“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King
Does that quote sound like a wake-up call to you? That’s how I felt the first time I heard it.
The reality is all of our days are filled with must-do’s and have-to’s. When I finally started to see my writing career as an actual job and not just that thing I always wanted but wasn’t willing to work for, I found the time in my day for writing by cannibalizing my reading time. I figured writing and reading would scratch a similar ‘itch’ (they don’t), and that if I read a lot while I was also trying to write my book, I’d just end up being overly-influenced by whoever it was I was reading at the time (that doesn’t really happen).
It all made sense in my head, I swear.
Ignoring the ridiculous idea I just glossed over there about writing ‘my book’, as if I’d only ever write one, the fact is that I had my priorities totally bonkers here. In fact, at the beginning of my writing I was on fire — easily surpassing word count goals, flying through pages and drafts and plots and so on. Then, over a relatively short period of time, I started to feel like maybe the well of inspiration was drying up. My writing slowed, and not only did it slow, it felt like I was fighting to get my ideas onto the page — like not only was it harder to write, but what I did write was objectively worse.
I look back on it now and wonder how I could have been so stupid.
A parallel story. Back when I was really overweight and first in the process of getting healthy, I struggled to understand how I was supposed to eat. I started running six days a week. Well, okay, At 240 pounds I wasn’t doing much actual running, but my little walk/jog/hustle thing was a decent enough workout for me at the time. I knew I should also cut calories, so I did. I ate so little and worked so hard, in fact, that I made myself sick. I hit a wall in my exercise and started to get these minor injuries all the time, and I was grumpy with everyone around me. Those of you who have ever fought and undergone a similar transformation know that you can’t starve yourself to lose weight — your body needs fuel, particularly when you start a new exercise routine. You eat healthy, you exercise appropriate portion control, and you add your workouts to that mix? No problem — you absolutely will lose weight and get fit.
It’s the same with writing.
You’re participating in NaNoWriMo, or you joined an MFA program, or maybe you’re just starting out to write that book you always told yourself you’d finish. That’s amazing, and I’m telling you right now, you can write your novel. But the most important advice I can give you here at the outset? Don’t forget your fuel. Read. Read every single day. If I had to choose between missing a day of writing and missing a day of reading, I can honestly tell you I’d skip writing for the day.
Q: But Drake, won’t I end up just writing thinly-veiled fan-fic if I read all the time while I’m writing?
A: I highly doubt it. By and large the folks I know who have this feeling are just being paranoid. That said, I know everyone handles their influences differently. If you’re that concerned that you are going to end up copying someone else’s style or ideas, I have some workarounds for you.
- Read books by authors you wouldn’t mind being accused of being exactly like. Let’s be honest — if a reviewer told me my books sounded very much like Tolkien, Lewis, Kay, or White, I’d consider it a glowing compliment. If people are going to accuse you of being a ‘wanna-be’, pick someone you actually wanna be.
- Read books outside of your genre. I’m a fantasy author primarily, but I spend a lot of time reading mysteries and thrillers. I’m a huge fan of the genre despite not having a huge desire to write within it, and I know that while I want my books to be fantasy novels, I wouldn’t mind if they were also a bit on the thriller side. I’m not likely to unconsciously copy the voice of someone like Lee Child for my next big fantasy epic.
So that’s my advice for this time. Read. You don’t have time? Make time. Ideally cut something that isn’t helping you get the results you want out of life, but, worst case scenario, write a little bit less each day and read in that time instead. Even twenty minutes of reading a day will make a huge difference in the long-run.