The constant advice I see from professional and not-yet-professional writers is this:
- Write a lot. Like, everyday you should be writing.
- Read a lot. Become The Devourer of P
I took the write everyday advice pretty seriously. Though, a bit of compulsive obsession probably played a minor role in that. And the read a lot advice? While I was in college, I was able to sustain the delusion that all of my literature classes were consuming my reader’s brain. However, since graduating and getting my technical writing internship, I’ve read maybe two or three books recreationally.
I’ve also written an entire 140,000 word first draft. So there’s that.
But there’s a line, isn’t there? Between writing and reading and being successful at either. We need to read because that’s how we become better writers. We learn by observation and example. When we read critically, we get a glimpse at the author’s brain. Then we’re like scientists: “Oh, that squiggly bit of cerebral cortex… that’s where the plot twist originated from.”
We need to read because it’s how we understand what works and what doesn’t work.
So the question is, if I like to write so much, why don’t I read as much? The answer comes to you in three very special parts.
WHY I DON’T READ:
Part 1: Reading does strange things to me.
When I read a book, I tend to get sucked in. Things in my life seem less important, the hours of the day become opportunities to get whisked away. Who needs sleep? I stay up until wee hours when I have work the next day. I stop paying attention to real life things like other human beings.
I get so invested in the characters, that their struggles and conflicts become mine. All of this might sound immersive and fun, but it’s also consuming to the point of endangering my ability to pass myself off as a functioning human being.
Part 2: I don’t always read critically.
To get something from what you’re reading and to then apply it to your own writing, you need to read critically. This doesn’t mean you have to write an essay on it when you finish, but it means you should be able to. If you read Sula, you should have some sense of what the birthmark represents insofar as the public imagining of an individual character resonating in their physical representation. If you read Divergent, you might come away with thoughts along the lines of how Veronica Roth convinced readers to believe that staying in Dauntless was a good idea even though it was dangerous and largely unpleasant.
When I read something I’m enjoying, I tend to read it fast. Call it speed reading or call it skimming, but my eyes go straight to the dialogue and often skip over the juicier side details. This isn’t a bad habit, but it also doesn’t make for good critical reading.
Part 3: I’m afraid of plagiarizing.
When I write a book, I don’t have it all planned out. I have a general skeleton of the story, things I want to happen, but the minutiae and development is all on-the-fly. This works for me most of the time. However, if I’m reading other books (particularly books similar to the one I’m writing), I’m always afraid that the decisions and direction of the books will alter the course of my own writing. I know this happens, because I’ve experienced it before. when I was writing my first book, I then went along and read several other books. My creative brain was on, and so each time I read an interesting plot twist or a funny line or vocal character, I would see those same traits pop up in my own writing.
Now, it’s not like I was copying word for word what was in another author’s books, but it felt like cheating. I was using ideas not spawned from my own story, and I wanted my story to have a life of its own. So I stopped reading while I was writing.
Unfortunately, I write pretty much all the time, which is how I went almost an entire year having read less than five books. The madness can’t continue! I need to read some more so I can learn how to write more efficiently, effectively, beautifully, adverbially, and broadly.
Since I finished my book less than a week ago, I’ve sent it to the beta readers who will hopefully have lots of good and critical things to say about it. I’ve already gone through and done some brief revisions of the beginning and part of the ending, and I’m trying to break myself of the obsessive habit of writing.
I’m going to do some reading.
- I’m 1/3 through Insurgent (Veronica Roth) as of this morning (that’s right, I read for ten minutes after waking up because ADDICTIONS DON’T GO AWAY, THEY JUST CHANGE SHAPE).
- I’m going to read the 25k of a friend’s Work in Progress (WIP).
- I’m going to struggle through some more pages of the dreadfully interesting The Universe in a Nutshell by Steven Hawking.
- I will demand to read what Twin Sister has of her WIP.
- I shall read Allegiant after finishing Insurgent.
- I will read at least two other books (to be decided, but likely including Looking for Alaska (John Green) and maybe I’ll finally finish A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)).
THEN, and only THEN will I return to writing anything new. I think I will continue on with revision only after I finish half of the list (because I worry less about plagiarism when I’ve already written the book).
Keep writing. Keep reading. Pay attention.