Writing and Reading; Reading and Writing

If you want to be a writer, or consider yourself a writer, or are planning to be a writer, do not let me catch saying you don’t have time to read. Ahem. Because, really? You have no business writing if you’re not reading. Everything. All the time. Books and blogs and magazines and the backs of cereal boxes. (Maybe they aren’t so good to read anymore, I’m not sure–I rarely eat cereal these days.) You should be inhaling words from your reading as much as you are flinging words at the page.

Most of us writers come to writing because we loved reading so much. Who among us doesn’t have a childhood memory of being transported to another world by a book? Who among us hasn’t read a book and thought, I wish I could do that. Or even, I could do that way better than he did.

Words in, words out. The more I write, the more I feel I need to read. (Sort of like this weird paradox I described here.)  It is as if I need to fill myself up with enough words so that I have a store of them to spit back out again. Have you ever felt like that?

Just in case you’re not reading everything you can get your hands on, here are a few tips:

Read as a writer

Once you start writing, reading is never quite the same again–because you are paying attention to all the things that slid past before.  Cultivate this habit.  Consider how the author writes description, and dialogue.  What does she do to make the character leap off the page? What kinds of stylistic techniques does he employ? How does setting figure into the story? And how is the book structured? Jane Smiley’s book on reading the novel is a useful starting point. Oh, and you might want to consider reading a book twice.  You’ll be amazed at how much you learn the second time through.

Write about your reading

Lately, as part of a journaling template I’m following in the morning, I’ve been writing a few words about what I’m reading. I find this a helpful practice because it helps me notice. In the book I’m reading now, for instance, I’m admiring the way the author uses fresh verbs and original descriptions. In the previous book I read, I noted how the author did some interesting loops with time.  This noticing is why MFA programs as well at the writing program I teach at requires their students to write essays about their reading.  Because deep reading is an excellent way to teach yourself to write. And writing about your reading is even more effective.

Read in your genre 

In all genres, from mystery to romance to horror, there are certain tropes. If you’re writing in a genre, you need to know these tropes. Here’s the deal: if you’re writing mysteries, it is likely you love reading mysteries. And by reading a lot of mysteries, you’ve soaked in these tropes without even being aware of it. Which is why reading a lot is so good for the writer.

But don’t limit yourself

Branch out from the genres once in awhile. Read a memoir or some heavy literature, or how about a book of short stories or essays? You might be surprised what you find. And it just might inspire you to write something different, too. It can be really good for your writing to fool around in a different genre.  Read dumb bestsellers and obscure classical novels, or at least take a look at them.

Always carry a book or Kindle or something with you

You never know when you’re going to get stuck in a line, or waiting for a child, or when you’ll be early for an appointment. Have something to read. Take it with you to the gym, so you can read it while on the treadmill (they always have boring TV shows on at the gym anyway).  You can’t read if you don’t have something to read with you. Righ?

Okay, those are some of my ideas. How do you read as a writer? Has your reading changed since you started writing? Leave a comment. Or head on over to the Facebook group and discuss.

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7 Writing Session Savers for When It’s a Slog

Writing has been a slog for me lately.  In the month of November, for Nanowrimo, I wrote over 50K words.  50,047, to be exact.  And since then I’ve written under 4,000.  Yeah. A slog.

Here are some of my excuses for not writing:

–Snow and ice storm


–My grandson’s birthday

Teaching a workshop on character and promoting next year’s France workshop


–It’s a slog

Because when writing is a slog, it is not so much fun.  And why else do we write, if not for fun? Because, honestly, this industry pretty much sucks.  The gatekeepers are mean, keeping us away from the citadel, and if we choose to go it alone we have to cultivate the mind of an entrepreneur.

But I digress.

This morning, I finally wrote one thousand words.  1,000 exactly because I stopped as soon as I hit that magic number. (My usual goal for a daily word count is 2,000, but I’ve followed my own advice and lowered my expectations.)  And that made me feel good. And I started thinking about the ways I help myself when writing is a slog. Such as:

