Reading Novels While Writing Novels: Yes or No?
I'm amazed by writers who stop reading in their genre while writing their own books. The majority of them seem to be worried about becoming overly influenced by the voice, themes and even plot of the book they're reading.
Personally, I can't imagine not reading fiction for the many years it takes me to complete a novel. And in terms of being influenced: I'm actively looking for inspiration and ideas. I want to be influenced.
Before you accuse me of plagiarism, let me explain.
While I'm working on a long project, I can become overwhelmed by the contrast between my lofty goals and the reality of my shitty first draft. I badly need continuous and varied sources of inspiration. When I'm deep in the world of my own story, I actively seek out other books that are both like the one I'm trying to write (in terms of point of view for example, or setting) and also those that are radically different from mine.
Yes, each reading experience helps me with my own work in different ways, but I'm not "copying" another writer, I'm learning from him or her.
Here are six ways that reading novels while writing novels helps me with my work.
#1 Finding the right genre
I'm currently working on a novel set in Ibiza in 1967 (a story "in conversation" with Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert) and I think it's going to end up being more literary than my other books. But I'm not sure.
Because I'd love to sell this novel, and I'd love people to read it, it's going to be important that I understand where it fits in terms of genre. So I've been reading everything from page-turning thrillers like Into the Jungle by Erica Ferencik to more literary fare like Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Where do I want to fit in, given the publishing landscape? How will I know unless I'm actively reading a variety of work as I fine tune ideas about my own story? The more I know about genre, the better equipped I'll be to tell a story that is compelling, and therefore the better chance I'll have of snagging the right editor's interest.
I'm emboldened by reading books with strong voices, like Toni Morrison's Beloved, Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins or Emma Cline's The Girls. A strong voice in a narrative makes me want to jump for joy.
In my opinion, it's impossibe to copy voice, but when I recognize what makes another writer's voice sing I'm compelled to raise the bar for myself. My admiration for writers who experiment with voice helps push me out of my comfort zone. It keeps me on my toes in a way that can only be good for my work.
#3 Point of view
In the early days of learning to write, I took a couple of classes in which it was drilled into me that you can only be in one character's head at a time. No flying around the room like Brit Bennett does in The Vanishing Half. Like Charles Dickens, Bennett chooses to tell her story through a distant third person, allowing herself the freedom to fly high and look down on her world from above.
This elevates the narrative (pun intented) from something intimate and smaller scale to a story that feels much bigger. These kinds of books can become cultural touchstones - readers end up thinking about social mores, culture (past and present) and humanity. Even if I don't attempt omniscient POV myself, I love being reminded that breaking POV "rules" is a sign of authorial confidence. A critical rule for novelists is that not all rules are made to be followed!
#4 Time travel
I find time transitions tricky. How to move from one scene to another, one day to another? But even trickier than that is covering huge swaths of time. James Marlon's A Brief History of Seven Killings and Rosalind Brackenbury's Without Her tell stories that span decades of a character's life, and in very different ways. Both of those novels are incredible, and both employ vastly different techniques to show that time has passed. Reading those two books with an eye to how they do this is like taking a master class in time travel.
Because I'm a pantser, I spent a lot of time thinking about plot. That may sound like a contradiction, but this 'thinking' is really just constant worrying about whether I'm taking my story in the right direction or not. I now believe that most writers need a certain framework - a 'driving question' - that moves the story forward... and yet, it's not clear to me what kind of framework a new narrative needs until I'm well into writing.
I'll read plot-driven books like Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman and also novels based more on mood and characterization than plot, like Claire Fuller's Bitter Orange, to remind myself that plot can manifest in different ways. These books end up being comfort reads: a way to assure myself that I don't need a heist or a murder to make my book worth reading.
#6 Putting writing "success" into perspective
I recently read a book that shot to the bestseller list in the UK. It has an awesome premise and a great setting, and there's a lot of crossover in terms of theme with the novel I'm currently working on. Truth be told, I was nervous to read it. After all, reading a highly successful book that closely resembles what I'm trying to do could take the wind out of my sails. What if I have no hope in hell of writing something as inventive and intelligent?
In this case, the opposite happened. Not only am I finding the book slow-going, but I'm perplexed as to why readers have responded to it so well. For me, this is a good reminder to stop worrying about the marketplace. It seems I can't predict what does or doesn't catch readers' attention and leads to "success," so why not try to trust myself and my writing process?
Overthinking the writing process can take the fun out of it. When I read books that disappoint, I'm given permission to try because I know that failure and success mean such different things to different people.
I loved this perspective on reading while writing, from Anna Holmes, essayist, author and creative executive: "I’m neither a naturalist nor a nature writer, but I find that dipping into a short vignette describing Audubon’s encounter with, say, a screech owl... provides me with necessary perspective; an opportunity, however brief, to get out of my own monkey mind of a brain ..." she writes. "All are potent reminders of the fact that everything we need is right in front of our faces, if we would only choose to pay attention. The lesson is an important one for a writer, especially one who ... needs, from time to time, a refresher course on how to make peace with silence, especially the silence that accompanies a blank page."
Whatever works for you is the way to go, as long as you can meet that blank page with courage and determination.
Katrin Schumann's second novel, This Terrible Beauty, recently came out and her debut, The Forgotten Hours was a Washington Post and Amazon Charts Bestseller. For more information and to sign up for her newsletter, go to www.katrinschumann.com.
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann
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