Thursday, October 21, 2010

you are what you read

If you were to ask me for writing advice, I'd have to say first and foremost that you should...

The next piece of advice I would give is...
read writers/authors who write better than you do.

Why? Because you are what you read. If you want to improve as a writer, spend the bulk of your time reading stellar writing. In any given genre, there are those authors that stand out. Sometimes bestseller lists are a key but don't be fooled.

The unique thing about reading writers who write better than you is that the books that impact you will often be different than the ones that impact me. Don't confine yourself to the CBA. There are many incredible books outside the CBA that are clean and amazingly well done.

The danger in reading higher level writing is that after awhile you'll not be content with anything less. Your reading basket will be thinned - your TBR pile will not topple. You'll begin many a book only to set it aside.

I truly believe that you are what you read. A friend in Canadian publishing and I were recently discussing this. She'd written her honors thesis on how the fiction read by L.M. Montgomery (Ann of Green Gables, The Blue Castle, etc.) in her formative years influenced her own fiction so profoundly later on.

Now that I have the gift of hindsight (a nice way of saying I'm getting older:), I have a few years of reading to look back on and can name the books that have most influenced me. Here's just a sampling...

~Christy by Catherine Marshall

~Redeeming Love and Mark of the Lion Series by Francine Rivers

~The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

~Follow the River, Long Knife, From Sea to Shining Sea by James Alexander Thom

~Song of Years by Bess Streeter Aldrich

~Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

~every book by Victoria Holt aka Philippa Carr and Jean Plaidy

~every historical epic by Allan Eckert

If you're a younger writer, you're forming your list this very minute:) If you've logged a few miles like me, you'll have a shelf of best loved books on hand that stand head and shoulders above all the rest.

What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever received?


  1. Laura, thanks for the worthwhile advice! A friend once gave me similar words of wisdom, "If you want to be a better tennis player, find someone who plays better tennis than you do." So we applied that to our spiritual lives and God truly blessed!

    I loved some of the books you mentioned--Chrisy, Mark of the Lion, Jane Eyre. I just picked up an old Victoria Holt I remembered reading at a used bookstore. And I so enjoyed A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich.

    Did you ever read Mary Stewart? She portrayed her heroines and heroes with such subtle strokes of her pen. And she was great at making me feel like I was living the story with the people!

    Your books are definitely worth passing on to others, also. I just gave The Frontiersman's Daughter to a young friend. I know she'll love it! And, BTW, when do we get to see the cover of your new book?

  2. Write for the Audience of ONE. That is the best piece of advice I have ever read and the second Chip McGregor told me: start something new! Well Chip and Susan May Warren. :) And man did I need that piece of advice. :)

    Oh just sayin', I visited a Family Christian Store yesterday and couldn't resist picking up The Frontiersman's Daughter to give to someone and of course, I had to let the clerk know that I know the author. ;)

  3. Renee Ann, YOUR words have blessed me this morning:) I think the tennis analogy is very fitting - and I love the spiritual one! I sometimes remind my boys that the friends they choose will either edify them or drag them down. Oh, to be surrounded by godly mentors!!

    I do like Mary Stewart very, very much! She's one of many I left off my list, quite by accident, so I appreciate the mention here. I think I even have an original edition or two of hers.

    Thanks so very much for passing TFD on:) I really hoped it would become teen or YA reading so you're helping make that happen. I think historicals are a good way to teach history, too, and more teachers are using them that way.

    About that cover... I'm dying to post! I can't, however, till my publisher puts it on the Revell site. Since they don't tell me when that will happen, it's always a big surprise! I'm guessing from the past 2 covers that that will be anytime through November. I can't wait to hear your impressions when I can blog about it here!

  4. Casey, OH BLESS YOU!! Love hearing TFD is still in stores:) And that you and others are blessing me and hopefully others by passing on our love of books! I can't thank you enough for that.

    Yes, I love that advice as well, particularly the audience of One. IF we write for Him and seek to glorify Him then all the ugliness of the business, the competitiveness and numbers fade away. They really matter so very little anyway.

    Praying your writing and reading and jewelry-making goes wonderfully well today. You are one busy lady!

  5. Wonderful advice, Laura!

    I've noticed I've grown much pickier about the books I read. It's happened in about the last year or so. That's also about the time I started to regularly read book blogs.

    I have started and not finished so many books lately. If I can't get into it, I'm not reading it.

    You've named a number of books that I love. Christy, Francine Rivers books, Victoria Holt, etc. I've not read any of Bess Streeter Aldrich's books though. I believe I'll be researching her tonight.

    I am one who does read outside of CBA, and I definitely borrow those books from the library first. If I like a book, I'll look on amazon to see what books are listed with it.

    I've also discovered a lot of books through goodreads during the last few months.

