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Wearing Books Like Hats: On Reading as a Writer

In my continual quest to find new writing companions, I had a coffee date with a new writer last week, another Bay Area part-timer who’s trying to push out a draft of her first book. When she sketched the plot for me — a YA dystopia — my first question was “oh, so how many of the current crop have you read?” As a long-time dystopia fan, I’m used to my favorite subgenre being a few books stuffed in among the SF/F mainstream, and it still doesn’t make intuitive sense to me that The Hunger Games has thrown open the doors for a genre that now has its own section in the Young Adult shelves and what seems like a new movie released every other week. So I was expecting her to¬†mention Divergent, maybe Matched or Uglies or Legend or The Maze Runner (I’ve read at least the first book in the first four series).

Instead, she just tilted her head and gave me a funny look. “I haven’t read any of them. Why?”

I know this new acquaintance isn’t alone in her experience. I’ve met other writers who don’t read at all in their genre, or who stay away from fiction altogether when they’re writing. I’ve heard the excuses, too, that it’ll pollute your vision or depress you or even that you’re opening yourself up to inadvertent plagiarism. But my own experience has put me firmly in the camp of those like Stephen King, who say that writers have to be readers first.

Speaking just for myself, the other way doesn’t make much sense: I definitely took my first step toward a writing life when I found a story I loved. The first book I can remember reading over and over again was¬†Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty: I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my first attempt at a novel, the year I turned eleven, was a first-person memoir from the point of view of a horse.

In my experience, that’s the hazard of turning from reading to writing once you’ve fallen in love with a single story. My second try at a novel-length work, started and abandoned in middle school, told the tale of a group of kids from half a dozen different planets who crewed a spaceship. I thought a lot about my characters, and in a move that should’ve given me the hint that sociology was in my future, I spent an enormous amount of time developing my various alien races’ cultures (though I can’t make any claims to high originality: I’m pretty sure there was a cat person and a fish person). But when it came to the details a little further from my geeky worldbuilding heart, like the mechanics of the ship, I borrowed very heavily from the sci-fi story I was most familiar with at the time: Bill Mumy & Peter David’s Space Cases (may it rest in peace).

The same thing happened to me as a college freshman, when I set out to write my very own dystopian novel. I had fairly well-rounded characters and a carefully worked out setting, but when I read the manuscript over now, I can’t see anything but echoes of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Teens being assigned to their jobs by a central council; children being raised in non-biological families so that no one has to actually discuss the messiness of hormonal reproduction (said hormones being conveniently repressed by a chemical); no music, art or poetry. You get the idea.

My current writing project isn’t dystopian, but it is a fictionalized memoir, and a big fat fantasy series, and a story set in a distinctly non-Tolkien world that nonetheless has magic and non-human sentient beings and swordfights. And as I work on it, I’ve increasingly come to believe that reading other books with those qualities — or some of them, or none of them — is an essential part of helping me to make my book better.

In PhD programs, one of the rites of passage that doesn’t get as much press as the thesis defense (with or without snakes) is sitting for qualifying exams. When I was in the Berkeley sociology department, that process typically involved choosing two substantive fields (like sociology of education, sociology of race, sociology of culture) and then sitting down for 6 months to make yourself an expert in those fields, along with the field of sociological theory. Once you felt like you’d reached expert level, you were locked in a room with four faculty members for two hours and forced to answer questions to demonstrate your expertise. The main goal of this exercise was to train you to teach, but it was also framed as being key to your development as an independent scholar. The thinking went that if you didn’t know where your own research fits into the field, you were working with one hand tied behind your back.

Obviously, writing fiction is different than writing sociology (one of the main reasons I’ve opted to do more of the former and less of the latter), but I think the principle stands: even if writing “marketable” fiction is the last thing from your mind, reading other things like the story you’re writing will help you write better. Now that I’ve read bits of a dozen different high fantasy series, when I hit a roadblock in my plotting or worldbuilding I’m less likely to catch myself defaulting to “what would Tolkien do?” And no matter what your final goal is for your work, it’s still useful to know if there are books out there in the world that do what you do. Other people will assume you’ve read them, and if your new idea for a YA dystopia randomly happens to look an awful lot like The Hunger Games, you’ll want to know it sooner rather than later.

There are immediate practical benefits, too. When I finish a book and want to rave about its amazingness (or terribleness), I’m more inclined than I used to be to sit down and figure out why it worked for me, or didn’t. In my reading, I’ve seen dozens of different ways to write action scenes; I’ve learned some of the common pitfalls for dialogue (hint: in most cases, your characters’ spoken words should probably sound different than the narrator’s); I’ve started to get a sense for when a twist is too obvious. Most times, when I’m reading, I’m learning and having fun all at once.

I didn’t tell my new acquaintance that she ought to drop everything and go to the library, but if I end up meeting up with her again, I may do just that. Because when you want to claim membership in a club, whether it’s sociology or authorhood, it seems to me it’ll give you a leg up if you know the senior members’ names.

Or, to put it another way, here’s some advice from one of the greatest members of the Genre Writers’ Club:

“You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” — Ray Bradbury

Sources I’ve used to find Things to Read:

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The Clockwork Muse: On Writing and Routines

Submitting yourself in a self-disciplined manner to temporal routines certainly undermines the common Romantic image of the bohemian writer who forgoes structure in order to accommodate essentially unscheduled outbursts of creative energy. A careful examination of actual writers’ work habits, however, strongly suggests that such an image is by and large a myth. Very few writers actually sit down to write only when they feel particularly inspired… — from The Clockwork Muse, p. 4

As of June 1, I have officially moved my primary creative focus from worldbuilding back to drafting (and there were a thousand tiny cheers!). Things are going well so far, but since this isn’t my first time through this process, I know that they won’t always go well. Although the process of writing a dissertation and a novel are different in many respects (not least for me the fact that I’m actually excited about my novel at least — conservatively — 80% of the time), there’s one big element they have in common. Long, complicated projects, the doing of which require you the writer to spend a lot of time sitting in a room staring at a notepad or computer screen and pleading for ideas to come.

