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Debunking Writing Myths: “Read, Read, Read”

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

If you want to be a writer you must “read, read, read” all the time to learn how.

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When you are in the throes of creating the first draft of your story, reading fiction may actually work against you.

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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?)

27 Comments leave one →
  1. Lady DragonKeeper permalink
    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 1:44 am

    Great article! That’s a lot to think about … I’ve always loved reading and I think a lot of the grammar and punctuation in my writing (for school) I’ve picked up almost through “osmosis.” Many times I’ll be correcting or editing someone else’s paper and I’ll say something like, “I don’t remember the rule about why ____ should be like this, but the other way you had it looks wrong.” =P

    I can’t think of any book I’ve read that seemed copied off the top of my head … right now my “for fun” reading is “Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Vortex” by Troy Denning … I like that he pays attention to minor SW charries that other SW authors don’t always bother to mention …

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    • Tuesday, March 8, 2011 3:16 pm

      I’m sure you’ve been told this before, but don’t rely on published books, especially novels, to learn proper grammar and punctuation. Hopefully a book has been through a vigorous process, but more and more, as staff gets cut at publishing houses, the editing/proofreading process a manuscript goes through is less and less vigorous.

      Just as I always suggest that when critiquing elements of someone’s writing they should refer to a published craft book for backup on why/why not to do something, if you’re going to correct someone’s grammar/punctuation, make sure you have a grammar handbook you’re looking it up in so that both you and the person whose work you’re correcting know why it’s the proper way to do something.

      I highly recommend Diana Hacker’s Bedford Handbook which is what I used when I was a teaching assistant for a college freshman comp class many years ago.

      As far as secondary/obscure characters from Star Wars, have you read the Star Wars: X-Wings series? It features my absolute favorite SW character ever, Wedge Antilles.

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      • Lady DragonKeeper permalink
        Saturday, March 12, 2011 9:11 pm

        Ah, yes –that’s true … Hmm, Diana Hacker? I think she wrote on of my English textbooks … I should see if it’s the Bedford Handbook. =)

        I enjoyed the X-Wing books! Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston both had a good mix of action and humor. It reminded me of the 1970s show “Black Sheep Squadron” a bit … Wedge is the sort of “everyday man” character that you can relate to –one of my favorite “non-Force users.” =) Most of the Star Wars books Stackpole and Allston wrote after the X-Wing books usually have some of “their characters” in there …

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  2. Tuesday, March 8, 2011 2:15 am

    Actually I have read a few books where I have thought thats like something else. One book and I noticed in another review that it reminded us a little of the Sound of Music just the way the governess and the children reacted. More recently I have read a couple also where it felt like I had read it before right now cant remember which books besides the first one which really stuck me as similar in some ways.
    Im reading Mary’s Guardian by Carl Preston I actually get to read it and then judge it for a Australian christian book awards. This is a historical novel set in early Australia infact the main characters were convicts on the first fleet arriving in Australia. I cant say what I like best about it but I can say its got me hooked. I read way to late last night and didn’t want to stop. I think partly its the story line and I just want to know what will happen next. I found I was hooked by the first page.

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    • Kav permalink
      Tuesday, March 8, 2011 2:14 pm

      Oh – AusJenny — I think I read the same Sound of Music book that you did! At least that’s what I thought of when I started reading too. 🙂

      Like

      • Tuesday, March 8, 2011 4:05 pm

        I actually loved the book and it was different but the way the kids had gone through governesses and what they would do even if it was only a couple of kids. the rest of the story was different and I really want the next book in the series.

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    • Tuesday, March 8, 2011 3:19 pm

      That book you’re reading now sounds interesting. I’ll have to see if it’s available in the States. In the second book of my new historical proposal, the hero is originally from Australia, so I’m starting to collect titles of Australian historical novels that might help me gain insight into the era/environment in which he would have grown up.

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      • Tuesday, March 8, 2011 4:02 pm

        Kaye finished the book last night (which means study today will be interesting) I need my sleep!
        The book is actually from the first fleet so shows early life in Australia with some of its huge issues. The main characters are former convicts but it does have alot of historical fact. The early pioneers really did have it hard here.
        What era is the Australia from. We dont have as many Australian Christian books but I remember reading Currency Lass by Margaret Reeson which was early years of Australia and is based on a true story its a bit later than the book I finish.

