Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Two schools of thought

Opinion is divided on this one, and I'd be interested in people's preferences. When you're writing, do you also take time out to read? Or do you prefer to keep the two separate? I know some writers who find (or just fear) they'll lose their own voice if they're writing while reading another author. I can understand this. But, on balance, I prefer to take the risk. Chiefly because I get so much out of reading, it inspires me, it fills out the world I need to inhabit as a writer, while writing.

During the last ten days I've written the first third of a new novel. I've been writing four or sometimes five hours every week day, an average of 1,000 words per hour. My routine goes something like this: 9am walk for an hour (my incentive is an excellent takeaway latte, at the top of a gruelling hill) while "watching" the next scenes in my novel running like movie reel in my mind's eyes; 10am write for three hours; break for lunch and read for an hour and/or make notes towards the novel; 2pm write for another hour. After the school run, I go offline, tidy my notebook for tomorrow so I know roughly where I'm starting from. Then I read, for a couple of hours at least.

I find the keeping of notes very helpful. I don't re-read what I've written the day before, unless my notes dictate a light edit. But mostly I concentrate on moving forwards, getting it done. I find reading essential. It flexes a different part of my brain entirely. It makes me think about what works and doesn't work in novels, structurally perhaps more than in terms of the words themselves. But when I say that during the last ten days I've read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore, and AL Kennedy's Day, it's probably apparent that I'm not reading around any one topic, or looking for exact inspiration. I'm just closing the circle, surrounding myself in words because this is where I want to be right now. Where I need to be.

Do I worry that my novel will end up owing too much to these other authors? That my voice will be drowned out? No. I'm on my guard against it, for one thing. And it's good for my writer's ear, I think, to hear other voices than my own.

But what do other writers think? How do you complete the circle, when you're writing something new? What rituals and charms do you put in place, to stay focused in the right way?


Neon Blue said...

I definitely keep reading alongside whatever I'm writing. But that could be related to my erratic attention span. Primarily though, it's that I enjoy reading, and if I don't do it regularly I tend to get grumpy and out-of-sorts, which affects my writing.


Sarah Hilary said...

"Primarily though, it's that I enjoy reading, and if I don't do it regularly I tend to get grumpy and out-of-sorts, which affects my writing."

Best reason of all to keep reading! I'm linking to blog, by the way. Thanks for coming over.

Nik Perring said...

Difficult to answer, for sure. I think it depends what head space I'm in; sometimes reading works, sometimes it really doesn't, and sometimes I'll say it doesn't as an excuse!

Thrilled to hear you've been so productive - that's great going!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Me, too. I have to read every day - even if it's just for a little bit. Not reading would be like not showering that day. :)

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet said...

I read, but in a different language! 95% of what I read is in English; & my books have been in French (my mother tongue) until now. When I write in English, it's non-fiction, so an entirely different muscle as well. I have written fanfiction in English, to stretch the writing muscles, and can't remember what I was reading at the time - unrelated stuff, mostly.

You are TERRIBLY DISCIPLINED. I've always written following my "inspiration", where it seemed logical to go next; with only a hazy sense of where I planned to end up. Characters surprise me constantly. (The best part of writing fiction, perhaps.) But I've often used unrelated stuff I was reading - current affairs, news - to layer a situation or a character.

Cardinal Schoenborn of Vienna, who wrote in pellucid French the Cat├ęchisme de l'Eglise Catholique", used to say he always read a few pages of Voltaire in the morning to limber up (se mettre en jambe.) That alone singles him out for admiration - a sense of language and a sense of irony, given how much Voltaire had fought the Church. But yes, beautiful French.

I don't mind being influenced, I expect - it will all wash away, only leaving the essential things you've learned.

Also, not read? IMPOSSIBLE.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hi there... long time no see!

Im glad you read while you write - so do I. I wonder if the ones who dont haven't found their own voices yet, or the voice of their story/novel. All you need to do is sit down and read the last para you wrote, sometimes not even that - and the voice is back in your head, in your fingers. But maybe we're all different?

However, I worry about those who take years to write a novel D they really not read for all that time?!

good luck with the novel!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Nik! "And sometimes I'll say it doesn't, as an excuse". Well, we have to have some variety from "the kitchen floor needs cleaning"..! (Although I still think my writer friend, quoted in my previous post, has something when he says "there's no such thing as writer's block - just bad ideas". Of course this only works after you've landed yourself a good idea - two months ago I'd have denied it with every bone in my body!)

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Madeline, "not reading would be like not showering every day". I love it! And some books are like brisk showers while others can be wallowing baths, yes?

Sarah Hilary said...

Bonjour, Anne-Elisabeth!

"I don't mind being influenced, I expect - it will all wash away, only leaving the essential things you've learned."

Wonderfully put. And why should we as writers approach our craft differently to other artists? We don't miraculously learn to read or write without schooling, or one kind or another. So we read to write better. That's how I see it.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Vanessa! *waves*

"All you need to do is sit down and read the last para you wrote, sometimes not even that - and the voice is back in your head, in your fingers. But maybe we're all different?"

I think you may be right about the period of time a person's been writing and the confidence they feel in re-finding their own voice. (Put it this way, I've been at it so long I'd have to suffer from acute amnesia to forget it!)

I hope you're well and that your novel is polishing up beautifully. I'm looking forward to reading it!

Anonymous said...

Oh, you know, I was thinking about this just this morning, as I've just finished On the Beach and instantly wanted to write end-of-the-world, everything-crumbling fic (you may be wondering how this is different to me usually: good question!). I am definitely influenced by what I'm reading, if it's good enough.

It's slightly different for me, I think, as I am writing short fanfic pieces rather than anything hugely long, but I read a lot - usually about 2 books a week, mostly when I'm on the train. And obviously I write all the damn time, even if actually finishing things takes longer. I couldn't stop reading novels (I have given up reading newspapers on the whole, they drive me nuts), and I couldn't stop writing, so I get used to it. But then sometimes I can get influenced by listening to a particular *song* too many times, let alone reading a whole novel...

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Han! The influence you describe strikes me as the right kind - after all, as you say, you're writing all the time. And there's no question you have your own voice. So you're being sparked with ideas but taking them in your own, unique direction. Perfect!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Sarah, you've inspired a blog post!


And I like your description about certain books as baths and some as showers. :)

Sarah Hilary said...

Good post, Madeline! Now whenever I see a grumpy person I'm going to want to hand out a book as a cure!


I'm so jealous of the time you have for writing. Cannot WAIT to get my baby daughter into a creche. Good luck with the novel - exciting times.

I would die without reading. Anyway, I would be a useless writer, I think, if I wasn't also a very hungry & constant reader.

As for rituals - try to get the baby interested in her box of toys and hope for the best! She cries when she sees me open the laptop.
Otherwise, write in the back of the car while my husband drives.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi WRW! I agree about the direct correlation between reading and writing. Hope you find a good creche soon. I can't imagine trying to write in the car. (I cheated and had a playpen, albeit a HUGE one, and a video tape of a Polish mole that was considered vital viewing. Even so, the guilt crept up the stairs and tickled the back of my neck as I tried to write.)