  1. Admit it.  If you are in a not-fun stage with your writing, admit it. Don’t try to sugarcoat it. Fess up. The writing gods and muses love honestly.  Once you’ve realized what’s going on, you can deal with it a lot more easily.
  2. Write a word.  Just one word. Then another and another. And another. With luck, it will quit being a slog and you will start having fun. But if that doesn’t happen, at least you will have words on the page.
  3. Try a prompt.  Oh hey, I just happen to have a prompt book for you right here.  Sometimes a prompt is just what you need to start enjoying the work again, because it can take you in all kinds of unexpected places.
  4. Change your routine. If you usually listen to music, don’t.  Or vice-versa. If you usually sit in your office, try the kitchen. Or pack things up and hit the coffee shop.  Change it up and see if that doesn’t rejuvenate you.
  5. Get your ya-yas out.  Go for a walk. Hit the gym. Do some yoga.  Come back to the work with a fresh mind. Maybe you’ll have a fresh attitude as well.
  6. Read. Nothing gets me excited about writing like delving into a book. Fiction or non-fiction does it for me. Maybe it will for you, too.  (Right now I’m reading Gaining Visibility, by Pamela Hearon,  and Lisa Cron’s book called Story Genius).
  7. Give up. Admit you’re not into writing at the moment and don’t force yourself to do it.  But do this whole-heartedly, in a way that you’ll be at peace with. Not in a way that you’ll be torturing yourself with the dreaded words, I should be writing, every few minutes.

What do you do when your writing becomes a slog? I’d love to hear how you put the fun back in it.  And remember, one of the best ways to get enthusiastic about writing is to work with a coach. You can read more about that here.

Image by Thomas Helberg.

A Writer’s Miscellany

AnotherReadThroughI kind of love the word miscellany, whose official definition according to the Google is ” a group or collection of different items, a mixture.”  It sounds charming and old-school and like it would be said by a schoolmarm wearing a Little House on the Prairie outfit.  And honestly? The word and all its implications is way more grandiose than the collection of items I have for you today.

Which all have to do with me. I hope that still makes them a  miscellany.  Anyway:

Thing #1: I’m doing a special love-themed reading in honor of Valentine’s Day at my favorite Portland bookstore, Another Read Through.  The date is February 13th, from 1:30 – 3 and I’m appearing with several other local authors. Since the theme is love, I’m pondering reading the sex scene from Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior. (Which for reasons unknown to me is selling in the used section of Amazon for $58 and up, even though it is still available new.)

And since this is a miscellany, I’ll tell you a funny story about the sex scene, besides that it was the one thing agents commented on over and over when I was shopping the novel.  Anyway, my daughter and son-in-law have a habit of reading books out loud to each other in the evenings (at least they did, before they managed to produce two boy children).  It was Russell who read the sex scene out loud and when he was finished, put the book done and was silent for a moment, then said, “My mother-in-law wrote that. Not sure how I feel about that.”

But reading it out loud in the comfort of your own home and reading it out loud in front of a group of people are two different things. So I’ll probably chicken out.

Thing #2: The very next weekend, in the very same location, my biz partner Debbie and I will be presenting the second round of our workshop, The Ins and Outs of Publishing.  It is a day-long workshop with lunch provided and our first group loved it and learned a lot.  We cover the entirety of the publishing world and bring in our friend Angela Sanders to cover self publishing. You can read more here. But let me also add that the bookstore is a great spot to hold a workshop.  Elisa has a cool upstairs loft that we use and we sit surrounded by the mystery section. I dare you to attend and not buy a pile of books (since the bookstore is mostly used, you can go home with a stack for not that much money).

So that’s it, that’s my miscellany.  And now I am off to the bi-weekly writing group, loosely called Wednesday Writers, that Debbie and I torture run.

What’s going on in your writing world?

Photo from the Another Read Through website.

Wednesday Within: The Tension of Reading

Book-books-page-35496-lLike so many other writers, I came to writing through reading.  From the time I first learned to recognize words on the page, I was fascinated with those words.  And from the time I figured out that somebody actually put those words there, that's what I wanted to be–a writer.  I remember back when I was a freshman in college, discovering that I could major in journalism, and more to the point, that there was actually a practical application for my love of writing.

But, as I said, before my love of writing came my love of reading.

For something that has had such a big impact on my life, you'd think I'd remember the moment when it all came together and I started to read.  But I don't.  I don't remember if someone taught me, or if I figured it out myself.  What I do remember is my excitement about it, and proudly sharing this accomplishment with a fellow first-grader.  (We were a bit slower in those days–nowadays kids learn to read long before they hit elementary school, it seems.) The other student–all I remember was that she was female–sneered and said, "You can't read!  You're lying!" (I'm pretty sure this scarred me for life, in subtle ways like sometimes being unwilling to step into the limelight for fear someone will shout the adult equivalent of "You can't read! You're lying!")

I thought about all this recently because I read a really good book.  Now, I read a lot, as all writers should, everything from magazines and newspapers to blogs and books.  But even with all that reading, it has been a long time since I read a book that transported me as much as this novel did.  It is called Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, and you should go buy it or get it from the library NOW.  Don't let the subject matter turn you off.  On the surface, it is about the world 15 years after a flu pandemic has wiped out most of the world's population, and all of the infrastructure we take for granted, too, like electricity and the internet and cell phones.  But really, it is about the importance of art to our lives, the strange and wonderful connections between people, and hope.  (It was also a National Book Award finalist this year, one of the first science fiction novels to have been so nominated.  Though I would not really call it science fiction.)