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      • Tuesday, March 8, 2011 4:10 pm

        Jenny, the book is set in 1851, and he’s been living in England for almost twenty years (since he was 12). His background is that his father, a surveyor, discovered gold on his claim in Mayday Hills in 1825—but the government made him keep quiet about the discovery because they didn’t want the population to hear about it. (This is based on historic research that I did when developing the character.) The father doesn’t want Neal to grow up in the hard-scrabble life he’d be forced to live in Australia, so he sends him to live with his aunt in Oxford, England. In the novel, he’s a doctor who’s managed to hide his place of origin—until he’s called upon by the Australian contingent who are responsible for coming up with the Australian display at the Great Exhibition (also a fact—the contingent was made up of Australians already living in England).

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        • Tuesday, March 8, 2011 8:01 pm

          Kaye that sounds so exciting. That was an exciting time in Australia’s history in the gold fields its around the time the Eureka stockade happened. (that was the 1850’s) I cant wait to see the book it will be great to have australia mentioned in a book.

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  3. Patty Smith Hall permalink
    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 7:33 am

    Hey Kaye!
    First, how are you doing? How is the ankle? When you pop into my thoughts, I say a quick prayer for you.

    Great topic, and so true. I stopped writing for months as a time because I just couldn’t bare to read how wonderfully everyone wrote in comparsion to me. And I totally agree–I never read anything while I’ve pushing out that first draft.

    So now, just as soon as I write ‘the end,’ I pick a book that I’ve been dying to read and reward myself by curling up on the couch with a coke and a bit of chocolate and emerse myself into a book. Then I can enjoy all the hard work that author has poured into her/his story without all the self-doubt.

    One thing I do that feeds that ‘need’ for a book is 1) I subscribed to Romantic Times so that I could read the synopsis of new releases to get a feel of what’s coming out in the market and 2)I don’t stop buying books during my first draft. That way at the end of my own writing, I had a couple of books that I’ve been looking forward to reading.

    Hoping that everyone has a blessed day!
    Patty

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    • Tuesday, March 8, 2011 3:22 pm

      One thing I can do, if I really feel the urge to read or the need for a break when I’m writing, is that I’ll read the opposite of what I’m writing—if I’m writing a contemporary, I’ll read a historical (as I just did with Siri Mitchell’s book) and vice versa.

      I spend a lot of time on Amazon going through their “Recommended for You” book list. And once I’m on a book’s page, I’ll scroll through the list of similar books that people who bought that book also bought. My Amazon wishlist is made up mostly of books I want to go back and revisit later (or those that haven’t yet released) when I’m not in the middle of trying to get my own book written.

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  4. Charmaine Gossett permalink
    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 7:53 am

    I am currently reading Fannie Flagg’s books. I am on the list at the library for her latest I STILL DREAM OF YOU. Her titles grab me. I haven’t read FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, but I saw the movie and liked her style. Last week I read DAISY FAY AND THE M IRACLE MAN. I haven’t laughed so much or so hard in a long time. I love her sense of writing in this book. But her style doesn’t seem to be consistant. STANDING IN THE RAINBOW was too long and not as humorious. I read part I, but didn’t read part II. I think her first book, or one of the first she wrote was A REDBIRD CHRISTMAS, which I liked very much, but nothing of hers that I have read is as funny as DAISY FAY.
    I think what appeals to me is her tongue in cheek style of telling the story. I definitely want to have a sense of humor come through my stories, even if they deal with heavy subjects.

    In my reading, I like to read all the books of an author and analyze their style before I move on to another.

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    • Tuesday, March 8, 2011 3:23 pm

      If you enjoy Fanny Flagg, you’ll probably like Lisa Patton, too (no, not the meteorologist from Channel 2). I’ve had the opportunity to meet Lisa a few times. She says that Fanny Flagg is one of her favorite authors.
      http://www.lisapatton.com/

      Like

  5. Tuesday, March 8, 2011 9:35 am

    Once at SHU, I read a historical YA written in first-person present tense. My thesis was historical YA in first-person PAST tense, but the chapter I wrote immediately after reading this other book was largely in present tense. My crit partners were going nuts–this was after I’d established myself as someone who knew better than to change tenses in the middle of a book! Another term, I read a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine and my protagonist, Evelyn, spent a chapter being called Eleanor. So yeah, sometimes another author’s voice isn’t what you want floating around in your head:)

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    • Tuesday, March 8, 2011 3:26 pm

      After each semester at SHU, when I could stop and re-read everything I’d written that term, I could mark where I’d read each of my required books, as my writing started taking on some of the characteristics/qualities of the novels I’d read. I do have to say, though, learning how to read critically really helped me out, in some ways, and really screwed me up in others. It helped me to be able to identify what works and doesn’t work for me in something I’m reading; but it also screwed me up, because now it’s so much harder to read for pleasure!

