I’ve been thinking a lot today about how reading informs writing.
I read voraciously, and re-read frequently, especially books that engage with questions that I find deeply relevant, and books that feel comforting. The limit for library materials at the SF library is 50, and I’m often close to, or at that limit.
That said, there are certain sorts of books I seek out when I’m working on a piece of writing, books that grapple with the kinds of issues I’m engaging with in the text, books that are good examples of craft around a particular craft concern I have, books that leave out the very kind of story I want to tell, books that remind me of the rules of a genre or the tastes of an editor I’m writing for, books that are attempting a similar project in some way. In short, books that a close read will teach me something as a writer, and that will nudge me to keep writing, either because of what’s missing or because of what’s there, or ideally both.
Right now one of my works in progress is a novel about trauma, desire, music, gender, disability and ghosts. I’m in the process of doing the reading that sparks the thinking I want to do about this story, and how I want to tell it.
As I read, I am doing some of the hard thinking that will shape this book of mine, considering questions about integrating spirituality and magic into a story that is rooted in the real, how to write a book about trauma that is accessible to survivors, what it means to decenter romantic narrative and still keep in the sex, ways to play with moving back and forth in time and still create a cohesive narrative, how to include bad sex and sexual trauma and hot consensual sex and kink all in the same book, ways to integrate music into a novel that bring it alive, what a story that is by us for us looks like, how to write about internalized oppression and balance that with strengths, resources, and resilience in the same characters.
Here are some of the books that have really gotten my juices flowing so far, in a range of directions. Interestingly, two thirds of these books are classified as young adult fiction. That’s not the genre this novel will be, but I am finding YA to be a great resource in this writing process.
- Nevada, by Imogen Binnie
- The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
- Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell
- Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
- If I Ever Get Out of Here, by Eric Gansworth
- Dark Secret Love, by Alison Tyler
- Return to Me, by Justina Chen
- Sub Rosa, by Amber Dawn
- Liar, by Justine Larbalestier
- Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake
- All Our Pretty Songs, by Sarah McCarry
- The Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzie
This kind of reading feels very different from the work I did when I was younger, where I directly attempted to adopt the style of a particular writer (I was enamored of Thomas Pynchon, A.A. Milne, and Sandra Cisneros at various points). It’s not about writing like these folks, though many of them are very talented at their craft (otherwise their books would not be so compelling). It’s about letting the book teach me, engaging with it closely, with its craft and questions and challenges and elisions and gaps.
“To be a creative, innovative horror writer, you must read a lot of everything, and a lot of that everything must be horror. You may be thinking, ‘How can I be creative and original with all those other authors’ ideas floating around in my head?’ But this is critical: The sheer amount of material floating around in your head will prevent you from copying any one author. Instead you will find a tiny piece of character from this book, a tiny piece of plot from that book, a certain stylistic technique from that other, which you will combine into something totally new. It is the writer who reads only Stephen King who will turn out stories that sound like Stephen King – on a very, very bad day.” –Jeanne Cavelos
Reading feels very deeply like I am working on the novel (which is what I refer to it in my head, probably because it’s my first serious attempt at writing a novel), even when I’m not also doing much writing. I am doing the thinking that makes the writing possible and more deliberate, more what I need it to be. It is working on the book, even though that may be hard for others to discern or understand. Part of what I do when I engage with other writers is to ask what they are reading, and what they are learning from it, because I know we draw from what we read when we write.
What are you reading?