And it reminded me of the tension of reading. 

What do I mean by the tension of reading?  To me, it occurs in two ways:

1. Between wanting to find out what happens and not wanting the book to end.  I have this thing I do when I'm reading: I get so curious about what's going to ensue that the tension becomes unbearable.  So I open the book further ahead and peek–just a quick glimpse–at a page. Yeah, sometimes this backfires and gives away big spoilers, but often it gives just enough of a hint to defuse the tension and let me keep going.  And sometimes it makes me think one thing is going to happen and then something completely different does! (Serves me right.)

2. Between wanting to start a new book to have the same transporting experience again–but not wanting to leave the world of the book you just finished.  When I finished Station Eleven, I wanted to start another book immediately because I wanted to duplicate the reading experience I just had.  I'd just been to the library and brought home a stack of books–a particularly good haul, I'd thought.  But when I went to peruse my pile and choose what to read next, none of them appealed.  Much as I wanted to enter a new reading world, the old one of Station Eleven still lingered. 

This was really the first time I've identified these tensions in such a direct way.  I've felt each of them for years, of course, but never really fully named them.  And, as a writer, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that tension is the most important element of any work of fiction (and I daresay non-fiction, too). I'm quite sure the tensions of reading and writing are related.

So those are my Wednesday thoughts this week.  Please leave a comment--do you have a weird reading habit?  I know one of my loyal readers, who shall remain nameless, reads the end of the book first!  So c'mon, fess up–what are your reading habits?

Photo by pontuse.

Rain or Shine Readings

School-study-person-3790-lMy business partner Debbie and I have volunteered to take over the organization of a local reading series.  It was begun last year by a mystery writer and when he moved away, one of our local writing groups, the Oregon Writer's Colony, took it over.  

The series is held at a coffee shop close to my house called Rain or Shine.  It's every Thursday night from 6:30 to 7:30 and Rain or Shine kindly stays open just for us.  Anybody can read, published or unpublished, member of OWC, or not.  You just have to sign up ahead of time (this is not an open mic deal). The series runs from September through June and we are already booked up for this year.

Debbie and I decided it would be a lot of fun to get out once in awhile and meet more local writers.  Portland is nothing if not a great writing and reading town.   Last week was our first time as official hosts and it was great fun.  It helps that the coffee shop serves pie (which, ever since Pi day is my new obsession despite the fact I worry so much about eating sugar that I rarely let myself consume it) on Thursday nights and that they make great lattes.  We try to encourage everyone who attends to buy something in order to support the venue.  The host of the evening gives a brief intro for each reader and the reader reads for 20 minutes.  

I have a feeling we're going to get way more out of it than we put in because that's what happens when you get serious about making connections.  I've written recently about ways you can connect with other writers, and going to readings is one of the best.  They are not as much of a commitment as a workshop or retreat (though I'm a huge fan of those, so much so that I host one in Europe every year) and take just an hour or two of your time.  And yet the rewards are great–you get to meet other writers, hear their work, and get a night out away from the computer.

So, PDXers, check out this series on Thursday nights!  (We'll be taking names for next year's schedule soon, too, if you'd like to read.) And if you don't live in Portland (and most of you don't) seek out readings you can attend.  I know I've been guilty of going months or years at a time without bothering to attend one, blaming tiredness, or rain, or sheer laziness.  But supporting other writers is a huge part of the writing life and the more actively I engage, the happier I am (I just need to remind myself of that on cold winter nights).

And, don't forget, you have until this Thursday to enter my drawing to celebrate this blog's birthday. I'll be drawing the names of the winners on Friday morning.  Wahoo! 

Do you attend readings regularly?  Do you have a favorite venue where you live?

Photo by Svilen001.

When You’re Not Writing, Read (Plus the 10 Books Meme)

31Y7scFrOIL._BO1,204,203,200_When I was an MFA student, we had packets due every three weeks, five a semester.  These packets consisted of original work and an essay about a book we had read.  Thus, I spent a lot of time reading.  It was then I realized that one of the best things about being a writer is that reading is actually part of the job description.

Of course, I've been a reader since first grade, when I initially started being able to discern that words on the page actually meant something.  I think most of us writers come to wanting to be a writer through reading.

