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Always Be Reading

Garbage in, garbage out. For any artist, one of the most important workflows—yet, the one most easily forgotten—is the filling of the well. Flooding the mind with new ideas and new perspectives inspires a greater creative consciousness and opens our minds to a better understanding of our own unique voice.

At the start of this year’s publishing cycle1 we encouraged you to always be writing. Then we gave you an idea of how to write screenplays anywhere and anytime using the Fountain markup language. And last week we offered up powerful insight on how to combine the Dramatica theory of story with simple text files to maintain the integrity of your story.

This week we close the circle by opening up your senses the greater stimulation. We do this by reading more.

Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer. — Zadie Smith

Most of these suggestions will be familiar to you; everyone has heard of iBooks and the Kindle. But not everyone is familiar with Marvin or Weekend Read. To write and write and write without taking the time to absorb and subsume leaves the artist parched and ineffective. The following suggestions should quench your thirst and increase the quality of your writing.

Developing the Habit

Understanding the need to develop our minds is easy; finding the time to do it is not. In-between creative writing, family, Twitter feeds, commuting, RSS Feeds, more writing, day jobs, lunch, more writing and more jobs, meetings and dentist appointments, meditation practice and podcasts, commuting home and family dinners, life leaves little time for reading. Even making room for one hour seems a luxury.

In the first article in this series I suggested an app called Persistence2 to track the amount of hours you spend doing what you care about the most. My goal in that article was to read two hours a day. Throughout the entire month of March I managed eight.

Eight measly hours. No wonder my writing seems stilted and sluggish these past couple weeks.

I know of a friend who reads first thing in the morning. He gets up, grabs a cup of coffee and then reads a book for an hour or so before he starts a day. I can’t do that. I get up and I do twenty minutes of Morning Pages.3 Then, depending on the day, I’ll write for an hour or so before I head off to the gym before I come home and get ready to go to work. There simply isn’t time to read during the morning for me.

Nights? I’ve since restricted myself to no writing after the sun goes down,4 but I’m often too tired from a day spent writing and driving and working and driving to keep my eyes open for more than twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes is not enough to make a difference.

This leaves the weekend. Plenty more hours available here and perhaps the answer, upon reflection, is to try to make up for time lost during the week here. Still, it would be nice to find time to read every day. If, as writers we are supposed to be writing every day, we should also be reading every day.

Reading Apps

As with writing tools, modern technology supplies us with great reading tools. Many prefer analog books; they love the smell, the feel, the sheer weight of carrying their favorite Author around wherever they go.

I’m not like that. I’d much rather have access to the entirety of GRRM’s Game of Thrones series than have it delivered in a 10-pound leather knapsack. Always with us all the time, the stress of finding time to read dissipates with these easy-to-carry easy-to-dive-into applications.

iBooks

iBooks is great if you care about how your book looks. While a shiny retina display may be more difficult to read at the pool or on the beach than an eInk Kindle, iBook devices look beautiful. The typography choices, the gloss of the screen and the simulated page turning that happens when you drag a finger from right to left makes the experience of reading digital pleasurable.

Even reading comics in iBooks is enjoyable. Earlier this year I downloaded and started to read Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series in preparation for an adaptation I was supposed to do for one of his novels. 5 On a full sized iPad, the glossy screen accentuated the colors and helped pop the gorgeous artwork to life. The only irritation was a more than occasional errant page turn, an area where Kindle’s bezel buttons excel. That said, the ability to quickly download the next volume in the series well made up for any annoyances.

Kindle

The ultimate reading companion. Every year I buy the latest Kindle, every year I go in with the idea that it will somehow increase my reading time. The Kindle Voyage has finally done that.

Wih a gorgeous Paperwhite display and densely packed dots per inch, the Kindle Voyage most closely resembles the analog experience. I did receive one with a small pinhole light defect at the very bottom of the screen, but this only seems to show itself when the brightness is set high and is therefore easily forgotten.

