“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
― Stephen King
I know, I know, it's bad form to start with a quote. We're not in freshman English, after all. But it's a damn good quote and Stephen King is a genius. So there.
I've run into many writers who have told me flat out that they don't read much or at all. The reason they give is usually that they are too busy or that they'd rather be writing. I get it. This isn't a judgy post or a self righteous post. I've been there. I've had reading dry spells where I've an entire year *gasp* without picking up a book. This is what I've learned.
To begin with, as a child and young adult, I loved, LOVED reading. From sugary pop series like Sweet Valley Twins to The Babysitter's Club, to Beverly Cleary to Lois Lowry. I read Judy Blume and Avi and Roald Dahl and Gary Paulson. I read The Indian in the Cupboard and The Castle in the Attic and Parrot in the Oven. All nouns in all the things, I read it.
And then I read harder books, older books, like Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Pimpernel. In fact, I was so obsessed with The Scarlet Pimpernel that I tracked down the rest of the out of print series online and read those too. One time I heard about an out of print (at the time) book called Vendetta: The Story of One Forgotten by Marie Corelli, saved up my allowance and bought a copy that was no more than photocopied pages of an older edition. It wasn't that great.
I spent 9th grade struggling through Les Misérables (unabridged) and chased that down with some lighter Victor Hugo and read The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 10th grade I discovered The Lord of the Rings and after I finished that I thought, I will never again read something that moved me the way that book did. I always do that. It's kinda stupid. I read something great and I feel like I'll never ever find anything as good ever again.
Then life happened. I discussed my writing break in my previous post and it was the same for reading. I was busy and the spaces between books grew longer and longer.
We aren't born knowing how to read. It takes skill and practice and the sad truth is, the longer we go without using that skill, the more and more reading starts to feel like work. That's the sad state I found myself in. I wanted to write. I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn't reading.
Remember in my previous post where I said my writing used to suck, like really suck? Yeah, I wasn't reading. One of the major things that changed was that I got back into the habit of reading and *magically* my writing improved.
It was tough at first. In fact, Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters is still sitting half read on my dresser mocking me. I haven't picked it up in over a year.
But then I tried something that I'm going to call a "Life Hack" or whatever. It's pretty simple. I used audio books. I listened to audio books while reading along with a physical copy of the book. I read my first book start to finish in a while and was very pleased with myself. Then I did it again and this time, found that I had to speed up the recording to keep up with my eyes on the page. In other words, my reading skills came back and were overtaking my listening skills. That's how I did it.
The other thing I've discovered about reading is that, for me, it's the only cure for writer's block. Any time I go more than a few days with severe writer's block I know it's time to read a book. Reading unlocks my brain, makes the ideas swirl, makes the page more mailable.
I'm not one of those people who reads a hundred books a year and I doubt I ever will be. The way my life is, right now, I don't have time to parent, write, have a life, and then read piles and piles of books. But I read a lot. And I make myself familiar with different authors and new titles.
The final piece of advice I would give anyone who wants to get back into reading is this: READ WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY!! Don't get caught up in reading a popular title because everybody is reading it. Read something sappy or something scary or read Young Adult. I LOVE Young Adult! I want to write adult books that have the same ease and intensity and passion that Young Adult books have.
Whatever you do, read. Reading is essential to writing. After all, how can we expect other people to pick up our books if we don't pick up other people's.
So, to conclude, I will give you my top four book recommendations from my reading this summer:
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: A Novel by Gail Honeyman A contender for one of my most favorite books I've ever read and a debut novel!
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee YA and freaking fantastic!
The Big Finish by Brooke Fossey Hey! I know her! A beautiful and hilarious novel about old age and youth and everything in-between.
Fractured Tide by Leslie Lutz YA! Scary and poignant! Great book!
I'm going to go finish Underground Airlines now.
I'm sitting in the sun room. (Sun room sounds so much fancier than prefab addition that stores the over flow of toys and craft supplies that my kids have acquired over the last eight years). So, I'm sitting in the sun room, at a tiny IKEA desk, with the portable AC blowing directly on me because even though it's October, I live in Texas. I want to sit outside, but the mosquitoes are still terrible and I'm afraid of getting West Nile Virus, on top of my usual fear of catching COVID.
It's three in the afternoon and Wren is still dressed in her Disney Princess nightgown and is sitting in a pile of legos, making the lego knights kiss each other. She takes frequent breaks to climb the chair and sit on my lap or my shoulder, sometimes placing her head directly between me and the screen. She wants attention. She deserves attention. When you're a parent, taking the time to write always feels like time you're taking away from your kids. Am I screwing her up? If I get published will I make enough to cover the cost of her therapy later?
This is my life right now. If I sound neurotic, it's because I feel neurotic. My writing journey has had many ebbs and flows over the years, but 2020 is the detour none of us wanted. I'm sitting here, writing my first blog post and feeling useless because I'm not writing my novel. And if I were writing my novel, I'd feel useless for not cleaning the living-room or doing the laundry or whatever else.
