What do you read when you’re writing? It’s complicated

You’d think a writer would have the best excuse to read all the time – an unrestricted diet of anything and everything. But I find my relationship with books is somewhat complicated.

Like everyone, I have a stack of titles I’m eager to read – and never get to them unless I declare a special read-what-I-like holiday. Otherwise, my reading is on a permanent specialised regime.

A book in progress can be very fussy about what it’s fed, like an athlete.

I’ve identified that this regime has several phases.

Research – complicated but not really

I love factual research. Perhaps it’s a hangover from my ghostwriting days. Research was essential to the job, but also innately rewarding. Exciting ideas always came from these new territories of experience. Research was also darn good discipline because my editors were fearsome. If you know you’ll have to defend your plot decisions, you’re careful to check your facts. And you can never do enough swotting, so no time for ‘fun’ reading.

Don’t ask me about any of those subjects now, BTW. I could no more recall that detailed knowledge than I could now pass chemistry A level, though I once did that too.

Fiction for research – getting more complicated

Fiction is also research. In Nail Your Novel I talk about getting inspiration from fiction as a conversation with what other writers have done, perhaps to be more like them, or more unlike them. But here, danger lies. A satisfying novel can be disruptive when your own, by comparison, is primeval soup.

Disruption is one of the dangers of reading. When you’re a writer, you rarely enjoy a book for its own merits.

Interlude, where I don my editor hat

Now don’t for a moment think I’m warning you off reading. I see too many manuscripts written with little feel for the way prose works – problems the writer could solve in a thrice if they read books regularly. To write prose, you must love reading it.

This is not complicated.

Reading while editing – really quite complicated now

With my current novel Ever Rest, the plot, characters and themes are secure. It’s also secure in a bigger sense; I know what the book is. I’m eager to read fresh things and I’m eyeing that wishlist. But I’m now editing for nuance and I find I’m even more wary of disruption. I don’t know how another novel might rearrange my thinking, and right now that isn’t helpful.

I seem to be safe with books of criticism. I’ve been reading Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks. Great stories discussed but not experienced; behind a safety curtain.

I also seem to be safe if I reread novels I enjoyed a while ago. I get caught up, but I have a degree of immunity to their deepest surprises. I have already been changed by them and won’t be changed again.

Isn’t that a terrible way to use books? Perhaps to stop enjoying reading, you should be a writer.

Narrative non-fiction is working for me too. I loved Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker. It filled the sails but did not ruffle the book I was writing. The same with Do No Harm by brain surgeon Henry Marsh, which I’m currently reading.

It’s as if I’m reading to avoid inspiration, creating a controlled environment while my book does what it must.

Isn’t that crazy? Or do you do that too?

PS You can find Nail Your Novel here

PPS I had a nice surprise this month when I discovered Not Quite Lost is a semifinalist in the Kindle Book Awards…… More in my newsletter here

Meanwhile, tell me: What do you read while you write? Do you have strange rules?

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  1. #1 by Phillip T Stephens on September 17, 2018 - 5:54 pm

    In my experience, reading while I write allows me to see possibilities for my story that I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. A casual line of dialogue suggests a new plot twist or character attribute, the description of a sound or the weather suggests a better setting for a scene. Sometimes rain in a novel or story will prompt, “this needs to happen on a bright, hot day when the characters are withering and their tempers are about to flare.” Or, “I could make this scene more cozy with rain, wne and a fire.”

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 17, 2018 - 5:59 pm

      Hi Phillip! Yes, I read that way too. My book is always having a conversation with whatever I’m doing – whether it’s reading, watching a movie … or trudging through the rain myself.

  2. #3 by authorleannedyck on September 17, 2018 - 10:14 pm

    I find that I’m able to fall in love with someone else’s words without having them affect mine–or at least that’s the illusion I’m under.

  3. #5 by S.C. Karakaltsas on September 18, 2018 - 1:27 am

    I try to read widely and often even when I’m writing.

  4. #7 by The Sicilian Mama on September 18, 2018 - 5:52 am

    Thank you for this. I thought I was the only one who had to be careful about what she was reading at different stages of her own writing!

  5. #9 by Lynn Love on September 18, 2018 - 9:17 am

    This is really interesting, Roz. I generally read what I’m in the mood for – I’m very bad at reading a book I know I ‘should’ read that doesn’t appeal (say anything by Hemingway!) and read purely for pleasure instead. No, I can’t read without an invisible ‘writer’s hat’ on and do analyse sentence structure, notice clumsy phrases, over writing/ under writing.
    I’m writing an Urban Fantasy novel at the moment and would be cautious of reading something similar – say one of Ben Aaronovitz’s Rivers of London books – simultaneously in case I started to sound too much like that author instead of myself.

  6. #11 by Evadene on September 18, 2018 - 11:38 am

    Yes thanks for this from me, too.You’ve hit the nail on the head in this article, as far as I’m concerned. I’m writing my first novel just now, and I can only re-read my loved authors (currently, John Wyndham), preferably anthologies of short stories – or craft of writing books.

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 18, 2018 - 7:12 pm

      I hoped someone would understand what I mean, Eva! It is like being on a diet, isn’t it?

  7. #13 by Evadene on September 18, 2018 - 11:39 am

    Reblogged this on litaenterprise and commented:
    Ditto! Great article.

  8. #16 by DRMarvello on September 18, 2018 - 1:06 pm

    Fiction doesn’t usually have much affect on my muse. When I need inspiration, craft books work best. The biggest threat to my creativity is news. I haven’t written much since November 2016 although I’m starting to come out of that marathon funk now that it’s starting to look like justice may finally be served. In the end, I suspect I’ll have good material for the villains of my future novels.

    • #17 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 18, 2018 - 7:12 pm

      Hello Daniel! Yes, how do we write when the world is so unstable? Good question.

  9. #18 by freedomisjustawordblog on October 21, 2018 - 10:57 pm

    I feel like saying “twinsies”! I tend to read books on writing–Nail Your Novel being a fave 🙂 and also narrative non-fic while writing a new book too. What I realized is that if all my customary hunger for story isn’t satisfied by the stories other authors create, then that frustrated fuel goes into the book I’m writing. It’s a kind of energy and passion that makes it onto the page when I’m not finding it in other people’s pages. Then when I finish my first draft, I take a big gulp of air, and relax into a new novel! Is NOT QUITE LOST fiction or memoir?

  10. #20 by Claire 'Word by Word' on November 12, 2018 - 2:10 pm

    I can’t read fiction when I’m writing, nor too soon after finishing writing a piece, it awakens the inner critic and is crucifying. Spiritual texts are my go too, because they’re not like what I write and they soothe the ego, bolster the intuition and massage the muse.

    I might refer to paragraphs in writing books I’ve used before, because they remind me of what I need to remember or ignite.

    That said, I feel starved when not reading, so sometimes I’ll take a writing break and allow myself to immerse in reading, as if I’ve left the planet of writing and am on holiday on a reading island. I’ve just done that recently, so will see how I go, getting back into writing mode.

    • #21 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on November 12, 2018 - 2:31 pm

      Hi Claire! Spiritual, supportive texts … what a good idea. I find music is also good because it’s inspiring but sufficiently out of the territory I’m struggling with. Perhaps they are both fulfilling the same function.

      As to your second point, I sometimes award myself a leisure reading break, when I read anything that takes my fancy. Unfortunately I can barely move without being seduced back to the blank page so my non-writing modes don’t last for long.

  1. How to keep in touch with your book when your writing routine is disrupted | Nail Your Novel
  2. The secret is out: 10 thoughts on nearly finishing a long-haul novel | Nail Your Novel

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