The other day I was reading Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, in case you’re wondering) and thinking you can’t go wrong emulating him. Then I realized you could go wrong emulating him, because he’s already done the hard-boiled PI thing, and some parts of the book don’t stand up to a contemporary worldview very well and other parts seem dated stylistically. If you sent one of his manuscripts to an agent today, it’d probably be rejected. AND IT SHOULD BE. We’re writing for our time, and if our work is read generations from now, that’s great. But what is appealing, different, illuminating, seminal or even just entertaining today is based on who and what we are as people and as a society now, not what we were sixty years ago.
But I’ve gotten off-track (shocking, I know: it happens so rarely). My point is that while it may not be a good idea to emulate Dashiell Hammett, it is a good thing to read him. And to read everyone else. In all genres and from lots of different time periods.
I’m always amazed at the number of writers who say they don’t have time to read, and then expect to succeed at their craft. I don’t think I’m going out on much of a limb here when I say if you don’t read widely, you probably don’t write all that well. If writing well can be learned (and I think it can be) the way you learn it is not just by doing it but by reading others do it and thinking about how they’re doing it. What works, what doesn’t work, how are Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner both compelling story tellers while being completely different stylistically?
If you’re not sure why your writing isn’t improving or why you’re not getting the responses that you want to get from agents, editors and readers, maybe part of the problem is that you’re not reading enough. And “I don’t have time” is not an excuse. Being committed to a craft means being committed to a craft, even if it means sacrificing some things (like American Idol and Lost).