Thursday, July 12, 2012

The War between Reading and Writing by M. S. Spencer

“Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be entertained as you watch two titans of the ring locked in an eternal struggle for your…er…time.  In this corner, feast your eyes on the Tome, masked in fancy vellum, costumed in elaborate prose, as big as the New York City Public Library.  A fearsome foe indeed.”  The emcee pointed toward the ropes, where a massive rectangle, his name in raised gold lettering across his chest, riffled his pages at the throng.

“And now I direct your attention to the other corner.  Please give a cheer for Quill the mighty scribbler!”  The audience turns to see a gangly welterweight stand up, his eyes streaming purple ink, his long thin fingers clenching and unclenching, clearly longing to wring the Tome’s neck. 
Unfortunately, this kind of duel doesn’t draw in the big crowds (nor, sadly, the big bucks).  It is the conflict that has existed ever since Mr. Cro-Magnon wanted to focus on painting his wall epic while his wife insisted they go see what the neighbors put on their wall in case they could learn something from it.  It is the abiding war between Reading and Writing. 
Now you, Dear Reader, may not see it that way.  I’ll bet you love to read (you’re reading this, aren’t you?).  You spend hours of your day racing through paragraphs, flipping pages, humming as you go.   You put off the book report or letter in order to get to that last page before supper.  Then with a sigh you pick up pen and paper. Writing is the chore after the fun.
You, Dear Writer, are another story. Perhaps you plod dutifully through the novel, always aware of the page you’re on, checking your watch, then closing the book with a happy sigh at the appointed time.  You turn eagerly to the pad of paper.  You prefer to create the sentences and the story, not have it thrust upon you.
Of course there are people who think both activities are equally enjoyable, but as a writer I often find myself torn between the two, unsure which should take precedence.  Reading, as we all know, increases your vocabulary, your facility with language, your knowledge of the world and the human condition, in a way that writing in a cave will not (unless you’re a Cro-Magnon, but let’s move on now, shall we?).  However, if you’re a writer, putting words on paper is the immensely satisfying fulfillment of an internal necessity.  I speak of the urge, on the one hand, to teach and to reach other human beings, and on the other, to create and to control the means to that end; in other words, the desire to produce something original that will affect the reader in a new and different way.
My fear is that too much concurrent reading interferes with this creative process.  I know that sounds radical, even stupid, but hear me out.  Every book, every author has a certain individual style.  Every culture and era promotes a certain literary style.  Shakespeare’s rhythmic prose is different from Jane Austen’s perfectly constructed sentences, in contrast to Anne Rice’s florid paragraphs-within-paragraphs.  But if you are steeped in Shakespeare, how do you write a contemporary romance that doesn’t sound stilted?  If your favorite author writes in two-word sentences and minimal dialogue, how do you write that lush erotic love scene? 
Some might recommend using bits and pieces of other styles to perfect your own. It is natural, likely impossible, not to.  Your writing is, for better or worse, informed by the authors you admire.  But when you’re searching for your own voice, you must be careful to keep those elements at arm’s length.  So how do you train yourself to be aware when someone else’s voice starts creeping into your prose?
 Simple. Stop reading while you’re writing.  I hear you gulp, but think of it as a pause between lessons, a diet between the holidays if you will.  A candy diet.  You have to clear your mind of other writers’ styles in order to find your own.  As long as you give in to the urge to call your hero Mr. Darcy rather than “Fitzwilliam” (yes, that was his first name) or even Fitz, you can’t make your story your own.  Readers are very sensitive to a style that isn’t owned.  It’s confusing and irritating.  Besides, if you truly are a writer, you want to have your own voice.  I challenge any but the most seasoned of writers to find that voice if tenors are singing in your head while you’re trying to channel a baritone.
Confession: when I was young I read voraciously.  I’d pick up anything and read it, from Dostoievski to Joseph Conrad to Evelyn Waugh.  Those years provided me with a voluminous internal library, making it easier to set the reading aside while I concentrate on my own skills.  Writing is, after all, a profession like any other, to be studied, but also practiced and honed.  A trial lawyer may have the precedents at his fingertips, but in the end he’ll have to fashion his own creative defense.  A fullback studies the playbook, but at the snap he goes after the quarterback on his own.  A mathematician could not create his own original theory without knowing the multiplication tables.  Now that I’m writing professionally I have an obligation to do the same: to draw upon my internal library, yes, but ultimately to provide my own unique perspective on the world.  Otherwise, why would any reader want to read me rather than Shakespeare?
I’m sure other writers have their own means of balancing reading and writing as they work.  For me, if I’ve been reading a lot, it takes a real leap to get back into my writing.  I lose the thread of the story, the atmosphere I’ve worked hard to create.  I have to clear my mind and focus on the characters, sometimes even reread a large portion of the story, in order to slip back into the world I was constructing before I dove into someone else’s.  You can’t churn out those bestsellers if you have to keep stopping to regroup. 