It is my opinion that all writers should inhale words as if their writing life depended on it–because it does.  That advice that you shouldn't read while writing lest the reading you are doing influence your work?  Bull puckey.  Even if you set out to mimic a favorite writer, the words are filtered through your unique experience and will come out totally different.  (And, indeed, a very good exercise to do to train yourself to be a writer is to copy out the words of your favorite novel.)

My reading habit has been completely revitalized this year with the purchase of first a Kindle and next an Ipad mini.  Something about reading on these mobile devices turns me into a speed demon.  And because Kindle books are a lot less to purchase, I'm willing to be more open-minded about what I read.  I've discovered some very different and interesting authors this way.

But what started this rumination on how reading affects writing is that a friend tagged me on the current Facebook meme that is going around–10 book that have stayed with you.  Since I'm never on Facebook (you'll find me on Twitter all day every day but Facebook and I have never bonded) I thought I'd do it here.  Besides, this way you guys can share with me books that have stuck with you.  The idea, I gather, is to do this fast and not overthink it.  So here goes mine:

1.  A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (One of the best books ever.)

2. The Pink Dress by Anne Alexander (YA classic before there was such a thing as YA.  My sister and I lust for a copy of this book, currently priced at $889+ on Amazon.)

3. Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver.  (I love this book so much.) 

4. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.  (He's one of the most underrated of American writers.  I read this right after I read #3 above.  Amazing.)

5. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.  (Adore.)

6. Creativity in Business.  (I don't even know who the author of this book is, but I read it years ago and it changed my ideas about what was possible in business.)

7.  The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron.  (Seminal.  It changed my life.  So did studying with her in Taos.)

8.  Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge.  (Plucked this one from my Mom's book shelf when I was a kid.  Apparently its a movie, too.)

9.  I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  (Just read it if you haven't.  Please.  It's a charmer.)

10.  The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.  (Time to reread this terrifying classic.)

Okay, I'm cheating and adding another:

11.  The Golden Treasury of Caroline and Her Friends by Pierre Probst.  (My favorite book from childhood, bar none.  I had a copy of this for years and lost it when our house burned down a few years back.  If anyone has a copy they want to give me, I'll love you forever. I'll name a character after you.  I'll send you everything I publish for life.)

Yeah, so, this is a quirky list if their ever was one.  I bet yours is too–and I'd love to read it!  Leave one book or ten in the comments.

PS–Stay tuned this week–I've got my annual word of the year post coming up and a Christmas giveaway!

PPS–If I were a good blogger, I'd put links to all these books in.  But I'm not.  If you're interested, you'll find them. 

Trust the Reader

I was on the phone with one of my writing coaching clients (who just so happens to be a kick-ass SciFi adventure writer).

"I'm enjoying your book," he said.

I thanked him.

"I think my wife is enjoying it even more.  She keeps stealing it from me."

I allowed as how this didn't surprise me, seeing as how the novel is most definitely women's fiction and my client's book is more of a rough-and-tumble type romp.

"She told me last night that she thinks she's just gotten to a place in the book where she is less irritated with Emma Jean and is beginning to see her change."

I loved hearing this, because it means that my client's wife got Emma Jean.  Yes, Emma Jean is self-absorbed to the point of cluelessness at the start (I believe one reviewer said she "wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her") but there's also a deep woundedness inside her that makes her act this way.

I've always trusted my readers to get that. To get irritated with her, and want to shake some sense into her but still be willing to go on her journey with her–because they understand that she will transform at the end.

I'm not going to give away the ending by saying how she transforms, but suffice it to say she does transform.  That's what I love about women's fiction–its characters go on journeys of transformation.

The funny thing is, I had numerous agents tell me that Emma Jean was too "unrelatable."  And yet, over and over again, I get comments from people who tell me how much they love her, how they empathize with her, how they know someone just like her.

I'm glad I trusted the reader.

In what ways have you learned to trust the reader?

A New Wrinkle on a Lifelong Love Affair

School-study-person-10504-lI've been a reader all my life.  I'm sure you have, too, since if you're reading this blog, it's because you're interested in writing.  And if you're interested in writing, odds are good that you came to your love of writing through reading.

Maybe you, like me, usually have something like five books that you're reading at one time.  (I always have at least one novel going, maybe two.  And probably for sure something on spirituality.  Maybe another on self-help, and often a business or other non-fiction book as well.)

Perhaps you, like me, enjoy nothing better than an afternoon spent reading a juicy novel by the fire, or a late night when you're kept awake turning the pages of a mystery.

I wonder, too, if, over the last few years, you've not had as much time to read.  It's been the case for me.  Life got busy with children, then grandchildren, career, friends, housework, you name it.  And my lifelong love affair with reading was threatened.  It wasn't that I wasn't reading, because I always, always, always have a book going.  It was just that I wasn't reading as much.

