Trees grow. So do tumors, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with likening my writing to a cancerous mass of cells. Others might be, however…
I’ve been querying my third novel, LUMINOUS, for the last several months and in the rejections I’ve received, I’ve noticed something different from the last two books I queried: feedback.
Whereas before I’d send a query letter via an email pigeon, only to have it turn right around with a, “Thanks, but no thanks,” wrapped around its ankle (and those certainly still hit my inbox), today I’m seeing more personal notes. Phrases like “smart sentences,” “strong project,” and “very interesting,” are making their way into my rejections, proving something is different about this book compared to the first two I wrote.
It’s not hard to see what changed—I did. I got better. My writing muscles strengthened. I have a storytelling six-pack where used to reside a keg of naive optimism. And that came about from a simple trick I learned while reading a bottomless pit of articles on writing:
That’s it. That was the big trick. Every morning on my train into New York, I read, and every morning for two hours in a Barnes & Noble cafe before work, I wrote. What struck me as I read was how my brain processed the prose. I used to read only for pleasure. I’d wander into the woods of a plot and set up camp for a few days to breathe in the fresh air. I still love living in books, but now as I wander among the trees, I stop and admire the flowers growing between them - the turns of phrase, the metaphors, the carefully structured sentences. I read to learn as much as I read to escape. My forest is more lush than I once thought.
My observations have paid off, too. When I go back to read my first book side-by-side with my latest, I can see the cringe-inducing difference. I might as well have been hopped up on Benadryl and mushrooms while I queried that first novel because that never should have left the desk drawer. I was hopeful and stupid. I was going to be the one to break the rule of first novels. Mine was not only going to be published, but it was going to define a new era of literature and—
You can stop laughing now.
LUMINOUS, however, is what happens when a writer finds his voice. It’s what is born of voracious reading and near-paralyzing fear of failure. LUMINOUS is the book I always wanted to write. It’s proof of growth. The story is tighter. The language is cleaner. I imagine it as the final project of a class taught by Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Anthony Breznican - a class I still worry I failed, but one in which I got a few points more than I did the last time I took it.
Reading is everything. It’s almost more important than the actual writing. I absorb the books I read and in turn churn my stories in my mind to thicken them up. To make them richer. And I don’t just read the literary powerhouses to enrich my writing. I read genre novels to observe pacing and romance and action. I read bad books to know what not to do. I read award winners, award losers, and books that wouldn’t be allowed within 50 feet of an awards stage.
Read everything. Read fiction. Read nonfiction. Read short stories and novellas (where some of the best world building and pacing happens because there are limitations for the writer to overcome). Pull it all apart and sew it back together again and use that to nurture your craft.
Growth is necessary for a writer. It’s natural. A writer who doesn’t grow is a writer no one wants to read, for if a writer doesn’t grow, the stories he or she tells don’t grow, either. And who wants to read a malnourished, neglected story? I know I don’t.