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What Do You Read When You’re Writing?

It’s a weird balance, isn’t it? You dredge that story from the depth of your soul and, once you’re spent, stick your nose in someone else’s book. Perhaps there’s a rhythm to it, a sort of see-saw between output and input, being imaginative and having your imagination recharged.

That’s what happens when you write. You bleed onto the page, then stagger from the computer, and grab something from your To-Be-Read stack for a transfusion.

Or is it the other way around?

Either way, this has a downside: WUI — Writing Under the Influence.

Lately, I’ve been Writing Under the Influence of Lovecraft, King, and Koontz. When I read Peace Like a River, I was drunk with Enger’s lyrical, homespun whimsy for at least one project.

Maybe this really speaks to the novelist’s bogey, The One Who Must Not Be Named… writer’s block.

The best approach I’ve ever heard was from Sibella Giorella who said something to the effect that when she runs dry, when her inspirational spark burns out, she’s learned to simply pick up a good novel. Reading a chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird can do wonders for the writer whose pistons aren’t firing.

Well-written, creative stories have a way of kick-starting a sputtering imagination.

Which, at the moment, is sort of puzzling. You see, I’ve been on a non-fiction kick lately. I’m plowing forward on my WIP but, for some reason, the muse is calling me to something more linear, more concrete. It’s been quite refreshing. When my eyes glaze over writing fiction, I get re-energized reading non-fiction.

Same rhythm. Same results. Different well.

Perhaps I shouldn’t try to over-analyze this. Sure, there might be something scientific about it. You know, from narrative to didactive, from parable to lecture, from abstract to absolute. There seems to be a formula of sorts. But too many autopsies can eventually bleed one to death. Therefore, I won’t over-think this.

Just look for another non-fiction book to fire my fantasies.

So I’m interested — What do you read when you’re writing?

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{ 20 comments… add one }
  • Heather Day Gilbert April 5, 2012, 7:16 AM

    Yes, it can be easy to get sucked into another writer’s style and let that spill into your own writing. I’m “rebooting” my brain right now, in a lull between editing and writing the next book, so I just read Tom Rob Smith’s Agent 6 (fiction–I loved this book! his take on Communism is spot-on).

    But generally when I’m writing, I wind up reading classics. I have no idea why, since that style totally cannot translate into today’s books. Though maybe that’s why I read it, like you reading non-fiction while writing fiction. It’s something that won’t derail our own personal style.

  • J. L. Lyon April 5, 2012, 7:19 AM

    Tough question. Lately I’ve chosen my reads based on my own writing weaknesses. If I feel my story is weak on world-building, for instance, I turn to an author who has done this well for inspiration. You hit the nail on the head with the drawback, though, because you never want to be too influenced by another writer. I’ve tried to balance that out by not using books in my genre when I’m looking for inspiration. Then the inspiration comes more from craft than content.

  • Melissa Maygrove April 5, 2012, 7:34 AM

    For me it’s both–whatever I need it to be at the time. Sometimes I take a break when I’m blocked and read, hoping for some inspiration (or at least hoping a different cadence will get me out of my sentence structure rut). And sometimes I read because I’m too exhausted to write and just want to relax and let someone else do the work. Writing to me is almost as much of an escape as reading, it just requires more brain power.

  • Kessie April 5, 2012, 8:02 AM

    Heh, that’s funny. I tend to head toward the opposite genre that I’m writing, too. When I’m writing fantasy, I go read mysteries. Especially old mysteries, like Agatha Christie or Meredith Nicholson.

  • Glynn April 5, 2012, 8:23 AM

    When I’m writing I read completely outside the genre I write in. That goes for both fiction and non-fiction. Right now, I’m reading “The Satan Carol” by Alex Kessler and “Building a Life Out of Words” by Shawn Smucker. I just finished Joseph Wambaugh’s new novel “Harbor Nocturne.”

  • Jessica Thomas April 5, 2012, 8:33 AM

    Well, the last book I cracked open was Design Techniques and Coding Standards for J2EE Projects.

    Seriously, if you are an anamoly for turning to non-fiction than I’m right there with you. There’s definitely a cyclical thing going on with me. Last year after spending several months focusing on a manuscript, I swore I hated writing and I would never do it again. So, I switched to obsessing over web development and coding. This winter I had a huge web app project, after which, I swore I would rip my eyeballs out if I ever had to look at another line of code. Guess what it exciting and inspiring me now? Writing.

