By: Shahnaz Radjy
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.
2018 – A Year of Learning
Every year, I devour as many books as I can get my hands on; however, as I progress in my journey as a writer, my reading has changed. It is almost as though I have become more mindful in how I consume words; more aware of the form.
This year is the first time I took note of an author switching between points of view in a single chapter. As that’s often frowned upon for writing dos and don’ts, it was fascinating to come across a published example of such an approach.
It’s also the first time I noticed certain authors have “pet” words or expressions that pop up again and again throughout their writing. “Grok” was my favorite of these, found in Everybody Writes by Ann Handley. (In case you’re wondering, it means “to understand (something) intuitively or by empathy.”)
My point is that if you’re a writer – and by that, I mean someone who writes things, regardless of whether or not they are published or tucked into a drawer – you can learn from everything you read.
As the end of the year approaches, I decided to share five lessons that have inspired me in 2018.
1. Authentic is Compelling
Trying to write what you consider a perfect piece is less important than you finding your voice and being authentic.
While this is always true for a memoir, it applies to all other genres as well. Fiction writers often borrow from real life or inspire themselves from actual events.
Doing so in an authentic way is much more likely to connect with the reader. Be yourself, whether that means funny, vulnerable, girly, intense, or whatever makes up the quintessential uniqueness of you that translates to your voice.
In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr makes this point again and again. She has often noticed that her students start by writing in a way that tries to over-compensate certain character traits that they aren’t proud of when embracing them as strengths would make the writing much more compelling.
Don’t Filter an Authentic Voice
Two books I read earlier this year drove this point home for me. The first book was, A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival, written by Melissa Fleming, Head of Global Communications for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I found that the point of view used was sometimes a bit too detached from the astonishing story the author tells. It makes sense, as she is sharing a story that isn’t hers; she is writing on behalf of a refugee.
There were times when I wanted to hear directly from Doaa, the main character, so it didn’t feel like I was hearing her story through a filter. However, the story itself is so intense that getting it out there is more important than whether another approach would have been even more impactful.
Second, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of A Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. Here, the narrator is retelling his experiences as a young boy in Sierra Leone, and the years he spent as a boy soldier. The English isn’t perfect, but his imperfect language is intrinsically linked to his life and how far he has come, so it’s fitting. It’s true to Ishmael – it’s his voice.
That authenticity is priceless. It gives the reader a subtle assurance that however imperfect; the story reflects a unique perspective that hasn’t been diluted or tampered with solely by rules of writing.
2. Music of Language
Have you ever read prose, and felt that it was poetry? When I read and worked through Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula Le Guin, one of the first points she makes is about the sound of words. There is a reason why reading your work out loud is such an effective editing technique.
Finding a balance between telling a story and making it lyrical is delicate. Just as with playing the violin, you need to go through a learning period when everything (or almost) will sound off-key before you learn to strike the right notes.
It may also be that the violin is not your instrument – and that’s fine. The point is that as you work on finding a style that fits, you should be aware of how your writing sounds. Play around with it, and see what approach you’re comfortable with and improve that sound.
In Women Who Dig: Farming, Feminism, and the Fight to Feed the World, Trina Moyles manages to capture the reader’s attention not just with the fascinating narratives of women farmers, but with the musicality of her words.
Weave the Music with Your Words
Analogies contribute to vivid descriptions and draw us into the lives of women around the world whose lifestyles would otherwise be hard to relate to if we didn’t farm.
Another example of the musicality of language is one of my favorite books, Shantaram. It is an unbelievable true story of crime, self-exile, humanity, and love. Within the first few pages, Gregory David Roberts stunned me with his ability to weave poetry into his descriptions of life in Bombay. Without ever deviating from the pace of his mesmerizing story, Roberts uses words that made me want to interrupt anyone nearby to share the beauty of his writing.
3. Character Development and the Power of Emotion
One of the genres I love is fantasy, or perhaps what some would call epic fantasy. Book series of three or more volumes, often set in worlds with at least a touch of magic, such as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Or, if you’re not into fantasy, then think of the effect of watching a Netflix series versus a single 90-minute film.
