They just didn’t have the skill needed to go from technically proficient to creative.
And that’s what you need to do with your writing. Those “how to write a novel” books will not teach you as much as if you would just read! Read good books! Books in your genre. Books you will enjoy. And pay attention!
(Oh, and thank you for reading this and letting me have a bit of nostalgia about my old music days!)