    I have definite tolerance for both the creative an analytical. When the creative becomes too froo-froo (and thus unbearably annoying) my brain shifts into analytical mode. When the analytical becomes too dry, I shift back to creative mode. If I were trapped in either mode for too long, I would lose it. And that’s no joke.

  • Jill April 5, 2012, 9:57 AM

    I just posted this on facebook, actually. I tend to always have, at any given time, a nonfiction book, a literary/classic novel, a spec fic of some kind, and a women’s fic. Right now, I’m reading two nonfiction books (one on medicine, one on history), a YA girl lit, and a Gothic. I usually read in the morning before I get up and at night before I go to sleep, so these books don’t invade my writing time, and they seem like separate universes to me–meaning, they’re filed in a different spot from the books I write.

    • Katherine Coble April 5, 2012, 1:43 PM

      What’s the book on medicine?

      • Jill April 5, 2012, 4:02 PM

        I should have said “alternative medicine,” though the premise surely isn’t. A friend who swears by this lent it to me (I’m sure you know all about “this is the cure for everything!” claims)–it’s called Earthing. It’s about the body’s conductivity, which is mainstream understanding, but these authors swear by grounding the body using the earth’s negative charge to decrease inflammation. I’ll read just about any medicine-oriented book, mainstream or alternative, even really wacky ones because I find them fascinating–like antique reflexology books. And I’ll certainly read any book that claims to have the cure for insomnia–I’m that desperate. So really, I’ve become a storehouse of medical advice of all sorts, even the most bizarre.

  • John Robinson April 5, 2012, 1:08 PM

    Right now I’m in the middle of penning (typing? key-clacking? whatever) the second work in my Cameron Bane series, Burning River. Since like my Joe Box novels it’s first-person thriller/suspense, I find I CANNOT read another writer’s first-person thriller/suspense works while I’m doing mine. If I do, I find myself unconsciously miming the other writer’s patterns and beats, and that’s a bad thing (it could be perhaps it’s because I’m a bear of little brain, and easily swayed).

    Anyway, I’ll echo what Glynn said, and during my lulls find I myself reading totally outside my current genre. To wit: at present I’m enjoying (again) Tom Wolf’s narrative nonfiction “The Right Stuff,” and Harry Turtledove’s alt-history masterpiece, “The Guns of the South” (I mean, any book that shows on its cover a formally-posed Robert E. Lee holding an AK-47 is bound to be good!) *G*

  • Katherine Coble April 5, 2012, 1:52 PM

    Like others I read anything that isn’t tonally similar to the current WIP _unless_ I’m actually studying for direction. When I have a study day I do not write that day to avoid cross-pollination. My study days often coincide with days when I’m too I’ll to write.

    Generally I’m a polygenre reader, however, and have one of each genre in the 0Currently Reading folder.

    Right now:
    _Winter Solstice_ by Rosamund Pilcher
    _Game of Thrones_ by GRRMartin (4th read)
    _1493_(history/biology/geography)
    _The Borrowers_
    _Lifeboat #8__

    My WIPs are Women’s General Fiction (for self-pub) and Historical Fiction with fantastical elements (for traditional pub)

    I cannot write speculative fiction.

  • Grace Bridges April 5, 2012, 3:22 PM

    I tend to read and write in alternating bursts, so that when I’m writing, I won’t be reading much at all, and vice versa. The exception is when I get a bit stuck in my writing – then I go back to my favourite books of all time, fiction or non-fiction, the common factor being beautiful writing which is a match to my lantern. There aren’t too many in this category, but each one is weighty indeed:

    Fiction:
    Taliesin by Stephen Lawhead
    Ingathering by Zenna Henderson

    Non-fiction:
    On Being a Rat by Chila Woychik
    Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik

    A random page or chapter in one of these is usually enough to break my writer’s block, or serves as welcome bedtime reading to remind me of what I want my story to do: to move and inspire my readers as these authors do for me.

    Then when the WIP is done, I get in a new stack of books to be read, and can go through 8 in a week, in my own spec-fic genre this time, subconsciously storing up ideas and inspiration and words and styles and techniques to be adapted and developed in my own flavour the next time I switch back to writing. All while enjoying myself thoroughly. Now that can’t be beat 🙂

  • Liliy April 5, 2012, 7:16 PM

    Does whatever I happened to be reading already count?

