Reading as a Writer

‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time, or the tools, to write.’ Stephen King, On Writing

I’ve always loved this quote and felt a bit incredulous that anyone would think they can write without reading widely. The benefits of reading have, to me, always been many and obvious, not the least of which is that it improves your spelling and grammar (almost by osmosis), which may not be that important to some people and sometimes makes you unpopular at parties and / or work (no-one likes a pedant), but hey, it matters to me.

(Having just re-read that sentence, I recognise it probably has about half a dozen grammatical errors in it. Great, an excuse to keep reading!)

But above all, I read because I enjoy it. I read as a punter; I’m in it for the entertainment. I’ve set myself a goal this year of reading at least 50 novels (as well as all the non-fiction and the textbooks I’m reading for my counselling course) and, five books in, I’m loving it. I’ve been afraid of reading ‘as a writer’, however, for the following two main reasons:

  • The Inferiority Complex: I’ve touched on this briefly before but when I’m reading a really, really good book, I like to try to forget that I’m a writer myself. Otherwise I find myself in a horrible place somewhere between despair and wild jealousy. The inner monologue goes something like this: “I’ll never write anything this good. I wish I’d written this book. Damn this author for being so bloody good. I am crap. What’s the point? I’m never writing again. I hate this book and this author for being so good.” Which does tend to detract somewhat from one’s reading pleasure.
  • Fear of Unwitting Plagiarism: I’d never deliberately steal or copy someone else’s work. There’s an annoying little goody-two-shoes inside me that would admonish me along the lines of “you’re only cheating yourself”. Besides which, it would be no fun – what’s the point of copying when the whole joy of writing is making something up yourself? But, what if I do it by accident? What if months later I come up with what I think is a great idea, a great line, and it’s not actually mine? Ouch. So, there’s another reason for trying to suspend my writer brain while reading, despite umpteen ‘how to’ books advising me to the contrary: to read critically, to analyse how other writers ‘do it’, and so on.

However, at the weekend I read The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. Now, this isn’t the place for a book review but suffice to say I read it in a single day (admittedly I was recovering from a nasty chest infection so didn’t have the strength to do much else), so you can infer it’s a pretty gripping read.

One of the features of TGOTT is that it’s told from three different narrative perspectives. Each one is unreliable in its own way, each has a different view of events and each has its own voice. I’m planning (as much as I ever plan, see previous posts) that my second novel will be written from four differing points of view (love to set myself a challenge!), so I couldn’t help but put my Writer head on and ask myself: ‘how does she do it?’

I read it as a punter but I’m going to go back to it. I want to understand how Hawkins makes her three narrators sound subtly different (they’re all women in their late twenties / early thirties, and have some features in common, so this must have been tricky. I’m currently plaguing myself as to whether the main character of my Book Two sounds too much like Fiona from Precocious). I want to analyse how she weaves different versions of the same story together to build tension. I want to grasp how she makes very flawed characters if not likable, at least sympathetic, because this is something I’m trying to do.

So I’ve decided from now on that part of my ‘work’ (still feels funny calling it that when I love it so much, but sometimes it is painful and tiring, just like ‘real’ work) will be to read critically; to take notes, even. I’m going to pay particular attention to multiple-narrator books. I will even be brave and re-visit the sublime The Poisonwood Bible (aargh! See: Inferiority Complex, above).

Finally, a word about time, since that’s where we began. Last year, at the height of my ‘busy-ness’ – writing, studying, working, raising a young child, running – many people asked me ‘how do you find the time?’ My response – ‘I don’t sleep much, and I don’t watch much TV’ – was only half tongue-in-cheek. We all have the same number of hours in the day. There will always be things to do that take you away from the thing you really want to do (in my case writing) and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll do those things first (even when they’re really, really boring, like ironing) because the writing feels like an indulgence, a treat that can only be enjoyed once the mundane tasks are done. But the only way to achieve anything is to commit time to it, and usually this means something has to give. Pick the thing that’s of the least benefit to your physical and emotional wellbeing – in my case, this was TV (ironing was a close second but, sigh, that does have to be done) – and do an hour less of it every day. Fill the hour with the reading, writing or whatever else you thought you didn’t have time for.

Those hours add up and I predict you’ll never go back. Well, except for Monday nights, obviously – Broadchurch is on.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Reading as a Writer

  1. I’ve had somebody who called herself a writer tell me once that she didn’t read. It’s puzzling on so many levels. First of all because of what Stephen King said (I love On Writing, by the way). But also, why would anyone want to write if they don’t read? How did she get the idea of becoming a writer without losing herself in books for hours on end, coming out thinking I’d love to do that to somebody else?

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