    Praying you have a wonderful day!

  6. Well, I agree with Casey about seeking God's will for your writing.

    And the other best advice is from a dear online friend who writes the most wonderful historical fiction ;) Enjoy this season because it goes too quickly.

    Writing is for naptimes. Its amazing when the inspiration does strike how much I can write in an hour...and other times it just isn't meant to happen at all :) Its kind of freeing actually :)

  7. I must agree with both of your top pieces of writing advice, to write and to read those authors who write better than myself.
    They go hand and hand. For years I wrote, but until I began reading the genre that I enjoy writing I had nothing to aspire to. Ruth Axtell Morren is an author who I admire so much because she writes wonderful tales with and with much skill.

    But I did have to learn some of the basic rules of writing, especially active voice as I wrote in passive voice for so many years unknowing that it was incorrect. It is very easy to practice something to perfection and still have it be wrong (creating bad habits).

    On this note the next piece of advice that helped me was that the rules are guidelines. At one point I became so bogged down with the rules I had all but given up I was so overwhelmed with what I did not know. And then I came back to advice #1 - write. When I began writing again I started to incrementally incorporate the "rules" I learned and little at a time my writing has transformed so that now I can discern when it is appropriate to break one for the sake of the story. How freeing.

    And as Casey said, writing for an Audience of One overrides it all.

  8. Hi Laura, Thanks for the list of good books to read...I'll ad them to my list. Best piece of advice I've reaceived....write everyday. As a busy mom, I try to follow this, even if it's only one page. Have a blessed day!

  9. I can see that about books influencing the way one writes. While reading TFD I said to my sister several times that it gave me the feeling of the book Christy in some places.

  10. LM Montgomery, Charlotte Bronte, and Catherine Marshall were AMAAAAAZING authors! I love their work. As for other authors outside of the CBA market I really like Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia Gray series. They are historical fiction (of course) with a bit of mystery and a bit of romance. I've only read the first two so far but they are really good. There are a few little issues that might not be considered "clean" but you don't have to worry about language or love scenes or anything like that. I know a lot of readers of Christian fiction who also enjoy the series. Just thought I'd throw it out there for you ladies! ;-)

    XOXO~ Renee

  11. Oh, you've said it best. Write and read. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    My influence list would go something like:
    ~Christy, by Catherine Marshall
    ~Mark of the Lion and Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers(how many lists do you think those two top? Many, I'm sure)
    ~Taliesin, by Stephen Lawhead
    ~Glastonbury, by Donna Fletcher Crow
    ~Anything by Ellis Peters/Edith Pargeter, especially The Brother Cadfael Chronicles
    ~The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, especially Drums of Autumn forward
    ~Red Heart, by James Alexander Thom
    ~Susanna Kearsley's books set in Britain (she's a LOT like Mary Stewart)
    ~Mary Stewart, just anything at all

  12. Michelle,
    I've noticed you are smoking on Goodreads:) Not literally - lol! It is really fun to get book recc. from friends. I'm always stymied though when I see books I love panned by other readers and vice versa! Reading taste is such a strange thing. But am glad God made us all differently and able to enjoy different thing.

    I am glad the Lexington libraries are good ones. At least they used to be when I was there. Our little one here is quite nice and very new. I LOVE libraries. Think of the expense they save us:)

    Song of Years by BS Aldrich is such a rich, moving story. Kind of like Little House on the Prairie for grownups. I found it so moving when I read it and fell in love with the characters. Hope you like it, too, if you read. She has others but none I liked quite so much. Happy reading to you! It's almost the weekend!!

  13. Julia,
    You are so thoughtful to say such things:) They really bless me. I have to remind myself to enjoy the season I'm in. Sometimes I long to be at your stage with those sweet little faces in front of me!! And making an adoption come true! But I know you are enjoying it and honoring the Lord as you go.

    You've mentioned such a key thing. Writing in those little pockets of time the Lord gives results in a book in the end. And love that you don't feel pressured if the words don't come. Since everything is from Him, we can rest if some days are not as imaginative as others. Well said, Julia:)

  14. Carla,
    So many good things you've mentioned here. I, too, succumbed to the passive voice at one time and then grew beyond it like you. It's amazing the strides our writing has to go through to reach a state of excellence ~ and then once we're there we still have more work to do:) Sigh. Oh the writer's life!

    I have a Ruth book sitting right here and can't wait to dive it though it's become buried now after several months. This one won an award and I can't reach my pile to unearth the title! But I bet you know which historical it is...

    Thanks so much, Carla, for your words of wisdom. Rachelle Gardner had an interesting post about the rules of writing this week. You two think alike!

