When it comes to books and words and the creation and consumption of both, although I write nearly every day, I’ve always considered myself a reader first while only second am I a writer.
Of course, there is factual truth to this statement: I literally learned and continued to read stories before I started writing them (although the timing for both is close; I clearly recall writing my first “novel” in grade two).
Even now as an adult, my almost-daily reading occurs earlier in the day (dinner time) than does my almost-daily writing (after dinner, the last thing before I go to sleep).
More than anything, though, I consider myself a reader first because my reading is the fuel that powers my writing, without which I’m not so sure I’d be able to write a single sentence of story.
Having completed a recent household move in which I transported five decent-sized boxes of books, I’ve lately been pondering the way my reading habits have come to influence my writing.
A lot of writers, I’ve slowly come to discover, have a complicated relationship with other writers’ novels. Some writers I know grow intensely intimidated when they read the work of others that they deem particularly brilliant. Others can’t even stand to have books displayed in their houses while actively writing.
I myself am blessedly free from anxiety of this particular sort, and have continued to love novels since becoming serious about my writing. I may even love them more now, for I recognize how my reading has not only made me the writer I am today, but will further shape how and what I write in years to come.
As a school-aged child, from at least grade 2 all the way through high school, the library (and also bookstores, although I usually didn’t have much pocket money) was my favourite place to hang out. I would always come home with armloads of fiction and devour it during my free time, which was considerable (god, I miss those days!)
Thanks to my parents, who encouraged this practice, my sister, who at age 8 taught and drilled me in how to use the dictionary, and again my parents who, for better or for worse, didn’t monitor what I was actually reading, I’ve pretty much always read above my grade level.
This has had the effect of giving me a large, strong vocabulary that is noticeable in my speech and really noticeable in my writing, to the point that I have to consciously temper myself to keep from sounding pretentious and for ease of understanding.
Beyond just learning a lot of $25 words, though, the reading I did in the past has also influenced me via the reading I didn’t do in the past.
So much of what I’ve written and am writing and someday want to write are the stories someone else didn’t bother to write for me – the stories I want to read but don’t already exist. Or else the stories that sort of exist but didn’t end the way I wanted them to, or didn’t focus enough on the character I liked best, or didn’t take the plot in the direction or as deeply as I wanted.
So much of what I’m writing and someday want to write is my own take on stories I really liked and thought, “I wonder if I could do that better?” Or stories I hated and thought, “I know I can do that better.”
There are, after all, no new ideas, only countless variations on the same universal themes.
I know of many writers who are either unwilling or unable to read novels while at work on novels of their own, for reasons ranging from stabs of inadequacy over the skill displayed in what they’re reading to a desire to not have the voice and ideas of another bleed into their own prose.
I have no compunctions about reading while writing. Thankfully, I find a well-written story inspiring rather than debilitating – a demonstration of what I could someday become if I continue to work hard on my craft.
Books help me journey to places I might otherwise never go to and meet people I might never cross paths with in real life. They help me perceive the world through other people’s eyes and allow my own perceptions to meld and expand and change.
Literally every single novel I read – even the much-despised Fifty Shades of Grey – gives me some idea, whether great or small, that can be used in my own writing. Even as late in the first draft of my WIP as the very last chapter, the book I was reading at the time (Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns) helped give me insight into the motivations of one of my key characters.
It’s actually become something of a game, waiting for and wondering when and where a book’s magical moment will appear for me.
Bestselling horror author Stephen King is noted for stating,
You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so.
If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.
In the case of myself, I firmly believe this, and make a point of constantly having a novel on my nightstand (and possibly a second on my dining table as well).
Although I don’t consider myself widely-read by any stretch (I average a book a month, and only through trickery at that), I do read widely across many different genres in no pattern that even I can discern.
So far this year, I’ve read historical fiction, epic fantasy, YA, general, thriller, satire, even two capital-R Romance novels, which is a real departure for me.
I feel that by not restricting myself to a single genre, I’m likewise not restricting myself to the conventions of a single genre, thereby allowing for diverse influences, but I know I can do even better still.
There are apparently some 300,000 books published each year in North America, which is more books than I’ll ever be able to read in my lifetime. To further help me grow as a writer, I need to game my reading habits – to regularly choose books that differ from my general preferences.
I need to go beyond what’s mainstream – beyond the same types of stories by the same types of authors – to expose myself to different ideas and different styles and different ways of making words work.
And I will.
Are you a reader? If you’re writer, do you feel that reading influences your work? Let me know in the comments.