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The Dangers of a Good Book

image by photosteve101 [1]
image by photosteve101

Last week, I read a fantastic book. Good news, right? As writers we are all readers first, and there’s an unmatched joy in disappearing into a well-written book, or we wouldn’t be reading in the first place.

However, sometimes, reading a fantastic book pushes me into a downward spiral. I’ll never write that well, I tell myself. I’m not good enough. Whatever I’m working on now is a mess.

(Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t, but when that kind of dark mood descends, there’s no reasoning with me. It isn’t about the truth, anyway.)

To keep that sort of thing from happening, there are writers who forbid themselves from reading at all while they’re writing. Or they have rules around it: nothing in my genre, nothing during the first draft, nothing that has anything in common with what I’m working on. There are others, like me, who focus their reading habits in the other direction: I like to read other books whose topics or time periods overlap with what I’m working on, just to know what else is out there and see how others have tackled some of the same challenges I’m facing in my draft.

It’s up to you, of course. Only you can write your book, and only you can decide what sort of reading helps or hinders you along the way.

What I do want to say, however, is this: don’t be afraid of the amazing book. Don’t expect it, but don’t dodge it. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was the kind of amazing book where, as a reader, I thought I could never write this, but that’s OK. Thank goodness someone did. And The Magicians by Lev Grossman – the amazing book I devoured last week, prompting me to write this column – was a different kind. I’ve been struggling with a draft, and tossed in a scene explaining something, just to have some words on the page. 50 pages into The Magicians, when there hadn’t been a moment of downtime – every scene escalated and twisted and plunged into new territory – I thought There should be no filler. Never any filler. If I want my reader to feel like I’m feeling right now, I need to keep that in mind. I threw out the filler scene and challenged myself to keep raising the stakes.

Yes, great books can be daunting, but they can also be deeply inspiring. I put down my latest read and returned to my own work with a passion I hadn’t felt in months.

Q: do you read while you’re writing? Are you able to put aside your writing self while you read, or not?


About Jael McHenry [2]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [3] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [4] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.