Many stand-alone books bring you into a new world, but with a series, you are on a journey through changing landscapes, and more time for character development.
You will witness their evolution in so much more depth, that years later you might still miss them. Although I read the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan in 2010, this series spans so much time that I truly knew the characters like old friends.
By reading such tales, I learned two things which apply to any writing: flawed characters are much more relatable, and emotions can echo through the reader like an unexpected spice that makes a dish taste like home.
In the series A Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Mass, within the single novella or novel, the main character – an arrogant 16-year-old assassin – works through emotions and situations in a way that pulls you into her head and heart.
As a result, you shift from a skeptical reader to cheerleader. I am not ashamed to admit that I shed quite a few tears along the way, and laughed out loud just as often.
No matter what you write about, the odds are that at some point you’ll benefit from doing research. If we’re talking about a memoir, it might be for facts to confirm geography or historical context. In fiction, it could be for anything from inspiration for world-building to science or laws to shape your story.
One author that has my utmost respect and absolute reader loyalty is Jodi Piccoult. To me, she represents the fearlessness of tackling difficult topics in eye-opening ways. Her latest book, Small Great Things, is about modern-day racism and prejudice.
Before reading it, I would have sworn that I could not feel empathy for any character acting on hate and racial discrimination. And yet, I did. Piccoult is that good.
A big piece of it is how much research goes into each one of her stories, and not just to ensure factual accuracy. Her approach is not to state the research, but to weave it into the core of characters, narrative arcs, and plot twists.
5. Endings Matter
Ever since high school, I have struggled with conclusions and endings. Today, whether a book makes it to my rant or rave list often depends on the effect the ending had on me. Others may not be quite so drastic, but endings matter.
In An Appointment with Death, Agatha Christie amazed me by barely describing landscapes or surroundings and focusing on personalities. I didn’t love the style and was wondering how I had so enjoyed her books as a teenager. Then I got to the end of the story and was blown away. What a plot twist! Simple, elegant, and utterly unpredictable.
Although I read the series years ago, The Hunger Games, in contrast, had me enthralled until the end. Then it all fell apart. I’m quite sure I swore like a sailor when I finished, and thinking back on the end still makes me angry.
Like so many other aspects of writing, I think the most critical consideration for endings is that they be intentional and that as a writer you once again not be afraid of imperfection. Tying everything up with a neat bow can backfire as often as not.
Perhaps it’s a matter of authenticity, but the ending, whether or not the reader will decide to agree with it or not, should fit with the rest of the story, and with your voice. Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear and don’t think it’s a mere formality.
Read More – Write More – Improve Your Content
Stephen King said that “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I often hear writers say they don’t have time to read. Is that not akin to painters saying they don’t have time to interact with the world or observe their subject?
If you’re the kind of person, who does better with an external nudge or specific challenges, sign up for a GoodReads Book Challenge. You can set how many books you want to read in a year, and as you mark books as read, the website will keep count for you.
Beyond that, I would love to hear about books or other pieces of writing that inspired you. So, as I build my reading list for the year to come, are there any books you would recommend for my “mindful-reading list” – and why?
Bio: Shahnaz Radjy
Shahnaz’s background is Swiss, Bolivian, and Iranian (yes, really). She loves food, books, horses, adventure, and problem-solving. She is a writer, aspiring farmer & eternal optimist.
After a decade working in public health for the International Labor Organization, the World Economic Forum, and The Vitality Institute, she is now planning to launch a farm and ecotourism project.
She is also recovering from the corporate life. Her writing reflects how beautiful life is outside an office, a reminder to enjoy every minute, wherever you are.
Published posts on Two Drops of Ink:
Winner of the Best 1000 Words for the Image Contest: Shahnaz Radjy: My Secret Legacy
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
Two Drops of Ink provides an additional platform for new, seasoned, and in between writers. Do you need one?
Then consider submitting a guest post today. Here are the guidelines and genres we accept.