Eviatar Zerubavel’s The Clockwork Muse frames itself as a book for academic writers, and I first heard its name in a graduate course. Zerubavel is a sociologist whose work primarily touches on “everyday life.” His most recent book, Ancestors and Relatives, looks at the social construction of genealogy and family relationships (which you will realize, if you know anything about me, is a book that I eagerly anticipated and devoured with great glee), but he’s also written several books on the social construction of time. With that in mind, it’s probably not a big surprise that he wrote a book for other academics on how organizing one’s time can help one to be more productive with the writing of large projects.

The biggest piece of Zerubavel’s argument, as suggested by his title, is deceptively simple: find a time in your schedule that you can devote to writing, and stick with it. I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and it’s probably not a new idea for anyone who’s ever gone through graduate school: among the dissertating set, it’s almost standard to hear people saying that “Monday and Wednesday mornings/evenings between 4 and 6/weekdays until noon are my sacred writing time.” That said, even as a long-time adherent to the “blocking out the time” strategy, I still found some things in this little book that seemed both interesting and new.

The bits that resonated most with me fell into a few main categories:

  1. Writer, (take the time to) know thyself. Over and over again, Zerubavel points out that in the early stages of embarking on a big project, it’s important to figure out the optimal conditions that will allow you to get writing done. Using examples from both academic writers and novelists, people with day jobs and those without, he points out that most “professional writers” have designated places and times where they write. I hadn’t heard most of these examples before, and they’re pretty fascinating, like the story that Maya Angelou always kept a hotel room reserved in whatever city she lived in, so that she could go there and write without fear of being interrupted by concerns at home. He points out that it’ll probably take some trial and error to figure out things like how long your optimal writing session is and what times of day work best for you. For me, for instance, I’m starting to learn that attempting to get serious drafting work done in a session of less than an hour is not going to leave me feeling very satisfied: it takes me at least 30-40 minutes to really get rolling on what I’m doing, so if I have to stop after an hour I’ll usually just have gotten on a roll and will be very frustrated. A session of between 2-3 hours usually strikes the right balance for me of productive and sustainable. Another suggestion I’m planning to try in the next few weeks is to actually track how your writing sessions go for a week or so, to get a sense of what works best for you. If I were to do that for my week so far, it might look something like this:
    1. Monday (my designated “Writing Day” each week): Worked from ~9:30-3 PM, with breaks. Hit a low energy point after lunch at about 1:30 but really wanted to finish the scene I was working on, so kept at it and found my momentum again.
    2. Tuesday: Short session after many errands, from 2:30 to 4ish. Higher-energy than I would have expected for that time in the afternoon. Only about half an hour of actually adding words to the draft, but worked through a difficult section and started a new chapter, so I’ll go easy on myself.
    3. Wednesday: Planned to start at 9, distracted and didn’t really hit a flow until close to 10 (very thorough at checking email in the meantime though!) Stopped at 11:30 to do other things feeling like I could have done more.
  2. Think about your project in terms of “A-list,” “B-list,” and “C-list” tasks. This is something I’ve just started in the last week or so, and it’s working quite well so far. Basically, the idea is that even if you’ve got time blocked out as “writing time,” that may not guarantee that you’re in the right head space to write. If you’re distracted or cranky or sleepy, think about other writing-related tasks that you could do to still keep yourself in the right head space and see if inspiration might strike. For instance, I’m learning that things like reviewing the previous day’s writing or doing some (limited) research/world-buildy pondering in the first half hour of a session is a good way to wake myself up.
  3. Remember that there will probably be another draft after this one. This is advice I’ve gotten from writing teachers, too; one of my Writing Salon teachers actually had us do an exercise where we wrote “I am writing a fun, messy first draft” over and over like Bart Simpson at the chalkboard. But maybe because I’m in newly-begun second draft mode, Zerubavel’s way of explaining it resonated with me more:

“Having to write an entire dissertation or book several times certainly sounds much more anxiety-provoking than having to do it only once. Yet it is precisely the fact that you can actually write it more than just once that helps relieve much of the pressure as well as reduce much of the anxiety normally involved in having to write it at all. After all, with the exception of the very final draft… within each draft you can ‘let go’ and write in a much more relaxed manner knowing that it is not your last chance and that you have at least one more opportunity to improve later on what you are currently writing” (47).

This point is a particular relief for me when it comes to things like word choice or detailed description. I am attempting to write a cleaner draft than I did the first time around — and so far, it seems to be working — but I realize that it doesn’t do me any good to obsess for ten minutes over the proper verb to describe how a strange creature moves down a hill (“It’s not ‘lumber’… it’s not ‘trudge’… or ‘plod’… hmm, maybe ‘plod?'”). I put in a placeholder, mark it as such by highlighting it, and tell myself I’ll finalize in the next draft.

I know many writers who are averse to the idea of anything that feels like a “self-help” book; they think that writing ought to be intuitive. But even if you’re not usually inclined to read books on writing, if you’re an aspiring novelist, I’d pick this one up. It might help.