finding time to write

Reading as a writer: how to be inspired, while staying true to your vision

Cross posted from John Robin's Blog

I'll admit that I don't read nearly as much as I wish I could. Since I write all weekend and during the week I’m immersed in editing projects, I often find that my brain wants anything but words by the end of the day. It is for this reason that I always turn down requests to beta read or to read anything that isn't the one thing I am compelled to commit to.

However, I do make a point of reading. In fact, time to read is as fundamental to my day routine as taking a shower or brushing my teeth. While I've experimented with best times to make this happen, at the very least I read for half an hour before I go to sleep, even if it means going to bed half an hour later.

I don’t read fast, though this is by choice. I know of many who can read fast but they admit they don't take everything in. One friend who I know is a fast reader once told me he reads fast and notes where exciting things are so he can come back to them later. I can definitely relate to reading this way -- I do it all the time for non-fiction articles or research (especially online), but not for fiction or books I've chosen to read in their entirety.

When it comes to reading a book for my dedicated reading time, I don't feel I'm adequately experiencing the book unless I'm truly reading it, and that means reading at a speed that allows me to be immersed in every single thing that's happening, live-time.

I don't press 3x-play when I watch a 1-hour TV show so that I can get through it in 20 minutes, and likewise, I don't rush through reading.

Should every writer read?

For writers, reading is an act of professional development. By reading, we are studying what our contemporaries are doing or what the greats who have gone before us have done. Even if we pick up a particularly bad book, we receive an education in what not to do.

It's also wise to read beyond the genre you write in. While there's great value in studying authors in your genre, being limited to specific genres is a sure way to risk putting blinkers on. For example, though I write epic fantasy and, as you'll see if you study my Goodreads shelf, I've read more fantasy books than any other genre, I read a lot of non-fiction, science fiction, and general fiction. I keep lists of books to help me remember titles I hear of, but when it comes to deciding what to read next, I believe in the power of intuition: in fact, many times I have experienced the phenomenon of how the exact book I need just ends up in my hands at the right time.

There is something meditative to reading. It's not just about professional development, but broadening your mind as a human being. In fact, this is the more important part for storytellers, in my opinion, because while it's great to analyze fiction and fiction techniques for inspiration in your own storytelling, this is just the surface layer of what can be gleaned from being open to the far deeper layers of meaning and inner transformation that reading can bring about for us.

Beware the urge to jump ship (otherwise known as managing your influences)

There is also a real danger to reading if you are a writer, and it's this danger that often is the background excuse for those writers who claim they must not read lest they get influenced. I am no stranger to this one.

In fact, I have a fresh anecdote to share. This last weekend I nearly gave up on A Thousand Roads. This was due in part to reading Stephen King's On Writing and realizing, as I immersed myself in his early life stories, how, after discovering Tolkien at the age of 13 I all but forgot about my previous love for horror stories -- one which goes back to the age of 6 when I'd sneak to my friend's place after school and watch horror movies.

In fact, I had my first story published when I was 11. It was called The Shack, a horror story about a boy whose brother turns into a monster and hunts down his family after a possessed egg from some other dimension takes him captive. I'd submitted it for a school contest and came in second place, which meant I didn't win the 1st place prize of getting published by one of the local presses. However, the principal liked the story so much that, unbeknownst to me at the time, she went home and typed it all up, then had it printed and bound. A few mornings later, we were called into the library and she took out this little book and read it to everyone in place of regular story time, much to my shock (and embarrassment).

I still have this story and, as I read about Stephen King's childhood and found many parallels with my own imaginative early years, I fished out this little book and read it again.

Maybe you can see where I'm going with this. Reconnecting to this abandoned path made me doubt what I'm doing now. When the weekend came and it was time to work on A Thousand Roads I wanted to write something else, saw my plan to stay the course and learn how to finish a book as misguided. Heck, I could use a break, work on something fresh and different.

Without realizing it at the time, my free creative space was being influenced by what I was reading.

You might relate to this as a writer if you've ever gone through this vacillating story idea effect. I don't know about you, but I find this usually happens after I see something I absolutely love where I can just tell the author is brilliant and has found true gold to share. Usually, not long after this experience, a new story idea appears, and it doesn't take long to trace the derivative lines.

How to read and be open without be swayed

There's nothing wrong with being inspired and influenced. The key, in my opinion, is discerning the difference between knee-jerk inspiration and inner inspiration that is as strong -- and slow and inevitable -- as the shifting of tectonic plates.

In the case of A Thousand Roads, the knee-jerk response passed when I relied on the much deeper muscle of my years'-long discipline to come back to the same story and discover it in its pure form. Interestingly, after persevering and having an amazing writing weekend wherein I got more fully invested in the potential of the story, I arrived at the part of King's On Writing where he talked about Carrie and how he'd nearly abandoned that book but his wife's persistence pushed him on to write a story that he was convinced wasn't worth it. He pushed on and learned about the importance of going the extra mile, of going on even when he felt like he was "shoveling shit from a sitting position" (love that line).

Much like what we choose to read, we must choose what to write. If we read 20 books at once and bounce back and forth, our experience of any one book is going to be hampered, and no doubt a book we might have gotten a lot out of we might not even finish. Likewise, if we are fickle in which books we choose to write, we lose the opportunity to bring into realization a story that is our pure, unique vision.

