For most writers, reading is like breathing, something we do constantly in the background without thinking much about it. Some years I enjoy setting formal #readinggoals and try to get through a certain number of books in a year or to read outside of my usual comfort zone.
Last year, I read more mysteries. I’m loving anything by Laurie R. King right now, or a good historical mystery that does setting really well. This personal trend was kicked off a few years back when a friend recommended the Quebec writer Louise Penny to me and I discovered the “cosy” mystery. Prior to that, I’d avoided the genre, scared off by some teenage reading that was more in the horror range. Sometimes, there’s nothing better than learning how wrong you can be.
In 2019, I’m reading more books by women of colour, from my own country and from further away. This is what I most often want from reading: to be shaped and re-shaped by something outside my own reality.
But I’ve discovered a bad habit I sometimes take comfort in as a writer: I can end up using reading as an excuse not to be writing. As in: “well, at least I’ve read this week.” Does this sound at all familiar? My best tell-tale clue that I’m doing this is the number of books on writing that pile up on my bedside table.
And so I’ve developed a few new practices to orient my reading so that it actually serves my writing and I want to share these with you in the hope there’s something here that will help reinforce that connection for you as well. On reflection, there are 3 primary ways that I do this:
Writing Project Reading Lists
I keep a list of books for each separate writing project. These aren’t strictly reference books, though there might be some non-fiction on the list. (The list for my current novel-in-progress has some out-of-print books my father gifted me on men who sailed on schooners out of Newfoundland in the early-to-mid 20th Century.)
I try to keep a Writing Project Reading List to under 10 books, and these are ones I will come back to multiple times. They might be books in the same genre, or in a different genre but with different approaches to structure or form that interest me. There might be a book on writing technique that’s particularly relevant. (My mixed-genre memoir reading list has The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.)
And the list is also likely to include novels I aspire to in some way, perhaps in the voice of the protagonist, or structural ambition, or the rhythm and music of the individual paragraphs — which for me is the fingerprint of the writer.
I keep my copies of these books in my writing space and come back to them constantly, reading and re-reading passages. I tag the pages and fill them with sticky notes where I notice something particularly interesting or inspiring, all my aha and aw damn moments. (Clearly, these aren’t library books; I buy them new or second-hand so I can really have my way with them.)
Side note: I know there are people who prefer not to read other writers in the same genre while writing, for fear of tainting the “purity” of their own voice. But I’ve never been under the illusion that my voice is pure. I expect and hope that I’ve learned a thing or two from better writers along the way. My view is that of course we’re influenced by other writers: that’s why we’re here.
This is an important way to keep your reading connected with your writing. You may find that you’ve already kinda-sorta been doing this but not in a formal way. I encourage you to think consciously about curating a reading list for each specific writing project and to use it for artistic and technical inspiration. Speaking of which…
I’m not in this situation at the moment, but there have been times when I found it hard to start writing. I had the time blocked out and would go to my desk but just couldn’t get properly started so would end up checking my phone or just catching up “quickly” on a few email, or resorting to “researching” via Dr. Google, and then leaving my desk with no actual words written.
I know you feel me on this so let’s not dwell on it! This was always so discouraging and could lead to skipping the next planned writing session. I have a few ways to combat this now, and one of them involves reading.
The trick is to identify 2-3 contemporary writers whose writing you admire so fervently that it makes you grateful to be alive and able to read their words on the page. The writers who make your being hum – you know the ones – if you’re a writer, you likely have a few of these. Always have some of their work nearby in your writing space and if you’re having trouble starting, give yourself a timed reading session of 10-15 minutes max just before you start in on your own work.
Set a timer and when it goes off, put their work aside and begin again on your own, basking a little in reflected glory and enjoying the companionship of others who love language, image and story as much as you do. You’re not trying to compete with these writers, you’re just enjoying being alive and writing in the same time: how great is that?! Now, put down their words and go play with your own.
My personal go-to treasures change all the time (guys, I love the words sooo much I cannot help myself) but have included George Saunders (short stories), Michael Crummey (novels) and Adrienne Rich (poetry).
Read Outside Your Comfort Zone
I referred to this above in a different sense, but there’s a way to make this kind of reading really work for your writing.
Let’s say you’re someone who writes love stories – no matter what you try to write, surprise! there’s a love story in it. Or perhaps you find yourself always writing very dark material. (LOVE the writers of the dark: long may they live.) Now you’re going to build a reading list to learn from your opposite.
- If you tend to always write love stories, try reading horror (if you can) or some dark tragedy.
- If you always write speculative fiction, get thee some James Patterson.
- If you always write autobiographical material, speculative fiction might be just the thing for you. (It was for me!)
- And for all literary poets: what if there were things to be learned from our Instagrammer friends? (Give it a minute: the shock will subside.)
Why not try it out? But the key is to try it with purpose, and so this means pens and sticky notes at the ready while you’re reading. What are these writers doing at a technical level? How are they shaping their stories, characters and paragraphs? I guarantee there’s something to be learned here and you might find yourself bringing a new and original twist to the page in the process. (Speculative tragedy love story mystery mash-up? Yes please! I will advance order that one right now.)
There’s more – much more – that can be said about reading as a writer. Last week I was meeting with a writer I’m mentoring and we spoke about Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer which I highly recommend all writers have on their shelves. Prose gives you practical tips for how you can improve your technical capacity as a writer through analyzing the books you admire.
A word of caution though: once you learn how do this, there’s no going back. It’s generally a very good thing but you may at times find yourself reading THE novel of the season and disagreeing strongly with the writer on structure. But that’s the fun of it, isn’t it?
Would love to hear your personal book recommendations for writers – what are the works you think we could all learn something from? Come find me on Instagram or FaceBook and let me know your thoughts.
**And if you can show me how I’m wrong to be avoiding horror as a genre, I’m open to that. Maybe??