WRITERS: This is part 2 of a contest underway on the Telegraph Online.
As I wrote before, you have to register with the site to get access
to the articles, and they're up to #4.

However, this is the (shortened) version of entry #2 in the series.

Last week, I asked you all to write one sentence beginning with
the words, "The day after my eighth birthday, my father told me"

The response on the website has been terrific, but to allow those
responding by post an equal chance and taking newspaper lead-times
into account, I have to comment on the results of the exercises a
fortnight after they have been set. So this week, I am going to suggest
a little extra work for those of you who have done your first sentences already.

You are going to start writing a novel. What do you think might be
the most useful thing you can do to prepare?
Sharpen your pencils,
perhaps? Clear the bank statements from your desk or the crumbs from the
kitchen table in order to have a flat surface? There are many ways in which
one can prepare to write a novel but there is one thing you can do, and
continue doing, which will really help. You must read.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been at events with
other novelists and heard them say, "Well, I don't actually read other
writers when I am working on a book myself." To not-read when you
are writing seems to me as odd as refusing to listen to any French
when you are trying to learn it.

Do athletes not-watch anyone else running while they are training?
Do surgeons say, "I think it's best to ignore any new medical developments
while I'm practising myself"?

Writers who don't read would probably defend themselves by claiming
they don't want to be influenced by others, but that strikes me as an
equally odd position. Bad writing can be an incredibly positive influence
if you learn to analyse why it is bad and resolve not to do the same.

[snip]

All writers are products of their own era, however timeless the themes
of their writing or the excellence of their prose. If all you read is Dostoevsky,
then however much you enjoy his work as a reader, as a writer you will
simply get depressed because you will never be Dostoevsky.

But if Dostoevsky were writing today, then he wouldn't be Dostoevsky
either. "On a very hot evening at the beginning of July a young man left
his little room at the top of a house in Carpenter Lane, went out into the
street, and, as though unable to make up his mind, walked slowly in the direction of Kokushkin Bridge."

Read the first line of Crime and Punishment and you know instantly that you are in a 19th-century novel. The length of the sentence is a clue but the real giveaway is the phrase, "as though unable to make up his mind". The omniscient narrator who says, uncertainly, "as though" only appears nowadays in the pages of pastiche.

So for those of you who have already done the first sentence exercise set last week, this week's homework is as follows: read. Go into a library or a bookshop, and pick up half a dozen contemporary novels at random.

Would the first sentence make you want to read on? If not, why not? Read and keep reading. It isn't just a matter of learning from other people's mistakes, it's a matter of learning how novelists think, so you can think like one, too. Steep yourself in the language of fiction in exactly the same way you would read as much French as possible if you were trying to learn French.