Reading and writing are a symbiosis, provided out mind is rooted in our own vision

I'm learning every time I resist the knee-jerk influencing urge to trust the larger-scale call of the work I'm invested in, the work of my own unique vision.

As I mentioned last week, I saw the Fifty Shades Darker movie this week. What a fantastic movie! I'm not speaking as a critic, but as a storyteller going in and appreciating the unique vision of someone else whose heart and passion shines through in the story. Going into that movie and experiencing some of the brilliantly captured scenes and emotional moments presented me with a dichotomy, but I chose the right path.

The wrong path is to get inspired by what the movie does and then go and immediately try and recreate that in my own fiction. Jumping into such left-brain analysis closes me to truly receiving the lesson of those deeper levels of the story. It's kind of like having a conversation with someone and, instead of listening to them and empathizing, wandering off into thoughts about the plans for the rest of the day.

The right path is much like empathic listening in a conversation, and it made my experience of the movie wondering, and spared me conflict in my storytelling life afterward, because I found myself truly appreciating how one of my contemporaries brought out the gold in her story and how she made her unique vision shine. It inspired me not to copy her, but to listen and learn and appreciate, and try to cultivate that same passion in what is my unique yarn which only I can tell.

Finding Time to Write

One thing that many writers (and other creative types) with day jobs kvetch about is finding the time to write. How the heck are you supposed to write the next Great American Novel (or Young Adult Dystopian Adventure Set in a Not-So-Distant-But-Bleak Future Where Kids are Pitted Against Kids and Centers Around an Empowered Teenager Girl Who Not Only Has Special Powers but also Has Cancer and Must Choose between the Two Boys Who Don’t Know How to Live and Love and only Learn to Do So Through the Limited Yet Caring Time Spent with her in Her Final Days) if you work 9-5 and juggle other responsibilities like a spouse and kid(s)? I mean, it’s hard enough to squeeze in exercise and home-cooked dinners, let alone find time to write a book. I can’t say I have the end-all-be-all answers to this dilemma, but I know what works for me. At least, I know what works for me today. If I can find at least one, quiet hour a day to devote to a writing project, that’s a win. But it’s a struggle for me, a target that refuses to stay in one place. I try to write every day, even on weekends, and I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t have a few tricks up my sleeve

1) Write early. As my semester progresses, I get slammed with papers to grade. That’s not a bad thing—I love that my students are completing their work, but it means all of my daytime hours are monopolized by grading. To get my writing in during these times, I’ll start early and write before Josh and Virginia get up to start the day. For me, this means a 5 AM wake-up, which takes some getting used to. My New York Pitch Conference friend, Monique, who not only works full time, but is also a mom to four kids and a wife. She’s writing a memoir and is up and in front of her computer, coffee in hand by 3:45 AM. Mad props to her—that takes a level of commitment and discipline not shared by everyone including myself.

2) Write late. My husband can do this. He’s a night owl and can often get as much or more accomplished after dinner than a lot of people can during bank hours. And often this strategy can work for many writers. Like writing early, the house gets quiet after everyone else goes to bed. This can be an ideal time to concentrate and rack up your daily word count. If I wasn’t nodding off to Dancing with the Stars by 8:30, I might be scribbling something down, too.

3) Write anytime, anywhere. An opportunity to write can spring up when you least suspect it, and it’s often in our best interest to know when to take advantage of these moments. I don’t know what it is, but it seems like I come up with my best ideas when I’m running, a time I don’t carry around a notebook and pencil. Instead, I jot or record ideas down into a notebook app on my phone. Although I look like I’m talking to myself, more than a few times that notebook app has been my savior. An old writer friend of mine said that she used to write in her car at stoplights. She was a single mom of an infant and chipping away at a master’s in journalism. Car trips were the only few times she would be able to be alone with her thoughts, because that’s when her daughter would nap in her carseat. She’d have her spiral notebook open on the passenger seat next to her, and when she’d come to a stop, she’d scribble down a sentence or two before moving on to the next stop. That’s some bad-ass determination.

A lot of this is tied to me just trying to keep to some sort of a writing schedule, even if my kid comes down with the stomach flu, or the hot water heater conks out and I’ve got to scramble to find a plumber. It’s a commitment to fitting in time for all the work that goes into creating something you hope to share with an audience at some point. When Josh and I lived in L.A., we knew a handful of unemployed actors who sat around complaining they never got any acting jobs because they didn’t have an agent. They weren’t doing anything in the meantime, i.e., auditioning, putting together a reel, taking improv classes. They simply pointed to the fact that they had no agent and used it as an excuse to do nothing and whine about it. We were also friendly with another bunch of actors, who hustled every day and put themselves out there relentlessly so they could make themselves available for their big break. They just went for it.

Sometimes I think that a big difference between creative people who eventually make it and those who fall by the wayside is a sense of stick-with-it-ness. Going for it even when there is no tangible reward other than the work itself. There’s no easy way to do it. You just work harder at it and become better, find the time because it won’t necessarily find you. And with a bit of talent and a dash of luck, eventually it’ll pay off. Fingers crossed.