Usually I don’t read fiction when I’m in the middle of writing fiction. Like many writers, I don’t want to get distracted from my story by another story, or get swept up into a different world when I’m struggling to create a world of my own. I also don’t want another writer’s style or rhythm to creep inadvertently into my own writing. But this time around, as I’ve been working on my fourth novel, I’ve been reading like crazy, eight books in the last six weeks. And it has helped me more than I can say with my novel-in-progress. As the author Jennifer Egan says, “Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work.” Here’s what I’ve learned:
Simplify. I’ve been struggling with the plot of my current novel. When I recently wrote a summary/outline, I was overwhelmed. It felt like a lot of people doing a lot of different things, but I wasn’t quite sure how to fix it. Then I read Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. It’s a story about a woman recovering from surgery whose estranged mother comes to stay with her. As they talk over the course of several days in Lucy’s hospital room, all the stories that have shaped Lucy’s life bubble to the surface.
It’s a deceptively simple book, a book in which things said and unsaid between a mother and daughter come to reveal everything about who Lucy is, the longings and struggles that have defined her, and her yearnings about who she still wants to be. After reading the book, I saw that I needed to whittle my own story down to its most essential elements, cutting out certain characters and extraneous plot lines. It allowed me to see the story at the heart of my story, which had been there all along but hidden underneath layers of too much stuff.
Change it up. I write character-driven fiction, and I tend to read books like that, too (witness Lucy Barton, above). But the 8 books I’ve read so far this year include two memoirs, two works of non-fiction, one crime thriller, one work of historical fiction, and one futuristic/dystopian novel. Non-fiction and crime thrillers aren’t found often in my TBR pile, and dystopian fiction is waaaay outside my comfort zone. But reading outside my usual genre gave me a considerable jumpstart in my own writing. [Read more…]