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-soufflé 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.
Read a sh*t ton of books. Saturate your brain with words from a variety of different places.
Have your bullcrap meter turned all the way up to eleven, so you know if you are unconsciously pilfering.
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.
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.
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.
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.