Monday, April 4, 2011

Reading While Writing

By Mendhak [민다ᄏ] [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

I read capriciously. Some times I want Horror, others long Fantasy, or I’ll binge on history or pop science or anything that makes me laugh. I’m a terrible consumer of books, perpetually borrowing and purchasing more than I’ll read. I had copies of Good Omens and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency for eight years before actually finishing them. Upon recent reflection, I realized nothing’s gotten in the way of my reading more than writing.

Reading consistently is nigh impossible when I’m working at high volumes, plugging into a novel daily or spurting out short stories every week. I have anecdotal confirmation from other writers in multiple fields that it’s the same for them. You spend so much time producing and criticizing words that your enthusiasm or energy is spent. I write “or energy” because there are times when I hanker for that new Stephen King. Then I pick it up and even his mastery of voice can’t get me through two pages. My mind won’t go. It’s irksome to realize that you are still able to watch a movie, play videogames or have a night with your significant other. More irksome when your significant other finds out you think that's bad.

I ran into a new complication while composing my next novel. When I did read, I was reading less useful things. Yes, Cobra II was an important report – but shouldn’t I be catching up on fiction? Fiction in my genres? Or all those classics that I bought and swore I’d go through? Laurence Sterne can’t read himself. He’s dead.

Triage of reading while in heavy-production periods was too difficult. I could take in a superhero trade paperback, but not Walter Isaacson's Einstein. Simply to get through my pile, I had to cave and let myself read whatever my mind could grab onto. A grown writer was excusing himself, “At least he’s reading.”

If I couldn’t curate individual reading order, I had to triage what was available. My old formula had been to read:

1. One contemporary Speculative Fiction book (since Horror and Fantasy are my primary wheelhouses).

2. One important Speculative Fiction book over ten years old.

3. One piece of classic fiction literature.

4. One book of non-fiction of any stripe I pleased.

5. One trade comic book or miscellaneous publication over one hundred pages.

All in about that order. The first two covered my primary industry, then I plugged into my passions for older books, the style of which always left me ready for thoughtful non-fiction, before closing with comics. Comics are the easiest thing to read – I’ve had English teachers who said they weren’t reading at all. My whole scheme worked so well before I began working so well.

I examined the formula for my new habit. Now I’d only borrow or purchase books like this:

1. Does it have three or more recommendations from friends, peers and/or critics you trust? Should you trust them – have they steered you incorrectly before?

2. Is it popular? Is it selling fast? You need to know more about the marketplace. Remember how embarrassing it was when you thought Toni Morrison was a guy?

3. Is it important Speculative Fiction? You can always know more about the history there.

4. Is it a classic? Is it at least really old? How cheap can we get this thing for? If it’s not in the library or very inexpensive, come back in three months and ask me again.

5. Non-fiction, you say? Is it that fascinating? Wait six months, then ask me again.

6. Is it in the twenty-five cent bin? Okay, you can have it.

That last is why I read four Greek tragedies in a row. Thanks, thrift stores.

The new checklist of priorities made sure I only had specific books available. If I am going to read capriciously, it’ll be from a thoughtful selection. It’s akin to shopping when you’re full, so the wiser choices will be in your cupboard. Sometimes that leaves me scanning the shelves for literary Oreos, but you can only eat what you've got.

If you regard my Goodreads scroll for the last two months, you’ll see that those literary Oreos have still popped in. Comics are allowed in, in moderation. Even the Persepolis and Bone-type comics are easier reading, I respect them as an art-form, and hey. “At least he’s reading.”


  1. I think you are taking the leisure out of reading. Relax, you can't read 'em all.

  2. Not being able to read them all is part of what spurs me to seek out great books, actually. The hope is that the new system will let me read leisurely from a selection of books that I ought to be reading. What do you read, Harry?

  3. I can't read a lot while I'm writing either. My criteria is a bit different. I try not to buy new books until I finish reading all the books I've purchased. I don't always stick to plan, but my backlog's down to less than 10 now. Mostly read sf/f, but ideally I like to fit in random genres and classics in between.

  4. You've made a balanced reading list, and as with most lists, there are crossed-out sections.

    I try to push myself to read outside my genre too - it does wonders for my writing.

  5. I have the advantage of having time to read on the commute to and from work, and I try to read before bedtime too. There again, I tend to be reading a lot of non fiction around whatever it is my work in progress involves so even when I'm reading to relax, I'm still researching.

    I'm a right pain for buying books before I've finished the ones I already have, but I go through phases of wanting to read fiction, then I'll want to read non fiction, and then I might want to just read comics. I just look at my bookshelves and read whatever says "Pick me!" It's not a great system but it makes for some varied reading.

  6. Acquiring books is one of my worst habits - and I'm a sucker for thrift stores too. I buy stuff I think I should read, and it sits on the shelf while I work my way through the things I actually want to read.

    I can't read much while I'm writing either... Progress at the moment is very stop/start - and so I've got around four reading books on the go at the moment, none of which are stuff I'd want to write or admit to reading!!! Says it all methinks....

  7. That's two more admissions of writers who have trouble reading in periods of composition. You're kind to comfort me!

    Erin, what sections do you cross out? Or what do you think is missing from mine?