    Ha ha. So I guess the honest answer would be “Whatever’s next on my backlist.” 😀

    Which, at the moment was a Historical Fiction novel based on the Titanic~ 😀

  • matt mikalatos April 5, 2012, 7:28 PM

    I’m with Grace. When I’m in the middle of a good book (reading) it takes too much discipline for me to put the book down to write. So I discipline myself by not reading much for pleasure when I’m in the middle of writing a novel. I figure if my novel I’m writing isn’t entertaining enough on its own, I’m in trouble anyway!

  • Kevin Lucia April 6, 2012, 4:02 AM

    “When I’m in the middle of a good book (reading) it takes too much discipline for me to put the book down to write.”

    This is why I keep such ungoldly hours. I WILL fit both reading and writing into my life. Social life be darned!

    Ironically Mike, I’m completely opposite. I’ll only read nonfiction if forced to (IE, grad school this semester), but mostly, I hunger for fiction only.

    Anyway, it depends. For the most part, I try to read as many different types of voices and narrative styles I can find. I like to think of my head as a giant stew, and I want it be rich, full of lots of different types of tasty ingredients.

    However, when writing certain things, I intentionally seek out certain types of fiction, certain influences. When gearing up for the “Billy the Kid” project (almost done) I read lots of old school and more modern Westerns – most by Ed Gorman – simply because I needed to get in the “swing” and the “lingo” of the old west. Ironically, I had to do a lot of nonfiction research on Billy for that one.

    Now, I’m writing a novella in the evening that’s “quiet horror”. So I’ve been reading Charles Grant a lot. The Billy the Kid novel has lots of action, so I’m reading a more action oriented novel every morning for breakfast, before I go downstairs and work on Billy.

    Probably the only thing I’m “holding out on” are short stories. When I have both these writing projects in the can and out to beta readers, I REALLY want to focus on writing some short stories. And I have piles of short story collections I’m saving for that period – the Shadows and Whispers and Karl Edward Wagner’s “Best in Horror” collections, because I believe that being in “short story” mode is a lot different than “novel” mode.

  • Kevin Lucia April 6, 2012, 4:09 AM

    I will say this – you’re right about the downside. Initially in my career, almost everything I wrote was a direct pastiche of Stephen King. Three years ago, I went through a weird Bradbury/Lovecraft phase that so my prose so overly purple, it probably could’ve choked even the most talented thespian. So I did have to learn that some styles simply can’t be imitated, and it’s best to read LOTS of things, in hopes that it’ll fuse together and create MY voice, rather than just being an imitation of someone else’s. BUT, I also believe that imitation phase is a normal, maybe even necessary part of a writer’s development.

  • Brian Pierson April 6, 2012, 4:53 AM

    Currently I’m reading Frank Peretti’s Illusion, while wrapping up one WIP and preparing to start another.

  • Carradee April 6, 2012, 12:33 PM

    I think I’m odd, but I actually do best when I read other stories comparable in some way to what I’m writing—which is harder than it sounds. I have a YA urban fantasy series where the closest I can come to what I’m trying to write is adult urban fantasy + young adult paranormal or drama. My YA classic fantasy stories is harder to compare to anything; I have to read different things to get comparisons to the style, mood, themes, plotting, world, etc. I’m sure there are things out there that resemble my stories, but I’ve not yet found them.

    Reading comparable stories actually helps me keep myself in what I’m doing and helps me avoid clichés.

  • Lois Hudson April 6, 2012, 6:29 PM

    Interesting discussion. I’ve never analyzed my reading patterns. I usually have one of several genres going at the same time. Currently: “Bonhoeffer” by Eric Metaxas; “The Introvert Advantage” by Marti Olsen Laney; “Introverts in the Church” by Adam McHugh; and “11/22/63” by Stephen King. Takes longer to get through my stack, but I find it’s good to mix it up. I like Carradee’s comment about avoiding cliches by reading the genre one is writing in, or Kevin’s comment about reading the same genre to keep in the “flavor” of the era (Billy the Kid).

  • Scathe meic Beorh May 8, 2012, 6:46 PM

    Usually philosophy.

    The Idea of the Holy by Rudolph Otto.
    The New Gospel of Christian Atheism by Thomas J. J. Altizer

    and, ah, your blog, which I find stimulating

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