Although I have lived or traveled in five continents, the last 30 years have been spent mostly in Washington, D.C. as a librarian, Congressional staff assistant, speechwriter, editor, birdwatcher, kayaker, policy wonk, chair of a large volunteer program, and non-profit director.  I am blessed with two fabulous grown children, and the company of Iggy Pop the cat and have published 5 romantic suspense novels.

Contact M. S. Spencer here:

Facebook Author Page:
Amazon Author Page:

My Books are all full-length, romantic suspense/mystery novels.

From Red Rose:  Lost in His Arms
Available both in eBook and Print (ASIN: B003WMA72O)

 and Lost and Found, love and lust in the wilds of Maine:

From Secret Cravings comes Losers Keepers, rekindled romance and murder on Chincoteague (eBook and Print):

Triptych, lost artworks, jealousy, sex, larceny & genius above the mighty Potomac River  (eBook and Print):

and Artful Dodging: The Torpedo Factory Murders, a five-star mystery that has love in stitches (eBook and Print):


  1. Wendy--thanks for having me. I hope we get lots of comments--it's a topic I'm sure people have strong opinions about! M. S. Spencer

  2. Dear M.S. Spencer,

    I find myself torn between agreeing with you and rejecting what you say...

    Agreed: If Hemingway, say, is your favorite author; and if you steep yourself in his blunt but metaphoric prose, how will you write about that lush sunset, or describe that first kiss? On the other hand, if you do not read, is that not like giving up smiling for Lent?

    I find that my favorite authors--men with dense prose like Nabokov and Chabon--do crawl under my skin when I'm writing, to remind me to share the wealth of words. But they do not dictate my style.

    You speak of giving up reading for a while if you're trying to find your own voice. But I'm convinced that in my case (alas, no longer young Erin O'Quinn), if I haven't found it by now, then I have no distinctive voice at all.Rather than giving up reading, I let it sift through my unconscious, run into my blood stream, pound with my heart until all those other authors have become me, and I become those marvelous writers. They have added, not detracted, from my work.

  3. Oh, and by the way, I forgot to add that you have a marvelous style, a wit and narrative ease that has completely seduced me. I highly recommend ARTFUL DODGING to any reader of either romance or mystery/suspense.

    A fan, Erin O'Quinn

  4. Erin, I had to leave my laptop for several hours & just returned to find your comments--meaty! If you don't mind, I'm going to eat something before I tackle it! M. S.

  5. Good morning! I'll dive in. I didn't really expect people to agree with me about setting reading aside--you're right, it's like asking someone to give up his first-born. For me, while I'm writing, it works though. As I said,I was never without a book in my hand (at least until the advent of Kindle)for 50 years or so--and I absorbed so much that I can manage to go a few months without finishing a book. But even as a child I discriminated--I wanted to read GOOD books--I figured if it was called a "classic" it was probably better reading than a currently popular book. With so many wonderful books, why waste time on bad ones? As to voice: don't you think it continues to develop like fine wine the more you write (you once talked about a "seasoned" writer)? Plus when a new writer is first breaking in, mimicking style trends may actually be useful--once you're established you can massage your voice out of the prose without getting slammed.
    I'll stop now--this is worth a whole blog, isn't it? Thanks for commenting! M. S.

  6. I agree, fully, that a background in the "classics" is hugely important. I fear that many modern authors are so caught up in the "classics" of 20 years ago that they're shunning the marvelous true classics. Blame it on their tender age and the lapses in modern education.

    As a reviewer, I sometimes run across truly "bad" books that I have to finish, and my mind itches and festers until I can somehow get to the end. So I know what you mean about wasting time. But even lousy prose shows me how it COULD have been done to salvage it; so it's not an altogether pisser experience.