But all that has changed.

Because I bought a Kindle. And it has revolutionized my reading world.  Already, since just last week, I've finished one full novel and am halfway through a second.  Plus, I've read sample chapters of two others and begun another one.

I've done more reading in the past few days than I've accomplished in the last month.

There's something amazingly simple about picking the little tablet up, turning it on, and reading a few pages when I have a spare five minutes.  The device makes me read faster.  I'm a visual scanner, meaning I take in a whole paragraph or sentence at a glance (which is why I'm worthless if someone spells a word or reads me a string of numbers–I need to see the whole), and something about the size of the Kindle's screen enables me to inhale words in huge gulps.

I love it.

And it is good for my writing, as well.  Reading is part of the job description for any writer, and it is an excellent way to teach yourself to write.  You could do worse than to begin your education by sitting down and reading 100 works in the genre you wish to write in.  When I read, it's almost as if the words I inhale rearrange themselves inside me and spit themselves back out on the page.  I think I've written more on my novel in the few days I've had the Kindle than I have this entire year.

Words in, words out.  It's magic. 

It puzzles me why the publishing world is so threatened by the digital revolution.  Anything that makes people read more should be considered a good thing, right? One would think so.  Another benefit to the Kindle or its pals is the ease with which you can order books.  One click and there you are, ready to read.   This is a fantastic, thing, people.

I bought the absolute cheapest Kindle available, the one with special offers and ads on it, because I wasn't sure I was going to like it.  Turns out I even love the ads, which have introduced me to a new author already.  For the record, the special deals generally feature classic authors like Paul Bowles or C.S. Lewis, so its not a bunch of crap by any stretch of the imagination.

One caveat: think hard about what you want your tablet to do.  After much thought, I realized that what I really wanted was to read on the device, period.  Which is why, despite the siren song of the Ipad, I didn't bite.  And now I'm glad, because if I had a full-fledged Ipad, I'd be checking my email or reading HuffPost.  I know myself.  I am weak.  I succumb to such temptations easily.

So that's my story about my new love affair.

How do you read–on an Ereader or with a traditional book?

Move Your Mind, Too

This morning I was reading one of the five million newsletters I subscribe to and the topic was about moving your body.    It was yet one more call to exercise regularly and talked about how establishing this habit is easier than you think, because our bodies are made to move. Dummy_wooden_white_261078_l

I'll second that.  I know I feel much, much better when I'm getting out every morning to walk.

But it got me to thinking about how important it is to move your mind, also.  Especially for writers.  I've been facilitating a discussion group for my church around the book Birthing A Greater Reality.  The book is dense in places, which is a nice way of saying that sometime I've really got to concentrate on it, more so because I'm leading a discussion of it.

At first I struggled a bit.  But now I'm totally loving it, because I really have to concentrate when I sit down to read it.  I take notes in the margins, I underline, I look up concepts.  I move my mind. 

And I'm pretty sure that our minds are made to move just as much as our bodies are.  Because the more I stretch my mind, the easier it gets to plow through dense material.  The more I focus and concentrate, making notes in the margins, listening intently to the Sunday messages on the material, the more my mind wakes up and engages with the world. 

How Writers Move Their Minds

Does that almost sound kinky?  Just a brief aside, never mind.  Here's my list:

1. We write.  Duh.  But with the crazy demands of our lives it is very easy to forget that writers write and that we actually need to practice our craft once in awhile.  Or every day.  And that we write to discover.  That we write to move our minds.

2. We read.  We read anything and everything from cereal boxes to blogs to novels to non-fiction books.  The best way to teach yourself how to write is to read anything you can get your hands on.   And read tons of examples of what it is you want to write–my friend Linda, for instance, has set herself the challenge of reading 100 YA novels in order to teach herself about the genre.

3.  We discuss.  We communicate with other writers, in person or via the internet or phone and talk about writing.  There's nothing more energizing and interesting than a group of writers gathered to talk shop.  Because "shop" includes just about everything under the sun.

4. We think deep thoughts.  Because all of the above foster deep thoughts.  Well, actually mine tend to be shallow at times (especially after I've watched too much trashy TV), but who cares, at least I'm thinking.

5.  We go within.   By giving our minds a rest through meditation, prayer, or whatever works for us, we actually allow our minds to move with more ease and less effort.

What have I missed?  How do you move your mind?  And how does it impact your writing?

***Another way to move your mind is to feed it images, which you can do via a vision board.   Sign up for my newsletter and receive my free Ebook, Jump Start Your Book With A Vision Board.  The form is to the right of this post!

Photograph by float.