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Learning From Reading: Change Up Your Patterns to Gain More

“Reading” by Daniel Wehner

I think by now most writers have received the message: you should be reading. Stephen King puts it plainly: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Most writers come to the page because we’re already book lovers, so it’s hardly a burden to be told that doing more of what made us fall in love in the first place is part of our job. Sure, we get busy and impatient and caught up and occasionally have to remind ourselves to read, but by and large, any writer is thrilled to be reading. We know, intuitively, that reading gives us power. Creative inspiration, education, industry knowledge, and more. We learn from reading.

But when was the last time you thought about how, exactly, you’re learning from what you’re reading? When did you last chase inspiration with dedicated intent? When did you last study not just the books themselves, but why you’ve chosen the books you’ve chosen?

As with any endeavor, routine can build good habits, but it can also become mundane. It’s harder to find inspiration when you know exactly what to expect, and it’s harder to be surprised when you’re doing exactly what you always do. So my suggestion for writers today is this: change up your reading habits.

If you always read within your writing genre, bust out. If you stick to literary or commercial fiction, try swapping them. Try mixing them. Risk reading a few things you may hate, because that’s also how you find brand new things you love. (And even things we hate have things to teach us.)

Switch up not only the types of books you’re reading, but the format. Always read paperback? Get an e-reader. Always read digital? Try listening to an audiobook. Used to reading long novels? Try a serial novella in an online magazine. Always read short stories in literary journals? Pick up a pocket-sized poetry collection.

It might sound silly, but these things matter. They affect the reading experience, the way we process the information, the speed and manner in which we process the stories themselves. An audiobook, read well, can drastically change a book you didn’t care for in high school. An old favorite read by the author might make you see entirely new aspects of the story, or the prose. If you’ve been raised on screens, taking time to read silently on paper might reshape your experience.

Not only this, but the time we give to reading is malleable. I know people who claim they can’t read long stories because once they start, they have to finish. Guess what? That’s simply not true. Start one and intentionally put it down unfinished to prove to yourself that you can. (As a ‘must-finish’ stalwart, I can vouch for this as a painful but valuable lesson.) Other people claim they just don’t have the time to read. Also untrue. Ten minutes a night before sleep. Five minutes while you wait in the check-out line. An audiobook during lunch. A poem or two on the toilet. Seriously. What’s more, reading in short bursts or medium chunks or long marathons also affects the stories themselves. If you rarely sit down with a book for more than half an hour at a time, try scheduling a Saturday to do nothing but eat, sleep, and read.

Experiment with what you’re reading together, too. For years I was utterly convinced that I could only read one book at a time. I’d go cover to cover before even opening the next one. That turned out to be an entirely constructed limitation I was putting on myself. Nowadays I routinely have 3-4 books going at once: a paperback novel or collection of shorts, an audiobook, a book of poetry, and a nonfiction book (usually writing craft or research). This strange assortment has inspired some of my finest ideas. Studying the history of Halloween at the same time I was reading a novel about witches sparked ideas in my mind which led to my short story “The Devil Take the Hindmost,” a blending of horror and historical which appeared in Dark Hallows II [1] last year. Other story ideas have come from even stranger amalgamations, a sentence here connecting to a fact there, and boom – story fodder.

Since I discovered this trick – that mixing genres, styles, mediums, and formats sparks some fabulous ideas – several years ago, I’ve been reading much the same way since. But as with any routine, even this loses its power eventually. An intentional juxtaposition becomes predictable in and of itself. So instead, I sometimes read two similar books at once to see what that does. Fantasy short stories and literary short stories, for example. Or a modern gothic and a classic gothic.

I’ve always been a person who wants to read widely and voraciously. I want to ‘get to know’ all of the authors I can, and to read as many books as I can, so the idea of limiting myself is frustrating. But recently I’ve succumbed to the desire to marathon through all the books of a single author (Sarah Waters), and it’s been fantastic – an entirely different type of learning experience. I’m five books in right now, but I hope to read all of hers by the end of the year.

In the same vein, the idea of taking valuable reading time to reread a book used to make me cringe. This despite so many writers I admire professing its virtues. I had a few exceptions – I’ve read Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series more times than I can count, from beginning to ever-expanding end every couple of years for a while there – but by and large I decided I’d rather spend my time exposing myself to new material than rehashing the old. (I’ve never been big on rewatching movies, either. I don’t even buy them, because I know I may never see them again even if I loved them.) That was a mistake on my part. I finally sat down recently and reread two books I’d already loved: Wuthering Heights (to write this essay [2]) and Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. On the latter I took notes and analyzed it as I would’ve in college. I picked up so many things I could never have learned on a single read. Well, well worth my time.

I admit to my stubbornness and foibles here because each time I settled into a pattern, I was convinced I’d found the right one. I realize now, looking at it with a wider lens, that that’s because it was the act of switching up my pattern that sparked the good stuff. Every single reading method, practice, format, and habit is valid and valuable – but none so much as trying them all. Perhaps you can learn from my inflexibility and skip learning this one the hard way.

Writers, how do you feel you best learn from reading? Do you think you’re stuck in a pattern? What’s one way that you could shake things up now?

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About Annie Neugebauer [3]

Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) is a novelist, short story author, and award-winning poet with work appearing in over fifty venues, including Apex, Black Static, and Fireside. She's an active member of the Horror Writers Association and webmaster for the Poetry Society of Texas. In addition to Writer Unboxed, she's also a columnist for LItReactor. She's represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. When Annie’s not frightening strangers with her writing, she’s most likely frightening her husband and their two cats, Buttons and Snaps.