Monday, April 18, 2016

Reading While Writing: A Recipe

When I was a newbie at this writing thing I worried a lot. (Editor's Note: Unlike now, you mean?) What should I wear while writing? Computer or longhand? How many spaces should I indent? These are the things all writers worry about when embarking on the scary path of writing because they are the easy. You can fiddle with these details endlessly, never committing to actual writing.

But the biggest worry I let consume my mind before writing my first book: Should writers read while writing? What if the amazing book I’m reading seeps into what I’m writing?

The argument goes something like this: What if I’m reading American Gods and suddenly I write something incredibly Neil Gaiman-esque? Or worse—and more likely— what if I create a pale facsimile? Or if I plagiarize?

It seemed too dangerous to read anything at all, like a novitiate on her way to the nunnery who, driving past a happy hour sign and thinks, “Maybe I should go in and have one last rum and Coke?”

I made the mistake of not reading while I was writing my first book. No books AT ALL while writing my first draft. Keep the book pure. No rum and Coke for this How-Do-You-Solve-A-Problem-Like-Maria.

Maybe this works for some people, I don’t know. For me, reading is a combination of writing fuel and those mind expanding mushroom-y drugs I’ve never tried but read a lot about when I was fifteen, during my William S. Burroughs phase.

Reading does things to me. I can see patterns of meaning, filaments of connection between the made up worlds spilled out onto the page and my own life. If reading is doing that kind of good to my mind and soul, how much more good can it do to my writing?

I wrote that first book on the no-reading-regime and it was bad. It didn’t perform any of the magic that books should perform. The coalescing of thoughts and feelings, the sharp acknowledgement that someone who has never met you could understand something about your life that you’ve only just discovered. This book was just a bunch of characters standing in space saying words. That’s a bad book.

Looking back on that fallen-soufflĂ© of a book I think it was down to two things; it was my first book and I didn’t know what I was doing and, I consciously choose not to read while writing.

That’s like going on a grapefruit diet before running a marathon.

So, I worked out a recipe for how to combat the reading while writing seepage problem.

Step One:
Read a sh*t ton of books. Saturate your brain with words from a variety of different places.

Step Two:
Have your bullcrap meter turned all the way up to eleven, so you know if you are unconsciously pilfering.

Step Three:
If you are writing in one genre, read in a wholly other genre. Or don’t read genre at all – read non-fiction. Or read books you have already read and loved.

Step Four:
Choose books that compliment what you are writing. Remember the color wheel from art class? Complimentary colors are opposites. Yellow and Purple. Red and Green. Historical Fiction and Sci-Fi Romance.

Step Five:
Read what challenges you. Read books that poke at you, so you can poke at your own work-in-progress. It’s no bad thing to feel a little off balance while writing.

Step Six:
Beta read for other writers. When you beta read or crit, you’re firing up your critical faculties. Then you get to bring your sharpened critical mind to your own work-in-progress. Win for them, win for you.

While writing my last manuscript, a YA contemporary, I read:
  • ·      A biography of cancer
  • ·      A high fantasy
  • ·      My favorite Chronicles of Narnia book, The Silver Chair
  • ·      Two beta reads for writing friends who kick ass and write in vastly different styles.
  • ·      Golden Age Mystery Not by Agatha Christie

 Reading is essential to writing. Go forth and saturate your neurons. And write.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

I Like My Books Like I Like My Music

If you tell me, “This book will break your heart,” I’ll scoot my chair a little closer to you, the better to hear your book recommendation.

If you tell me “It’s a tough read, complicated and devastating and exhilarating”—halfway through your adjective parade, I’m downloading the book onto my Audible app.

That’s how I take my books. Challenging and emotional and difficult.

That’s how I take my music, too.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

My husband makes fun of me because I can forgive somewhat boring music in a song, but I cannot forgive boring lyrics. Words are too important to be empty containers for the lowest common denominator.

That doesn’t mean I gravitate towards the nastiest, grittiest books I can find (just like I don’t stream Norwegian Death Metal 24/7. Or, frankly, ever.) It only means that I look for books that resonate.

David Arnold’s MOSQUITOLAND broke my heart. A 16 year-old girl on a journey to reach a distant mother who needs her. Put like that, it’s nothing special, but the images and emotions pulled out of me by the descriptions (some ridiculous, like the couple on the roof of the gas station; some deeply poignant like the box in an old woman’s hands) were etched into my heart forever.

No, not really. ‘Etched into my heart forever’ are definitely lowest common denominator words. So overblown, they’re meaningless. What I should have said was that MOSQUITOLAND made me think about the profound good that exists in ourselves and in others even when we don’t believe in it. And how damaged lives can be perfectly enough.

I create a playlist for every book I write, and some books, like MOSQUITOLAND, that I love and want to re-live with music. I did it for ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell and also for SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman.

It’s possible that I stood at a recent Savages show and thought, “Park would love this show. Eleanor would probably think it was too loud.”

Good music and good books have the same elements. Heart, yeah, but not twangy-twangy-woe-is-me-heart that you’ve heard one thousand times before. It has to have authenticity and be stripped down to a vulnerable place where you can’t dismiss it.

And Voice. Music and books have to have singular, arresting voices, pitched so exactly right that you can hear it above the cacophony of every day voices. (Just so we’re clear, the every day voices tell me to eat more cake and watch old Murder She Wrote episodes. That’s not the voice I’m talking about here.)

Finally good books and music need Brains. Possibly zombies eating brains, I won’t rule any genre out, but mostly the kind of brains that plot out a narrative with twists and reversals that make you snap back your head, read a line again, listen to the same verse twenty times, to pry out meaning.

So, how do you like your music and books? Are your tastes the similar in both, or do you read slasher horror while listening to the Bee Gees? (That sounds pretty good, actually…)
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