Can I tell you the secret to being a good writer?
First, be a good reader.
Not of craft books or how-to blog posts or transcripts of podcasts about novel marketing and deep POV, though those are all valuable in their own time.
No, if you want to be a good writer—a great writer—you’ll learn best from those who are already one or a dozen steps ahead. You’ll learn tension and pace and world-building and characterization when you simply allow yourself to dive headfirst into a novel. If it’s good enough to make you forget the laundry or the dinner on the stove or the kid pickup time, then it’s good enough to teach you how to write.
I passionately believe in being a reader long before you call yourself a writer. In fact, when I coach clients or meet with writers at conferences, the first question I often ask is: What are you reading?
The books on your nightstand or in your purse or tucked in the console of the minivan—those truly reveal what and why you want to write. Studying your favorite author may not feel like work, but it is the spine on which you build your writing body. No author has ever said, “Harper Lee is my favorite, but I wouldn’t want to write like her.”
Well, no I don’t want to become a hermit in my own hometown, but learn to write like Harper Lee? Win a Pulitzer and rock the consciousness of a world? Yes, please.
Because I want to land in the southern fiction literary canon someday, that is the genre I’m primarily reading. Charles Martin, Julie Cantrell, Joshilyn Jackson, Kristy Woodson Harvey, and Eva Marie Everson are the contemporaries on my nightstand. They’re paired with older writers such as Terry Kay and Catherine Marshall, L.M. Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder, not all of whom fit my southern fiction genre, but who most definitely have something to teach me.
There are plenty of inspirational romances and women’s fiction and YA dystopian crowding my TBR list as well, because I learn something from every book I read. But it is those authors who I admire—but don’t necessarily wish to emulate—whose books I pick apart to understand.
When reading as a writer I look for how an author handles these things:
- Backstory: because at some point, the story behind the story has to make an appearance. (I find this especially true in southern fiction where we have the ability to nurse grudges for generations.) I study how these writers weave it seamlessly into the narrative, giving just the right amount at just the right time.
- Deep POV: this is the buzz among agents and editors right now. The ability to get into a character’s head without italics or telling separates the good from the great.
- Romantic Tension: I love a good love story. I love it even more when the story is more than a love story, when you can go all 300 pages without a single kiss (those are good too!) but there’s no doubt at the end, a happily ever after is in the works. Charles Martin mastered this in When Crickets Cry.
So what’s on your nightstand? And what can you learn from it?
Lindsey P. Brackett writes southern fiction infused with her rural Georgia upbringing and Lowcountry roots. Her debut novel, Still Waters, inspired by family summers at Edisto Beach, released in 2017. Called “a brilliant debut” with “exquisite writing,” Still Waters also received 4-stars from Romantic Times and was named Selah Book of the Year in 2018. Connect with Lindsey and get her free newsletter at lindseypbrackett.com or on Instagram @lindseypbrackett.