I haven't always felt this way. When I was younger and inspired, writing was a sweet escape, something that sent my soul soaring. I wrote paragraphs of fiction in college lectures instead of taking notes. I stayed up until 3am with a laptop resting on my legs in the dark. Writing felt good. It felt purposeful. And my writing sucked.
It was melodramatic and clunky. I thought it was good. Sometimes it was okay. I thought my career was taking off when I got several short stories published in small literary journals my last couple years of undergrad. But then I stopped. The spark ran out and I got busy going to graduate school, getting married, teaching, and having my first baby. By the time I picked up my pen again, something had changed. I began to realize that the passion was still there, but the craft needed work. I had no idea how much work it needed.
What changed everything was finding my community. I joined a small group of life-long friends who share my love of writing and then, I joined the DFW Writer's Workshop, where I made new friends. Both groups have helped me immensely in different ways. I stopped thinking of writing as a competition with other writers and more of a competition with myself to be better.
About three years ago, my smaller group (WHAM) decided to write personal statements. This was mine:
I want to enjoy the process, get lost in the story, and hold a published copy in my hands. I want to read more than I write, increasing my understanding of the craft, while honing my own unique style.
I wrote a very bad novella in high school that I'm too embarrassed to even get into here. (I mean, I also thought flirting was pouring a glass of water over a boy's head. We all do things in high school we regret.) In college I wrote a semi-autobiographical YA book called Exploits of a Stage Name. It wasn't terrible. It wasn't great either. I wrote without any idea where I was going. There was no outline, there was no goal. And it showed as the book came to an anticlimactic and sudden end. I was in my early twenties and knew nothing about the publishing industry. I had read Little Women and assumed that, like Jo March, I'd open my door one day to a handsome man holding my published novel out for me. So I sent it off to one publisher and was promptly rejected. I sulked and put it away.
And then a few years later I had my first child. During those first few sleepless months, while I was up feeding her in the night, I would pull out my laptop and type a few lines. With the shrieks of a newborn as my soundtrack I completed a very short first draft of what would become my second book, Cthulhu Steps Out. Cthulhu Steps Out is a romantic comedy with the Lovecraftian monster Cthulhu as the romantic lead. I knew it was weird, but I loved it. I still love it. But I was naive, thinking that surely if it was good enough, publishers would make a space for it on the shelf where none existed. It wasn't good enough.
I work-shopped it and got back a lot of positive feedback, but also some more sobering criticisms that I tried to ignore. I even pitched it at my first writing conference. I was thrilled when I got back five or six requests from agents to read the manuscript.
They all rejected it pretty quickly. I came to terms with the shortcomings of the story and decided to let Cthulhu go... for now.
So, I gathered all I had learned and set out again, this time to write something with the goal in mind, "I want to write something that I would love to read. I want to write my favorite book."
So, for the next two years I wrote, revised, revised, and revised Believers, the story of a young woman who must save her mother from a cult. I love this book. For the first time, when I sat back and read the latest revisions, I saw something deeper, something much more profound than anything I'd ever written before. This was it. Finally. This was the one that some agent would fall in love with and this is the book that I'd finally see in print.
As of today, I've received about sixty-five rejections, two requests for a full manuscript, which also ended in rejection, one revise and resubmit, which also got me a big fat rejection.
I decided to let Believers breathe for a little while. And here we are. I've started yet another book.
I'm 15,000 words into what I'm calling Rattlesnake. This is a sci-fi, psychological thriller-ish book. That's part of my problem. When it comes to genres, I just can't stay in my lane. I like books that cross genres. I like books that are weird or quirky. But it does make it hard to sell.
I'm excited about the possibility of so many blank pages ahead of me. But I am also at a place in my life where I can't help but wonder, am I wasting my time? Am I just playing pretend? Am I a grown woman who sits for hours typing up stories that no one will read?
Maybe. I hate that I'm not fiercely confident enough to decry these doubts and concerns. I used to be. But, then again, I used to not be a very good writer. I am now. Of that, I'm confident.
I hope that doesn't come across as arrogant. And I hope you don't judge my ability by this unedited, stream of consciousness blog post I'm creating.
Here's the difference. Before, I loved to write and thought it was good because of how it made me feel. I couldn't tell you why it was good, or what made it special. Today, I can write a scene and I can point out to you specifically what techniques I used to create my style. Today, I love to write and I know it's good, but I also know it can be better. Today I cut myself some slack and realize that the words I type today will be revised and polished until they're completely different.
This has been a hellish year for everyone. I feel the toll on my mental and emotional health. I think just to pick up the pieces and say, "today I am going to write" is enough.
So, in reference to my title, On Starting a New Project... I am here, both confident, but realistic, discouraged, but still optimistic. I guess that's an okay place to be, for now.