How Reading Improved my Writing

From the moment I learned how to read I always wanted to be a writer.  Even before I could read, I was a storyteller.  I used to make up all sorts of stories.  The kind that people knew were stories when I was telling them.  And the kind that I pretended were real and people actually believed them.  Some people might call them lies, I call them an oral rearrangement of the truth.  I was only 3 or 4 at the time, but people always believed me.  My older sister says it was because of the way I told the story.  Apparently I was a little actress back then as well.  My imagination had no limits and I was an excellent storyteller so that had the makings of a great writer, right?

At 11, I wrote my first story, The Land of Magic Water.  I got my aunt to type it up on her computer and my cousin drew illustrations for me.  It was my very own fairytale and testament to my colorful imagination.  As I got older I switched from fairytales to murder mysteries.  Gruesome, but entertaining.  Then I went to school and learned a lot about writing structure, mainly for screenplays since I went to film school.  Somewhere along the way I exchanged my imagination for structure and rules.  Don’t get me wrong, you need structure in writing.  I still find it very important in my storytelling.  I just got so concerned with getting it right, I forgot to nurture my imagination.

Fast forward a few years to when I decided that the types of stories I wanted to tell were fantasy, sci-fi and action.  These were the movies I gravitated to.  Most movies I can wait for until they hit Redbox or Netflix, but these movies I had to see in the theaters.  Up until that point all of the scripts I had written and been just whatever interesting idea popped into my head.  After that I decided I needed to concentrate on writing stories in my preferred genre.  So I started working on a sci-fi script.  When I finished the outline, I was unhappy with it.  It was a paint by numbers story and wasn’t exciting at all.  I read the outline and knew I wouldn’t go see it in the theaters if it were a movie.  So I set it aside until I could figure out why it was so boring. 

Not long after that I went to see Inception.  Before whenever I would see a movie that blew my mind my first thought when it was over was ‘why didn’t I write that?’  After Inception my first thought was ‘I could have never thought of that.’  And it made me sad.  This was the same person who at three came up with stories elaborate yet believable enough to fool adults.  But I knew at that moment, especially after writing that horribly boring outline, I couldn’t come up with such an innovative and exciting concept.  So I decided I had to unlearn everything I had learned about writing and reclaim my imagination.

The first step in my process?  Read.  I watched a lot of sci-fi, but hadn’t read any.  So I went to the library and took out a ton of books.  Then I went on iTunes and downloaded a bunch of sci-fi short stories from Librivox.  After reading lots of good and so-so sci-fi I realized they pretty much all did the same thing.  Even though the story is based in science there is always a very human element involved.  The science is just used as a platform to tell the story.  For example, in the short story Call Me Joe, an organization was building a village on Jupiter.  But because of Jupiter’s inhospitable environment the humans could only do work through an avatar that the human operator was psychically linked to.  The operator was a crippled and eventually his consciousness left him and entered his avatar permanently.  The story was about how this crippled man was able to walk again because of his avatar and how he longed to have that ability again.  He wanted it so bad he willed it so.

So after that I realized I couldn’t just tell a story.  I needed to figure out what I wanted to say with that story.  That was the problem of my outline.  I had nothing to say.  So now, before I start writing I need to have something to say.  A while ago I wrote a short film about vampires.  Everyone who watches the film asks me where did I come up with that story?  I have to admit it was the whole Team Jacob vs Team Edward mania that put the story in my head.  My main questions when writing the short, why were women so ready to fall in love with a being that needed to kill in order to live?

I still haven’t gotten back to that abandoned outline, but I have figured out how to make the stories I tell going forward, better.