It’s not a surprise that all the writers I know were voracious readers at a young age. They fell in love with words early. They gobbled up stories like candy. Some knew they wanted to be writers when they were children; others discovered it later when their own children were small.
And it’s not a surprise that the advice most often given to writers is Read. Read often. Read a lot. Then read some more. The more we read stories, the better we internalize our sense of story elements like pacing, tension, character development, conflict, description, etc. And intentionally “reading like a writer” helps me see how this writer made me cry, or how that one made me so angry I wanted to throw the book across the room because I identified so strongly with a character I felt her frustrations as my own.
When I talk to friends about a project I’m working on, they often give me suggestions of things I “ought to read.” Usually, they suggest a book in a similar genre, often one set in the same time period or with the same subject matter. I smile and nod, and sometimes even write down the titles, knowing full well that the books these well-intentioned friends have mentioned will most certainly NOT appear on my reading list any time soon. I don’t want that other plot or this other character to somehow sneak in through a side door of my consciousness and unwittingly take up residence in my story.
But continual reading for writers is essential as a way to refresh our thinking, to reboot, if you will. When I’ve hit a brick wall in my own work-in-progress, I find that reading helps me step away and refocus. I’ll choose a book in a genre quite different from what I write, just for the change of pace. It’s a little like the way the best ideas sometimes come when I’m driving, or in the shower, or just as I’m about to fall asleep. I’m thinking about something else, and then the idea I need just seems to appear, sneaking in the side door of my consciousness.
I recently finished a manuscript and sent it out to several writer-friends for their thoughts and comments. While I waited for their responses, I picked up a book I had been planning to read for several months. I devoured it, then began another. When I finished it, I started another. That little vacation from writing recharged my batteries and made me eager to begin my revision work some great feedback from others and with a fresh perspective as well.
When I finished the revision, I found myself in a bit of panic when I realized I had no idea what my next project would be. Luckily, I stocked up on new books over the holidays—so many that I had a hard time choosing which one to read first. But half-way through the third one, a new story idea began to sneak in that side door. She bears absolutely no relation and no resemblance to any of the stories I’ve read lately, but there she is, peering at me around the corner. I’m eager to get acquainted with her. We’ve chatted a bit. But she seems a little timid, and I don’t want to scare her off by pursuing her too quickly. Maybe I’ll just let her watch over my shoulder as I read for a while.