  15. Colleen,
    SO true - a page a day results in 365 pages:) And that's the perfect length for most pubs! It's amazing what can be done in short snatches. I love those long uninterrupted days but they are so rare (I have to eat and go to the bathroom after all, not to mention take care of my family!) but am thrilled by those spare moments or minutes or hours. Hoping you have some of both, dear friend.

  16. Sylvia,
    You are so astute and I'm delighted you were reminded of Christy:) In fact, the Canadian publishing friend I mentioned in this post contacted me to say she saw echoes of Dr. Neil McNeill in my Ian Justus, the epidemic in both books, etc. While I was writing TFD I began thinking how some scenes were very like Christy and think my subconscious was at work writing them. Have you read Julie? Am curious as to which you liked best or if both spoke to you.

  17. Will be back in a bit to respond to more comments. Hubby is sick and I have to make soup!

  18. Aw, keeping hubby in prayer and prayer for the rest of the family. Hope you and the kids don't get it, but I'm guessing it probably started with your boys :)

    And as for your advice, it has proved helpful, not just for my writing...but homeschooling, too. Right now homeschooling feels overwhelming at times and I have to remind myself its more about the "home" when the schooling can take over...if you know what I mean. :)

  19. Renee,
    You are one well-read woman:) I read Deeanna's first book and want to read the others. She has a remarkable style all her own and the writing is very good. Ruth and Michelle here are fans, I'm pretty sure. Once again, you'd make a great marketing rep! Only if you worked for Baker/Revell you'd have to move to Michigan, I'm thinking:) But I'd sure love to have you on my team!!

  20. Love YOUR list, Lori! Reminds me that I left some fine books off mine:) I wish I'd kept a book list of all the books read since childhood. I know I'm forgetting so many and probably many are now out of print. My other career choice would have been librarian!

  21. Julia,
    Thanks so much for your prayers. Randy is rarely sick and this time he came down with it on his own with no helps from Wyatt and Paul. It's usually the other way around like you said! I'm not a very good nurse but try hard:)

    And I do understand the part about the home and the schooling. You are so wise to learn that early on. It took me awhile and now I treasure the years I had with my boys at home.

  22. Thank you Laura. I am actually headed out the door in a few hours to attend the Idaho Book Extravagnza. Hopefully get to meet Robin Lee Hatcher too. :) I hope (and pray) your writing is going smoothly. :)

  23. You are so right! Its funny I look back now and can see how my tastes were formed even as an elementary school reader. Many of the same genre of books I loved then (historic, ghost stories, pioneer stories) I still love to read today.
    And you're totally right too on getting intimidated by the great books you read. I think a big hurtle for me is thinking "how could I ever compete with this? Because this is what I want to create!" Its something that is a big stalling issue for me.
    As for advice....well, a few years ago in college i took a creative writing course and we read Stephen King's book on writing. One specific image/phrase that stuck with me from that was his saying when he starts a book, he writes 'with the door closed.' and when he's in the editing phase he writes with 'the door open.' Which to me meant that when you're in that creative phase you can just shut yourself in, let your mind run free, and not worry about others. Only when you're done do you open the door so to speak and let in critiques, revisions, editing, etc.

    Also, I learned in journalism the technique of writing with the most important details first---then go into other expanding detail throughout the article. This is because in journalism, when an editor cuts a story to fit into a layout, they cut from the bottom first. So whatever you're trying to say, you better get the important bits in the part that wont be cut out for the sake of an advertisement ;) For a wordy girl like me, this was a good exercise in 'just say it and get it over with!' lol
    And speaking of wordy....guess I'll sign off!~

  24. Laura, I agree with your advice. Someone told me the same thing a few years ago, and it does make a difference.

    I'd love to hear some recent ABA reads you've found well done. I just finished The Help and loved it.

    Have a great weekend.

  25. Laura,

    This is some fantastic advice! :D And actually, some of the best writing advice recently came from you about a month or two ago, when you told me to keep on writing. ;) Now, I just need to follow through with that advice!

    And I think it's true that the more we immerse ourselves in the types of books that we want to write, the better we'll be at writing them. :) Which gives me hope that all these blog tours, reviews, and such, are not only for the sake of pleasure, but might just help me write better in the long run! :D

    There are so many wonderful authors that I can learn from (including you, of course!). And I'm excited that I'll be starting Within My Heart by Tamera Alexander soon, too, because I'd love to be able to write like her. Her stories are both exciting and engaging, while being deep and inspirational, as well. Plus, she does a wonderful job of describing setting and painting pictures with her words!

    Anyway, thank you again for the great post! I hope you have a wonderful weekend!


