Monday, June 11, 2012

Learning to Write by Reading

copyright 2012, Pat Bertram

I learned to write by osmosis. I used to read more good books in a month than most people read in a lifetime, and the elements of storytelling seeped into my soul. I still have to work at writing, probably more so than writers who took classes or who are naturally talented, but I have an instinct of what works and what doesn’t. The problem comes when I try to put what is in my mind down on the page, which is why I later augmented the osmosis with reading books on how to write and edit.

A friend also learned to write by reading, but not by osmosis. She rips apart the books she adores, literally tears out the pages. Sometimes she types a passage from a book (like Cormac McCarthy’s landscape passages in All the Pretty Horses) then types over the passage with different settings, different entities within that setting, different verbs, different moods, but keeps the rhythm of the words. She learned well. Her stories have a lyricism that rivals the best of Ray Bradbury.

And no, I won’t tell you who she is. People give her flak for mutilating books. But, as she says, “A book that shows no evidence of ever having been touched is probably not very touchable to begin with.” I’m sure those authors whose books she rips apart to learn from would be thrilled to know how much she appreciates their work. I know I would be, but I doubt anyone will ever try to emulate my prose. It’s utilitarian at best (mostly because I edit out any metaphors and lyricism that end up on the page. Unlike my book-mutilating friend, I have no use for them.)

And what is so terrible about ripping a book apart to learn from it? Worse things happen to books. Like burning.

I helped out at a book sale once, and dozens of boxes of category romances were left over. The librarian asked if I had a woodburning stove. She said, “These books burn well, that I know.” I was shocked. Even crappy books I wouldn’t read if they were the only books left in the world are sacred to me. After the sale, I got to wondering what else could one do with books that have no resale value. Throw them out? At least if they are used for fuel, they would serve their purpose. Aren’t cheap romances all about getting people heated up?

(For the record, I have never, will never burn a book. I never even tortured one, though once I did throw a book against the wall because I hated the ending.)

Pat Bertram


Pat Bertram is a native of Colorado. When the traditional publishers stopped publishing her favorite type of book — character and story driven novels that can’t easily be slotted into a genre — she decided to write her own. Second Wind Publishing liked her style and published four of Bertram’s novels: Light Bringer, Daughter Am I, More Deaths Than One, and A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and one non-fiction book, Grief: the Great Yearning.


Kim Smith said...

Wow. Not that it is that radical, like you said, there are worse things, but she is really into getting to the meat and potatoes of a writer's efforts, isnt' she?

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Pat, I beg to disagree. Your work is so much more than "utilitarian" and you do have magical scenes and passages. Don't underestimate yourself. No one but a poetic soul could have created that garden of flowers like in Light Bringer. ;o) Thanks for joining us today, we love your guest posts.

Pat Bertram said...

Hi, Kim. I sure wouldn't take the time she did to really get into a writer's soul, but it did teach her to write.

Aaron, how kind of you. I did forget about the lake of flowers. That scene really is lyrical, but it also took hours of research into colors and sound to get it right, so in that respect, it was utilitarian -- every word was chosen to make a point, not just to be poetic.

Thank you for having me here at Murder by 4. It's always a treat.

Terry W. Ervin II said...

I agree. One of the best ways to learn how to write is to study those novels that one enjoys. Examine how the author did it, from dialogue and description to POV and pacing.

I've never torn a book apart, but I have read and reread books and especially sections.