Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Rules for Reading and Writing (Not So Much with the 'Rithmetic)

You may have noticed that I've added a new page to the blog listing what I've been reading. I got the idea from another author-blogger and thought it would be interesting to see how having the list impacts what and when I read (if at all) or what people think about my writing.

Actually, I'd been thinking about this topic already when I attended a book club meeting a couple of weeks ago, and one of the members asked me about my favorite authors. I stammered for a bit in response, embarrassed that I couldn't rattle off a concise and relevant list.

Part of the problem, I realized later, is that there are countless answers. There are the building blocks for my love of literature: Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor, Kate Chopin, Shakespeare (feel free to throw up a little if you need to). The list goes on. Love them all. Haven't read them since college.

There are the books I read when I just want a good story with well-developed characters and settings: Jane Austen, the Harry Potter series, J.R.R.Tolkein, Carol Shields, Gregory Macguire, Diana Gabaldon. And then there are the books more like my own writing: Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin, and Helen Fielding. When I have time to read, I also read lots of stuff from the psychology and business worlds.

I read different things for different reasons, and so it's hard to choose a 'favorite.' What's more, I have to confess that I am not exactly an avid reader (gasp!). I know, it's horrible. A writer who doesn't read is like a chef who doesn't eat, right?

That is certainly the conventional wisdom. I have been reading lots of articles lately (do those count?) with instructions for wannabe writers about everything from cover art design to daily bowel movements, and nearly all of them include advice about reading. Read for a minimum of 90 minutes a day. Read extensively in the genre in which you write. Read only authors who are better than you, to 'uplift' your writing.

It all sounds like good advice, but here's a revised set of rules that work better for me:

Rule #1: Read when you can. With a toddler, a three-month-old, a family and a part-time job, if I read for 90 minutes every day, that leaves an average of  negative 42 minutes for writing. I just don't have time to set aside an hour and a half each day for reading. Not if I expect to write at all. I do hope to read more, and my new Kindle (woo-hoo!) may assist with that, since it allows me to read more easily in the carpool line or while nursing in the middle of the night. Still, we're talking an extra 10 or 20 minutes a day, tops. It will just have to do.

Rule #2: Read what interests you, no matter the genre or format. My reading list spans everything from Freud to Nora Roberts, and I'm cool with that. Because of the aforementioned time issue, I also read in spurts. A chapter here and there, a blog post, an article. Sometimes I'm on the same page for days. Personally, I like a wide range of topics and perspectives because they inform my writing better than an in-depth knowledge of one particular genre ever could.

Rule #3: Don't worry about what everyone else has already done. My favorite English professor at UGA used to tell us not to read literary criticism before writing our papers because "then the critics just steal your ideas." In other words, if an idea is yours, let it stay yours. It might be similar to another's thought, but you have your own original voice and perspective. Run with it.

I was talking to a friend the other day about my latest novel idea, which delves a bit into the paranormal (!!), and he started asking me how much I have read in that genre. For a minute I thought, "Oh, no! I have to go read the top 50 paranormal novels on Amazon before I can even think about writing this!" But, why? If I go combing the landscape for what has already been done in order to either avoid copying it or to understand what's 'expected' in the field, I'll just be creating a minefield for myself to try to avoid while writing. Or worse, modifying what's already in my head to make it fit in the box created by the genre. Wouldn't it be better to just write my idea, my way, and not worry about what anyone else has written? Yes, it would.

Rule #4: Be inspired everywhere. Books aren't the only things that can inspire and uplift your writing. Sometimes a great song lyric or advertising tag line can tell you as much about the power of words as a whole novel. I'd like to write novels like Baz Luhrman directs movies, Etta James belts out a song, Paul McCartney writes a melody, etc. I tweeted once that if I could write a book like Paul Simon writes a lyric, I'd be pretty damn happy with that. And I would.

Rule #5: It's okay to read bad writing. Seriously, it is. Since my new Kindle has afforded me easy access to the world of 99 cent novels (not that I'm denigrating -- mine is 99 cents, too), I've been able to download and read some popular things without having the foggiest idea whether they'd be good or not. Some of them are, some are not. What's interesting is that some of the self-published and even traditionally-published novels ranked very highly on Amazon's lists are not nearly as well-written as mine and others that are far, far lower in the rankings. [BTW, as of today, my Kindle edition is #155,820. I'm pretty sure I'm ranked one spot above the receipt we brought home from Taco Bell the other night.]

There are a couple of benefits to reading something that does not 'uplift' your writing, but is commercially successful. First, it can be a major confidence booster. "If these guys can make it, why not me?" My senior-year English teacher did this for me when I told her I didn't think I was a good enough writer to be an English major in college. She asked me to come by her room and showed me some essays written by average college-bound students (she blacked out the names, of course). She wasn't trying to put down the other kids, but she wanted me to have some perspective on my own abilities. No matter what a wonderful person you are, it takes a bit of arrogance to put your writing out in the world for everyone to see, and evidence that you are at least as good as others comes in handy for that.

Second, if you read a few roughly-written bestsellers, you begin to see beyond the choppy writing and mixed metaphors to discover the common things that readers actually like in a book. If it's not impeccable grammar and brilliant scene structure that catapulted these guys to the top of the charts, what was it? Sometimes we snobby aspiring authors forget that we aren't generally writing for other English majors. We're writing for readers. I'm not saying that you can't be both a Pulitzer-prize level author and a commercial success. I'm just saying that there may be something to learn from books that people consistently buy and read, whether they are award-winners or not.