    P.S. If you have time, I would love to have you stop by my blog this weekend, because I'm having a "Bluegrass Festival" (and I know you love bluegrass!). Today I'm hosting Sandy Cherryholmes, and tomorrow I'm hosting someone from Huckleberry Flint. And I'm doing two giveaways, for anyone who is interested! :D

  26. This is some great advice, Laura! And, I will definitely put it to good use if the Lord should lead me into writing one day ;) I do enjoy to write, but I'll just leave the future in His hands :)

    I was at my grandparents house today and they had a plaque on their wall with a beautiful quote on it. I've seen this many times but it's truth really touched me today in a powerful way and I thought maybe I should share it here :)

    "Write your sorrows in sand and your blessings in stone."

    Good advice, huh? ;) Praying for you!!

    Amanda Stanley

  27. Best piece of advice, and I take it to heart because I write what I want to read--Write what you know and know what you write.

    I also heard to read well written books and read the classics. I've even forced myself to step outside of my reading range and read Alexander Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, and loved it. I need to read it again and read the 3 Musketeers.

    I loved the Anne of Green Gables series too. And Louisa May Alcott. And now tempted to go get Elizabeth Gasskel's book North and South!

  28. Casey,
    Bless you as you travel to what sounds like a stellar book event! Wish I could join you:) If Robin is there it's sure to be fun! When you get back please stop by and tell us all about it or link to your blog and we'll enjoy a bit of post-book bliss:)

  29. Heather, I LOVE Stephen King's book on writing. I read it last year and go back to it again and again. He is not only a great horror writer but a first rate comic:) And your advice here is so worthwhile. We use different parts of the brain to create and then edit. Love the open and closed/door concept. So true. I get stuck on the create part and hate the editing sometimes. Wonder what that says about me wanting to keep that door shut?!

    I think our love of books does begin very young and I feel we're gifted to do certain things well, too very young.

    That's just fascinating about the journalism edits cutting the last first and saying the best right off the bat! A good overall writing rule. You have writer written all over you:)

  30. Sally,
    Oh your question is like candy to me:) And I love that you've read The Help. What a book! It's in its upteenth printing right now (I peeked at Costco this week). I'm reading the hefty bio found beside it - Ron Chernow's Washington, A Life. My whole day is planned around the 8 pm hour when I can sit by my fire and consume another chapter:) If it sounds dry, it's not!

    Also reading The Fort, a novel about the Revolutionary War by Bernard Cornwell (who the Wall Street Journal calls "the most prolific and successful historical novelist in the world today.") How's that for an endorsement:) Wish it were mine! Just finished The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grisson and some lighter CBA fare. Also reading North & South by E. Gaskell. This last one I'm savoring so am going s-l-o-w-l-y.

    I have a feeling you like more contempory works and I'm a bit out of the loop on those and wish I had one or two to parade here. Take a peek at Lori's list here as she reads widely in the general market.

    Bless you for asking. I sure enjoyed answering that query:)

  31. Amber,
    So glad you like the writing advice:) In this season of your very busy life I know it's hard to eek it out but I don't doubt you will when you can.

    Tamera is very popular and I know why:) I've only read one of hers - Rekindled but would like to read more. I think she has a new one out with a very pretty cover.

    And thanks for the invite to your bluegrass blog post!! I was so happy to see Julie Lessman and others there:) Bless u bunches!

  32. Such timely words, Amanda! I've never heard that quote before but it's beautiful and so Christlike. Thanks so much for sharing it here. Your grandparents sound delightful! If we had that perspective how much easier our lives would be!

    We're trying to teach our son who tends to be a bit of a worrier to count his blessings. He tends to major on the minors and we want to change that prayerfully. I'm afraid he might have inherited that trait from sometimes melancholy me:( We've been counting our blessings with him and it gets downright embarrassing that there are so many!

    That's why one of my favorite verses is this..."I am not worthy of the least of all Thy mercies." Genesis 32:10

    and then this...
    "I will sing to the Lord because He has dealt bountifully with me." Psalm 13:6.

    Thanks so much for bringing those to mind with your wonderful quote.

  33. Winter, You named the number 1 piece of advice that led me to write TFD. I wrote it because I couldn't find anything like it to read. So you really should write what you know, what you like best, what you can't find. Well said:)

    I am so surprised that N&S is so different in novel form. It's wonderful but wordy and so vastly different than what's popular today. We've lost a great deal over the last 150 years or so. Oh, YES, the Count of Monte Cristo!! Have you seen the film? The one starring Jim Cavaziel (my spelling is atrocious tonight). If you haven't seen this version, please RUN to your nearest video store and rent it. WOW! Nuff said:)

  34. Laura, I've been waiting for The Kitchen House for months. I'm second on the list now at the library. Must be a very good book!

  35. Lori, Glad you're getting close! I would have sent you mine if I'd known. I think you'll like it though it doesn't have the requisite happy ending I like. Comes close though! But it's wonderful for research and there's a great author interview in the back:)