Debunking Writing Myths: “Read, Read, Read”
If you want to be a writer you must “read, read, read” all the time to learn how.
When you are in the throes of creating the first draft of your story, reading fiction may actually work against you.
I know what you’re thinking—that I’m about to contradict myself.
Last year, in the post Top Ten Writing Tips–Tip #4: Read five published novels in your genre for every one craft book you read., I gave my suggestion for the proper reading ratio to help us truly learn the craft of writing:
- Read five published novels in your genre for every one craft book you read. . . .
While it’s great to read books from throughout the ages, from classics to dime novels of the late 19th/early 20th century to mid-century pulp novels to 1990s experimental fiction, it’s very important to make sure you’re reading new releases in your genre and from the publishers you’re targeting—it’s called market research (thus, you can write those purchases off come tax time!) and it’s something every writer and published author needs to do. It keeps us abreast of current trends, current styles, and what non-writing readers are out there enjoying.
I’m not going back on what I said in that post. It is very important to be well read, both in and out of the genre you’re writing in, both classics and new releases.
But when you’re writing your first draft, that may not be the best time to be reading, reading, reading.
Yes, as writers we want to be well read. We want to see what is out on the market now as well as be well-versed in the classics. However, when you’re in the throes of creating the first draft of your story, reading may not be the best thing for you. You may find yourself unconsciously morphing your own voice to echo the voice of the author whose book you’re reading.
When I was writing the Ransome series, it was helpful for me to listen to Jane Austen’s books on audio to get the patterns of the language engrained in my head. However, when I’m writing my contemporaries, I’ve learned it’s better if I don’t read fiction while I’m writing them, because it not only distracts me, it starts messing with my voice. I’ve noticed this especially since I started editing more fiction than nonfiction—after finishing my monthly editing project in the fiction series I edit for Guideposts, when I go back and re-read what I wrote during the two weeks I work on the editing project, I find that I start to write more like the authors whose work I edit rather than the way I prefer to write. I tell more and I use use more passive language and more adverbs. My writing looks like this:
when I highlight all of the wases and hads and adverbs instead of like this:
which is how I usually write when I don’t have other authors’ voices echoing in my head (and when I have time to go back and completely rewrite the opening chapter of the book).
Now, that’s not to say that reading fiction can’t be helpful when we’re in the process of writing. Sometimes, we need to lose ourselves in someone else’s world, someone else’s story, for a little while, just to recharge our own creative juices. But maybe that’s a better time to read something outside of your genre, something that isn’t going to seep in to your subconscious and try to become part of your story.
There are a few other problems that can arise if we read too much when we’re writing our first draft.
- Self-doubt—Reading published novels, especially within our genre, when we’re still in the development stage of our story can make us doubt our story, our ability, our craft knowledge (not always a bad thing to be challenged on, no), and even our calling to be writers. I’ve never met a published author who didn’t think, at least once, in the process of writing every single one of his or her novels that it was complete and utter crap and not worthy of the nastiest trash heap known to man. So we don’t need to compound that by, consciously or not, comparing our first draft or story idea to someone’s multiply revised and edited published novel.
- Story idea bleed-over—I can’t imagine that anyone reading this blog would purposely plagiarize someone else’s work. But if we do a lot of reading when we’re in the first-draft of our own novel, we may do it unwittingly and not even realize the idea/turn of phrase came from what we just read.
- There’s nothing new under the sun—Sure, we don’t want to labor over writing a novel only to find out when we come up for air after writing the end that someone else just published a book with the themes/ideas/storyline. But, really, there is nothing new under the sun; and if you do too much reading while you’re writing, you’re going to find most of your ideas for your story already at work in someone else’s story. There have been a few reviewers who’ve criticized the ending of Ransome’s Crossing because it ends similarly to how MaryLu Tyndall’s second Charles Towne Belles book, The Blue Enchantress, ends. As I said, there’s nothing new. . . MaryLu and I are friends, but we never talked about these stories when we were writing them—and even though her book came out right around the time I was finishing writing Ransome’s Crossing, I hadn’t read it when I wrote the ending of RC—the ending I’d envisioned for it more than four years earlier. But if I had read MaryLu’s book before I wrote the ending of Ransome’s Crossing, it might have sent my story crashing down around me, because I wouldn’t have wanted people to think that I was aping what she’d done in her book.
- Just reading, not writing—When I saw that Siri Mitchell’s previous release, She Walks in Beauty, was free on Kindle last week, I decided it was high time to pull out the copy of the book I’ve owned for about a year and finally read it. I read it in two sittings over two days. And while I’m very glad I did, because it’s a great book, there’s a big problem—those were two days I didn’t get anything written on my book which is due on May 1. But that’s what happens when we get enthralled with a book. We’ll sacrifice just about anything to finish it, including writing time.
So, yes—read, read, read. But do it when you’re at a point where you have writer’s block, when you’re creatively stumped, or when you’re in the revision/submission process and not actively composing a first draft.
Have you ever had trouble with another author’s voice getting into your head and affecting your writing? For the non-writers, have you ever picked up a recently published book and felt like the author had copied another author’s writing style/voice? (And, if you’d like, what are you currently reading, and what do you like/not like about that author’s style/voice?)
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