    A compartmentalized commute might be the answer. With my health and employment, that doesn't happen - though also I've found on at least half of my recent trips I tended to stare into space and think through my own writing, or edit a manuscript.

  8. Oh my... You could have been writing about me! I am exactly the same way. And since I'm almost always writing SOMETHING, reading gets pushed aside a lot. It's hard, because I do LOVE to read. But you pretty much have to get me on an airplane and a beach to make me read for pleasure.

    I think there are a lot of folks just like you. You are in good company. :)


  9. I read mostly fiction. When I find an author I like I read everything by them. James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, Karl Hiassen, Tim Dorsey...but I have stacks too, of the books I feel I "ought" to be reading. And I'm constantly bringing home more from flea markets or thrift tables. A whole stack of Hemingway for $5, Dollar Dickens, Poe, etc. I imagine one day being marooned and finally getting to them all.

  10. I can't read a lot while writing. My "oreos" are urban fantasy and veggies are selections from my book club. I try to branch out, but I have to do it when I'm not working on a novel.

    And what about all the #fridayflash we read. In a month we read a novel's worth of writing there too.

  11. Amy, I'm happy this resonated so strongly for you. What do you read on airplanes?

    Danni, #fridayflash is something I couldn't fit into this. I read a great deal of short things on the web and in magazines. There's usually at least one New Yorker in my bathroom and I pick up The Economist every few weeks if not more often. The engagement for reading flash fiction, short stories and articles is much lesser than the cumulative story of a novel or long history. It's true that in a month we consume about a novel's worth of page space in these smaller, things, but I finish each so quickly that it's easier to accomplish with an exhausted mind. Couldn't make it two pages into King - but two pages and a #fridayflash is done.

  12. The more I think about your blog post, John, I think you've inspired me to write a blog post of my own ;-) Bottom line is that I'm reading less now than I have in the past but there are many factors contributing to that. Part of it is because I am writing but a very big part of it also is the physical demands of being a parent. By the time the end of the day rolls around (which would be the only time i have for reading), I'm often too exhausted. I read a couple of pages and then fall asleep with my ipad in my lap. I need to contemplate this some more ... I'll link up your post to mine when i post it. :-)

  13. On airplanes... Jim Butcher, GRRM, the occasional "trashy" novel, whatever sounds good. I'm a capricious reader, too. I'm as likely to read Seth Godin or David McCullough as the latest fantasy everyone is raving about.

    The only things I really DON'T read are romances (romance for the sake of romance--I will read books with strong romantic themes where the struggle is more external) and war/blood & guts books like my hubby reads. Otherwise... if I hear good things, I'll at least try it out. :)

  14. Don't be so hard on yourself. Read for pleasure! The lessons you'll learn from reading a good book and enjoying it will seep into your writing style... That's why readers tend to be better spellers, etc.

    Also, it took you that long to read Dirk Gentley? *shakes head sadly* :)

  15. I am glad to know I am not alone. I do a lot of reading for my day job. What energy is left after the family goes to bed is put to writing. Still, I have multiple stacks of must reads and they to be growing each month.

  16. Figured you were sneaking the Economist and NewYorker in John. Sneaking them in is technique I do - what's closest to table, to bedside, to chairside, to tucked in purse or backseat of car, in stack about to topple ... online news in the Daily Beast, a hit of Life Hacker, Foreign Affairs on the exercise bike as the print is bigger for the far away hold ... and books, books, books grabbed in snippets -- but those all add up -- even if 10 books across the board are in progress, as they roll out, they're filling sense and sensibilities, in that whole creative back burnering process. Some Uncle Ray Chandler and Dashiell Hammett while in genre to what one is writing is akin to running the gamut of juices in tandem.

    BTW, dig your triage processing and the oreo effect expressed ... and I also love a while back the *wonder* in you when we were exploring Chesterfield's pithy thoughts at about the same time. When you say you 'go back so as not to miss the good books' ... you're on -- to pick up voices of an era -- how the hell did Harry score his Hemingways for five bucks? Oh yeah, it's that market he buys his farmers at -- that all blends to pieces of what you, me, our collected colleagues here pour or spiel out ... which brings me to wonder -- do you John, do as I do when an author jumps in with certain phrasings -- do you wish to read all of him/her? I got into Edward Rutherford's New York and had to have his Russka and London; same with all the Orhan Pamuks . . . I rambled - it's how the thoughts waterfalled to so much you evoked ... but to take it in, whether a good long sitting under an apple tree, a tune-out-the-world commute or a snatch here or there -- it's all fuel, fodder for what stirs within, right?

    Matt Hilton is doing an interesting piece over AT THE BIJOU this weekend for me on a conversation we had on the phrase he tossed me ~ "Author Intrusion" -- it was fascinating how true what music we choose to background our writings or pages we swallowed the night before or film, theatre, discussions of exposure find a loose thread weave into thoughts to written words now and good laters.

    Yikes - you really had me at 'capricious' and then I was all in. And ... I'd like to think when you're writing, reading, laughing, prepondering, you're in a state where stuff isn't hurting as much physically.

    ~ Absolutely*Kate, glad to find your mind again


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