Neat things about the Kindle: for one, the aforementioned taptic bezel buttons. Adjustable to taste, the feedback you receive from squeezing the casing bridges the gap between digital and analog, making you feel like you’re reading a book

Another great feature: the Flash Cards that store every word you look up in the dictionary. While reading the greatest novel of the 21st century so far, All the Light We Cannot See, I frequently ran into words I wasn’t sure about or wanted to understand better. My Kindle stored these words while I read. After I finished mourning the fact that I’ll never write anything as good as Doerr’s masterpiece, I went back and quizzedmyself on what I didn’t know the first time around. A perfect solution for increasing one’s vocabulary.6

Instant access to everything I’ve read or everything I’ve ever wanted to read? Another great feature. Word Hints—where the Kindle inserts short definitions of difficult words between lines of text? Not so great. This seems to be a feature more geared to kids. My vocabulary may be lacking, but it is not juvenile. It would be great if future versions concentrated on more refined adult settings.

Deplorable feautre? The typography. With only fully-justified to choose from and a scant amount of typesets to choose from, the Kindle fails to delight the senses. Great typography makes a huge difference and does a lot to improve the communication of story to reader. Hopefully this will be fixed in the future.

Marvin

Marvin is the worst named app in the history of apps, but the best free eBook reader on the market. With a “high fidelity interface” and mountains of typesets to choose from, Marvin personalizes the digital reading experience like no other. You don’t have access to any of your iTunes titles or any of your Kindle titles, but when it comes to reading the classics, Marvin excels.

Break t down this way: you want modern grab the Kindle. You want classic, go Marvin.

Weekend Read

When it comes to PDF screenplays you could dump them all in a Dropbox folder and use that app’s built-in PDF reader. Or, you could download Weekend Read and read screenplays in style.

Say goodbye to squint, pinch and zoom.

Indeed. Built by the same people who brought us Fountain and Higgland, Weekend Read grabs the text of your PDFs and makes them pretty for your iPhone (and now iPad).

Whether you enjoy reading your screenplays in Iowan or the more modern Avenir Next, Weekend Read has you covered. If you’re a purist like me, you’ll set it to Courier Prime. Let character and dialogue set the style. You can even switch to Dark Mode if you need to catch up on the latest spec script without waking your partner at night.7

Weekend Read also offers you the choice of setting different swatches for character dialogue. Let’s say you want to identify all the scenes with Bob in them or you’re curious if Mary overwhelms Stacy when it comes to sheer volume of speaking parts. With Weekend Read you can assign blocks of color to those sections of dialogue and very quickly identify problem areas. If you’re reading your own work, you can even scroll quickly through the play and find out if one of your characters is a little wordy. It’s a fun feature that is more productive in use than it is in concept.

Weekend Read’s interpreter occasionally balks with some screenplays, particularly those that work against convention. When moments like this occur, 8 Weekend Read offers the typical PDF reader. Funny thing is, if you have to resort to the fallback, you’re more likely to abandon the screenplay all together; the unfortunate fallout for the digitally spoiled.

Replenishing Your Soul

Staying fit requires regular trips to the gym and eating right. Functioning well at work requires an ergonomic chair and plenty of rest. Writers need none of these. What they do need is a constant wealth of words and situations and character and thematic explorations from which to draw from. They need to be plugged in to what came before and they need to be aware of where they fit into the continuum of narrative. In short, they need to be read.

Read everything. If you haven’t read everything, you’ll never be able to write anything. — Lev Grossman


  1. Narrative First publishes once a week, from March to November. ↩︎

  2. Combined with the Hours app. ↩︎

  3. Morning Pages are three pages of long-form writing with a pen and paper. Made popular by Julia Cameron. ↩︎

  4. This habit seems to work well and has the pleasant side effect of increasing family time. But it still remains difficult to keep those eyes open. ↩︎

  5. Always a good excuse to buy more and more books, research! ↩︎

  6. And a fun way to distract oneself friends from one’s lack of success. ↩︎

  7. This also works well during HR meetings and CEOS pep rallies. ↩︎

  8. As they did with Dan Gilroys excellent Nightcrawler screenplay ↩︎

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