Guest Post by Marsha Skrypuch: Reading While Writing
Publish 20 March 2017
One of the downsides of writing a novel is dramatically reduced pleasure reading time.
It’s not just the physical act of writing, but it’s the space that’s taken up in your brain. I’ve tried to sneak in a pleasure read now and then as a reward for getting a chunk of a novel finished, but it just doesn’t work. I open the book and try to read the words, but they swim in front of my eyes. All I can think of is my own character left suspended in a precarious circumstance, desperately awaiting my return.
But in case you feel sorry for me, don’t. You see, writing a novel is like an intense reading experience. You know the high you get when you’re plunged in the midst of a book that is so good that you don’t want it to end? And how breathless it feels when the characters take you in unexpected yet satisfying directions? There’s that same exhilaration and surprise when you’re writing the book, but the experience is even more intense because the characters came out of your own imagination.
I tried to explain this to my husband and he looked at me oddly. “But how can there be anything unexpected when you’re the one controlling the characters,” he asked. “It’s all planned out.”
But if I knew what was going to happen next, what would be the point of finishing it? Would you finish reading a novel if you already knew the ending? There needs to be that breathless anticipation or there is no point in continuing. Writing a novel is hard work, but writing one with a planned ending would be torture. The writer’s job is to not over-think the process. You set the scene and let your characters loose, then run behind with your keyboard, writing down everything your characters do and think.
There is one kind of reading that’s done while novel writing. Some people call it research, and it is that, but it can also be a form of procrastination. My brain won’t let me take a break by reading someone else’s novel, but my brain loves all sorts of relevant minutiae. Because I write historical fiction, I am doing research on an ongoing basis. Preliminary research can done ahead of time, but once you’re plunged in the guts of the novel, you find the need to research concrete tidbits. During these times, the dustiest old journal suddenly becomes intensely interesting.
One thing that I will never do is read fiction set in the same era as my own work-in-progress, and since I tend to write a chunk of novels set during a particular era before moving on, it can really limit what pleasure reading I do for years on end. I have a recurring nightmare of unconsciously incorporating someone else’s phrase or thought into my own work. Even more scary would be unconsciously incorporating a fictional bit from someone else’s work, thinking it was factual – and perpetuating a truism. I also try to stay away from opinionated non-fiction set in my era. For me, the best research material is the primary stuff – interviews, if the people are alive, diaries and memoirs of the time, newspaper clippings, maps, city directories, letters, photographs and government reports. I also try to research from all opposing points of view. That way I don’t get unconsciously swayed by someone else’s opinion masking itself as authority.
When I finally write The End on a novel-in-progress, the rooms in my brain are aired out. And I can read again, without guilt and without my own story intruding. I can binge read for a month, maybe two, and then a character intrudes again, insisting to be written …. and so it goes.
Marsha Skrypuch (pronounced SKRIPP-ick) prides herself on being the only children’s author in Canada who is a dyslexic princess, and has received death threats and hate mail (she also sold grinding wheels for four years, but that’s a different story). Marsha writes about those bits of history that have been shoved under the carpet. Her specialty is writing about how children are affected by war. Her settings have included World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Armenian Genocide, and the Ukrainian Famine (Holodomor).
Marsha’s website: calla.com