Balancing Reading and Writing

Most any writing instructor worth his or her salt will tell you, “If you want to learn how to write, read, read, read.” In particular, read within the genre you want to write. That’s excellent advice; however, none of them manage to impart how to find the time to do that, especially when you have your own writing in the mix.

Like most writers who love to read, I have a literal stack of TBR (to be read) books and a virtual one on my eBook reader as well. I participate in book-reading contests, i.e., set a number of books to be read in a year. Last year I blew right past the goal I set for myself. This year? Not so much. No matter what I do, I’m consistently four books behind my goal, and the about of time remaining in the year is quickly shrinking.

I can, however, pinpoint the cause. I spent most of the summer rewriting and revising a novel manuscript I had a (self-imposed) deadline for, so reading was one of the necessities I put aside. Now, I’m scrambling to catch up so I won’t perceive myself as a failure for not reading an arbitrary number of books in a year.

There’s an offshoot issue of this. When I go to read books in the genre I write, I find them, well, unhelpful. First, they’re mostly, almost exclusively written by men, and the female characters are stereotypical, again for the most part. So, I rarely read thrillers. I substitute non-cozy mysteries by the likes of Sara Paretsky, or speculative fiction by Margaret Atwood.

Now, it’s not that I won’t read thrillers by the late Vince Flynn or Lee Child. I do because within them is how to structure a good thriller, but I go elsewhere to learn characterization. Even though I write what will likely be considered “commercial” fiction, I want to approach it from a literary fiction standpoint, so I read a lot of literary fiction, also, contemporary as well as classic.

And the ultimate thriller writer for me is Stephen King. Yes, his work often falls into the horror/paranormal category, but the man can write; he can develop amazing characters; he concocts intricate plots; he has the most amazing sense of setting; and he eschews those dreaded -ly adverbs. His books also meet the accepted definition of a thriller, and, along with his great tutorial book, On Writing, his body of work is a writing course in and of itself.

Even after all the positives of reading to aid in writing, I still feel guilty when I devote a day to reading–I should be writing. I also feel guilty when I devote an entire day to writing–I should be making a dent in that TBR stack. To put in contemporary social media terms: I have a #firstworldproblem.

For every writer friend I have who gets the fact you have to read to understand how to write, I run across someone who declares he or she has no time for reading, “I just want to write.” One of the writers I follow on Facebook is Anne Rice, probably an icon for a successful writer. She is always posting about the books she has read and what about writing she has learned from them. So, I think you can balance her approach against the “writer” who doesn’t see the need to read and gauge which one is a writer, not a scribbler.

So, I’ve been writing long enough. Off to do some reading–Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, by the way.