Read to Write

There are times in my life when I forget how to read.

To be more specific, I forget why it is that reading needs to be a prioritised task, if not in my day, then at least in my week.

Priority of tasks is one of those things that absolutely drives my day. I have two daycare days a week for my baby, which is heavenly, and yet my elder daughter’s after school activities take a chunk out of both those days – so my working day starts somewhere about 9:30am after the school run, and finishes about 2:30 as I head out for the second school run. Five hours, twice a week.

On non-daycare days, I get somewhere between an hour and two hours of baby-free time, depending entirely on how long she naps. So priority of tasks is huge to me. I have to write, obviously. I have a book to finish this year. I don’t have enough time to be able to manage two big brain-heavy working shifts in the day, which means if there are edits or proofs or other writerly tasks to be done, it’s that OR drafting the new novel, not both.

All other tasks, like blogging, checking emails, housework (ha!), (damn that reminded me I had to set the robot vacuum going while writing this post), book publicity, etc. all has to be squeezed into those precious baby-free hours – or I have to ask myself whether it is in fact something which can be managed during a baby-present period of the day.

I can work while the baby is there. It’s just harder. Sometimes she plays at my feet or watches Play School or runs off into corners to giggle with her big sister. Sometimes she clings to me like a limpet. Sometimes she really really REALLY wants me to read that story to her for the third time, or dance like a giraffe, or build a tower so she can knock it over with her mighty tiny hands. No, she can’t talk yet. Yes, she gets her message across.

The tasks which get pushed into the ‘sure I can do that when the baby’s awake’ list, it has to be said, tend not to get done at all. It’s an erratic sort of list and I do feel rather sorry for the tasks that get shoved there indefinitely.

Technically anything that involves my laptop (WRITING BOOK) should be easier than anything that requires me being in another part of the house (WASHING UP, and damn I still haven’t set the vacuum going…). But I have to think about my brain, too. I’m fairly well acquainted with how it works these days and while it is technically possible for me to write a few paragraphs of the new book draft in between breastfeeding and ‘this little piggy,’ it’s not a very effective way to produce dark, sexy prose.

Which is all a long way around saying that reading books, a task which can technically be performed anywhere, and which technically requires less attention span than writing books, often gets shoved into the ‘oh I can do that while baby’s awake’ list. And that’s how I end up with books scattered, half-read, across the house, all with their bookmarks missing (Jem likes to steal bookmarks, it is less appalling than her book chewing phase was, but the glee on her face as she does it makes it very clear that she know EXACTLY HOW EVIL IT IS) and my ability to concentrate on anything more complex than Spot Goes To School goes out the window.

It’s easy, when I’m not reading, to think about the task as an indulgence, or a reward. Something to be done when the housework (DAMN IT, okay, I’m setting the vacuum up now). Somehow I have no problem justifying the expense of books to myself or my partner (duh, tax-deductible!) or the space they take up in the house (THESE ARE MY TOOLS OF WORK!) but I still can’t shake that guilty feeling if I have to admit I spent half my work day reading.

But here’s the thing: reading makes me write better. I don’t just mean research books which I hope will save me from major Jubilee-Line-in-World-War-2 type faux pas, or even those gorgeous classics of literature which train me to write better sentences, through pure osmosis. Reading anything, but especially books that inspire me with their goodness and occasionally those that anti-inspire me with their woefulness, flips a switch in my head that makes me think more actively about writing, and technique, and theme, and what I’m actually doing in that dratted book of mine.

No other leisure activity does this so successfully. Some do a bit – my new habit of inhaling Big Finish audios are quite close to it, and TV & movies-at-the-cinema often spark off the Story Creatures in my brain. (I recently watched 4 episode of Skins in a row and by the end of it was trying to figure out if I could achieve anything close to it with a series of linked short stories IN SPACE) But books are the best. They remind me, over and over, that I am a writer, and if I’m reading regularly while writing first draft work, then the work I produce is better and cleaner and more inspired, and faster to produce.

As long as, you know, I remember to put the books down SOMETIMES and pick up the damn laptop. Which really isn’t a problem at the moment, as I’ve got so out of practice at reading substantial works that I don’t seem capable of sitting still for more than 15 minutes at a time. Good for a less sedentiary lifestyle, not so good for finishing the latest Glenda Larke before Volume 3 comes out.

Does reading make YOU write better, or does it get in the way? What fiction has inspired you lately?

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16 Responses to Read to Write

  1. A lot of the time I can’t do both at once. For me they take up the same space– both mentally and in terms of time. But yes, I think reading does make me write better.

    • tansyrr says:

      I know what you mean. I have to be very careful what I read when writing first draft – there’s a scene in my first novel that never recovered from the reading-Austen phase I was going through – but ultimately it does work best for me.

      And of course everyone is different – some people can divide their time into writing times and reading times. I am just back to writing so slowly at the moment that if I did that, I’d be putting off my to read shelf until 2012!