    Run another promo on this blog, M. A lot of people need to see it and read it, and hopefully join in the discussion. Warmest Erin

  7. Sure will! I know what you mean about bad books--I got through 2 chapters of Grisham's The Firm & thought just what I thought after my first (and almost last) cigarette--this is expensive, my parents would kill me, and hey it's sickening. So why should I waste my time?
    btw you sound like an editor--I agree, I think about how a book could be improved, but hey if you're going to do that, at least get paid for it! M.

  8. Let me start off by saying that I am a big fan of your writing. I write Romantic Suspense also and spent many years reading everything I could get a hold of before I tackeled my first novel. But I still love to read so what works for me is reading time. I have a day job so my evenings are spent writing, blogging, answering e-mails, ect, ect. When I have met my goals, yes I actually have a daily list, I get to read before i go to bed. My kids laugh at me when I say I didn't get everything done so I can't read tonight.
    I do see what your saying about confusing your voice and I've read others, seeing someone elses style coming through. But reading is my drug and I'm not quite ready for rehab so a little each day feeds my addiction but doesn't interfer with my craft. Or at least I hope not.
    Thansk for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Thanks for your kinds words, LKF. Your schedule sounds very sensible (!).Unfortunately, I find at this (young) age I have trouble sleeping if I read before bed, which leaves me little wiggle room. I've been known to read Calvin & Hobbes or Pogo though--they put me right out! M. S.

  9. I have absolutely no problem with having what I'm reading interfere with what I'm writing. There's a switch in my head that I turn on or off depending on what I'm doing. Perhaps it's because I was a nurse and I learned early on how to multi-task and keep everything compartmentalized. I've been readong since I was three and writing since I was about eight. I'm thoroughly convinced reading and writing use different parts of the brain.

    1. Interesting. I wonder if anyone's done a study on that idea (using different parts of the brain). Of course, my problem IS that I can't multitask! I can't even listen to music when I write. Oh dear, maybe my brain's 1 big balloon filled with all kinds of uncategorized stuff.Oops, wandering again. Thanks for the comment--I'm going to google your theory. M. S.

  10. First let me say how much I enjoy corresponding with you M. I feel like voyeur, but I can't help it, I am interested in how people live, what makes them laugh, cry, write and read.
    There are so many stories to tell and only so many hours in a day to read or write.
    I must be a multitasker because I usually have four books stashed around the house that I am reading. I write every afternoon and often have 3 or more manuscripts going at once. I write erotic romance most of the time, but recently wrote two PG stories. I've written a murder mystery, a vampire story and comtemporary romance. To be honest, I'm not sure I even have a voice. My writing has never been influenced by what I'm reading. I suppose I should admit I always have the TV running. I like to watch true murder mystery shows like 48hours,and non-real like Law & Order, The Closer, The Mentalist etc. None affect my writing.
    I am honestly not bragging...what I'm trying to say I think is that we all have our own way of writing. Some of us are deep thinkers and planners, while some just open our computer and the words flow. The kids, the dog, dinner, nothing breaks your flow. I never think about what I'm reading when I'm writing and vice versa.
    One last comment and I'll go away :-)
    I hate the phone - it is the most interfering, annoying thing ever invented.

    1. Hi Cherie! Glad you stopped by. I absolutely agree--all writers have their own methods of operation & as long as it works that's all that counts. I was hoping to get comments like yours, which proves the point. (I used to have several books going too).
      I love the more fantastical shows--Murder She Wrote & Monk but I want to see Closer sometime. As to 48 Hours--my daughter was actually on that years ago--her college roommate was murdered (they did catch the guy) & 48 Hours flew us up to NY and interviewed her. It was a fascinating experience. M. S.

  11. I often read genres outside those I write, particularly in the gennre of a present WIP. I love historicals but I don't write Regency. I write time travel and I also read them, but I've found my real interest lies in the method the author devised for getting the characters to another time zone. I seldom read paranormal except for ghosts but paranormal is my favorite genre in which to write.
    I loved the humor you injected into this blog and the subject was one that most of us are very interested in discussing.
    I wish you all the best, Meredith.

    1. Hi Sarah--your mix n match of reading/writing genres is a great subject for further discussion. It sounds as though you read the genre you write in for technical interest--do you think that was always the case or only after you started writing in that genre? What about steampunk? :) M. S.