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  6. Kav permalink
    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 2:17 pm

    Honestly, I don’t know where I stand on this. I can’t imagine NOT reading a book for even one day. Don’t think I could do it. Mind you I read while I commute and the idea of staring vacantly out the window while I travel to work and back makes me antsy. Not to mention the gazillion fantastic books out there just begging me to read them. It would be cruel not to. I guess I’m in the middle of a conundrum.

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    • Tuesday, March 8, 2011 3:27 pm

      Have you ever tried writing on your commute? When I commuted in to Washington DC on the Metro, I always carried a spiral notebook with me and wrote if I wasn’t in the middle of reading a book or didn’t feel like reading.

      Like

  7. Tuesday, March 8, 2011 3:04 pm

    You always have the most down to earth, sensible writing advice which is why I come over:) I’ve always resisted the notion of “read, read, read” for the reasons you’ve detailed here, especially when you’re trying to find your own voice. I was such a Victoria Holt fan for years that I began to sound like her. Not a bad thing, maybe, but not me. I’m finding while reading fiction in one particular publishing house in the CBA, the books are all starting to sound the same to me. It’s almost as if they’re being edited by the same person and the writer’s voice is lost. Strange. Perhaps it’s because their guidelines for romance are so strict that it doesn’t leave much room for the author’s voice, originality of plot, characterization, etc. My 2 cents anyway…

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    • Tuesday, March 8, 2011 3:30 pm

      Laura, I haven’t noticed it at just one publishing house . . . but I have noticed across the board in CBA that authors’ voices are becoming homogenized. That’s one of the reasons I fight so hard for some of my more unique similes and metaphors and turns of phrase when I’m in the editorial process. If it’s a matter of understandability, I’ll rewrite it, no problem. but when they start trying to mess with my voice—or worse yet, my character’s voices—that’s when I take a stand, because I don’t want to start sounding like everyone else out there.

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  8. Tuesday, March 8, 2011 3:12 pm

    Wise words. On the other hand, while it’s true that we run the risk of emulating another writer’s voice, I find myself inspired. I tend to read on days I am stuck with my own writing, which inadvertently helps untangle my fuzzy, and writerly web.

    So I think that reading while writing our first draft is an individual experience.

    Thanks for encouraging me to think today.

    Much enjoyed your blog.

    Like

    • Tuesday, March 8, 2011 3:33 pm

      I’ve had many flashes of inspiration for my own stories while reading—one time, it was a full-blown scene for the Ransome series while I was slogging through Lord of the Rings. And it wasn’t even a scene that went in the book I was writing at the time (Honor) but the second book (Crossing). And that scene, written down as soon as I had the idea (which is unusual for me, I’m very much a chronological writer), appears almost in its original entirety in Crossing. And I owe that to reading Lord of the Rings when I should have been writing.

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  9. Tuesday, March 8, 2011 10:15 pm

    I go on reading binges every once in a while. I have such a stock-pile of books to read, mostly by people I “know” and have such respect for, and being a librarian, I absolutely LOVE finding new, unfamiliar authors. My Christian Fiction section is very healthy. 🙂

    BUT, while I always have a book going, I try to limit my reading to right before bedtime. I really haven’t noticed other authors’ voices “bleeding over” into my writing, but I’m sure it could happen. Hey, if I get the likes of Kaye Dacus or Janice Thompson in my head, I can think of worse things. 😀

    Do you remember the “Remington Steele” episode in which Remington is asked to write his autobiography? He sits on the sofa with the stenographer, and begins dictating, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” She stops him, internal editor rearing its head, and corrects, “Wouldn’t that be, ‘It was both the best and worst of times?” LOLOL

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  10. Saturday, March 12, 2011 10:15 am

    Before I started my Christian Children’s Mystery series, “The Adventures of Punkin and Boo,” I bought an almost-complete Hardy Boys collection on E-Bay and re-read it – about thirty books – takes about two hours to read one. I also love to read Zane Grey, I inherited about twenty of them. He’s brilliant at setting up the on-going conflict between the good guy and the villain, and the developing hate-love relationship between the boy and the girl.

    As King Solomon said, “There’s nothing new under the sun…” (Then his advisor pointed out that he had said that yesterday.)

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Trackbacks

  1. Flannery’s Favorites–Day 1 « KayeDacus.com
  2. Writer-Talk Wednesday: Debunking Writing Myths | KayeDacus.com

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