  2. Chris L says:

    Hi Tansy,

    I started reading Steven Erkison’s “Frist Collected Tales of Bauchelain & Korbal Broach” on a plane. It’s three long tales in one book. They follow on but are individual stories, written in a luxurious style I haven’t seen for a long time. I would liken this book to something Lieber might have written in his Lankhmar series, which for me is great. I love it, but I wouldn’t expect to get the kind of latitude from a publisher that Erikson has been given to write these stories. The MC’s aren’t thrust in your face in the first few pages, there aren’t too many (obvious) hooks. But there’s heaps of spookiness and atmosphere and that’s what grabbed me.

    I’d like to write something like this, but I just know that if I got any response to it at all, it would be along the lines of, “Too much waffle, not enough action. Introduce the MC’s in the first few pages. Clarify this and that. I hate ambiguity. Blah blah blah.”

    I’ve found reading this book both inspiring and depressing.

    • tansyrr says:

      I think sometimes the ’101′ writing advice gets in our way – there are times absolute to listen to the voices that talk about making the story as accessible as possible, but sometimes it’s just as important to shut out those stories and write the story you want to, the way you want to do it.

      If it’s done well enough, after all, people (whether they be editors or readers) don’t care what writing ‘rules’ or conventions you are breaking. An established name helps, of course, but if he’s using his established reputation to get away with something that might otherwise be seen as ‘uncommercial’ (wow a lot of scare quotes in this comment, I really should give those up) then that’s good for all of us!

    • Thoraiya says:

      Chris, I’ve felt that way sometimes, and Robert J Sawyer’s advice is (to paraphrase) save the weirdness for your second book.

      Write it right now, if you want to, and then if it gets knocked back, wait until you ARE the established name.

      And if it still gets rejected when you are the established name, you’ll know it really WAS crap to begin with and we were just making excuses for ourselves ;) Because, really, how long can we stay optimistic in the face of rejection without a HUGE SWAG of handy excuses?? ;)

      • Chris L says:

        Hey Thoraiya,

        I don’t think I could write like Erikson. His prose is so involved I sometimes get lost in the words. It’s dense and fun at the same time. But I love mystery, and not the kind that always gets solved. For instance, the TV show Twin Peaks was awsome UNTIL COOPER SOLVED THE MURDER. From that point on it was rubbish.

        Like you say though, perhaps I’m overreaching my ability. My only excuse at the moment is that I don’t write very good. I’m getting better but :)

  3. Thoraiya says:

    Reading is wonderful.

    Lately I have been inspired by “When it Changed” by Joanna Russ and “Love and Romanpunk” by Tansy Rayner Roberts :}

    But also lately I have been thinking about “write to read” instead of “read to write.” Because I think you have to write the thing that you desperately want to read which seems not to be out there. There is not much use going over the same ground.

    Hum :)

    • Love Joanna Russ’s work. Discovered her in the late seventies and she was a breath of breath air, after all the male-centric stories.

    • Nigel says:

      I think that’s quite an insightful thing to say. We don’t play to an audience, because audiences are fickle and we can never really predict them. We write to ourselves, as if we were the reader, because we’re the only reader we really know… and we hope that in doing so we hit a chord with others. So I rather like your comment that “you have to write the thing that you desperately want to read which seems not to be out there”.

  4. Zena Shapter says:

    Don’t worry, Tansy, it will get better. I’ve been sat here at the computer for a whole hour now, uninterrupted, thanks to Disney’s “Robin Hood”, which I realised my little girl hadn’t seen. Plus, she understands now when I say ‘after I’ve finished this chapter’. Next year, it’ll be even better as both my kids will be at school, and those precious hours between 9.30 to 2.30 will be all mine. Bahahaha!

    [Note to concerned readers: no, I don't use the TV as a babysitter... my little girl doesn't nap anymore so this is her 'quiet-time'. Honest.]

    • There’s nothing wrong with a bit of TV movie time for kids. It helps them wind down and teaches them the basics of story. LOL

    • tansyrr says:

      Oh yes, I do look forward to that future, though I’m conscious of not trying to wish away my littlest one’s babyhood. Once I’m not having to PAY for every hour I work, I should be able to relax a bit about the precious preciousness of my time.

      TV is awesome! My baby has learned to sing before she can talk, and I credit Play School & Sesame Street.

  5. Stacey says:

    Tansy I had to laugh at the description of your life. I am terrified of losing my time to write as I have two kids and expecting another… it’s nice to know you can be successful and still have a baby!

    As far as reading goes… reading is such an escape for me. I find novels to be way more easy to get into than short stories, but short stories challenge my brain more and actually give me far more to think about from a writing viewpoint. Reading is so very very necessary to the craft of writing!

    • tansyrr says:

      It’s possible (BUT BUT BUT) and also incredibly hard work. Feel free to check out the mama writer tag on my blog (tansyrr.com) for what it was like when Jem was born & I had a novel deadline looming!

      I also find novels easier to get into than short stories, but harder to sustain these days (the long ones, anyway). I had to retrain myself to read big fat fantasy after 2 years of nothing but bite-sized YA!

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  7. Nigel says:

    I too, occasionally forget to read. It’s odd, that the thing I enjoy most in the world (even more so than writing) should be the first thing that gets sacrificed. After all, I write because I love books, not because I love the sound of my own voice.

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